Bentley students examine city’s faded retail stretch, offer strategies for an upgrade
Moody Street has long been the rock star of Waltham’s retail and restaurant scene, but a group of Bentley University students aims to build a fan base for nearby Main Street, in the hopes of making the historic thoroughfare less shabby and more chic.
After spending the semester studying the downtown area, students last month presented a report to the city calling for improvements to storefronts and vacant spaces, simplifying start-up procedures for new businesses, better marketing to students at Bentley and at Brandeis University, and more emphasis on making people feel safe as they shop or eat.
Other suggestions include improvements to the business mix to embrace more consumer preferences such as clothing shops, and a collective branding and advertising campaign to lure customers into multiple stops downtown. Now, consumers often make only one stop on Main Street, according to the report.
“We would really love to see the city and the current business owners join forces,’’ said Natalie Caldwell, project manager and one of 14 students working on the study. “There has been a disconnect between the two that has caused the downtown Waltham area to not be as advanced as other downtowns.’’
Some of the report’s recommendations would be up to the city to implement, others are for the businesses, and many require cooperation.
For example, the current process of starting a small business is “difficult and complex,’’ according to the report. The city would have to simplify some of its regulations or cut fees to address the problem.
Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said she has tried to address that complaint by putting most of the departments that require permits in one building, so that business owners can have something like “one-stop shopping.’’
She said she has also asked councilors to look into simplifying the start-up process for small businesses that are reusing an existing storefront.
Some of the less complex changes are already in the works. McCarthy said she has requested funding for next year to improve sidewalks and add some lighting on Main Street, both of which are recommended in the report.
“They have a lot of enthusiasm,’’ McCarthy said of the Bentley students, adding that she was particularly interested in what changes would get them to frequent downtown.
College students patronize the bars and restaurants along Main Street, but they would like to see some more retail added to the mix, such as clothing stores, according to the report. Marketing directly to students at the city’s two universities would help as well, it stated.
“There’s a market there that’s being somewhat overlooked,’’ said Charles Hadlock, a trustee professor at Bentley and the faculty adviser on the report, which was produced as part of an honors course he oversees. “Except for some of the bars and restaurants, the level of college student knowledge of what’s down there is minimal.’’
There are about 8,000 students at Bentley and Brandeis, he said. And although Bentley has a shuttle to Harvard Square, there isn’t one to downtown Waltham, a detail that is highlighted in the report.
Hadlock said his honors class initially considered expanding on a previous study of Moody Street, but after consulting with others in the city decided to take a larger look at the downtown area.
The resulting report also found that the perception of crime is another big issue for college students as well as the general public.
Crime in Waltham is relatively low compared with the US average, according to the report. Even so, crime has gone up in the city since 2005.
Prostitution is a problem in downtown, according to the report, and has worsened in recent years. The Internet has made it easier for women to run their own prostitution businesses, and the high concentration of hotel rooms in Waltham has contributed too, the report found.
“Although some may see it as a victimless crime, the fact of the matter is that it creates a negative environment within the community, and it is something that needs to be addressed in order to improve downtown Waltham,’’ the report stated.
In a survey of local college students conducted for the report, 18 percent said they do not feel safe on Main Street, while more than 50 percent said the lack of lighting and the area’s “uninviting’’ storefronts contribute to the unsafe feeling.
Although she is already requesting money for more lighting, sprucing up storefronts is a little more complicated, McCarthy said.
One way to see improvement would be to loosen up restrictions on business signs, so that displays extending perpendicular to the storefront would again be allowed; they offer a good way for shoppers to see nearby stores they might want to visit, according to the report.
Alice Taylor, a member of the board of directors for the Downtown Waltham Partnership, said her group agrees there are problems with visual appeal, and supports loosening up sign regulations.
“If it all looks uniform and boring, why would people want to stop?’’ she said.
One of the easiest issues raised in the report that the city could address is litter, said Taylor. The students counted few trash cans along Main Street, so simply adding more would cut down on litter, according to the report.
“We really want to make it comfortable and fun to be here, irresistible to stay here and explore,’’ said Taylor, and to encourage “unique small businesses.’’
For business owners, filling vacancies is the most important priority for improving downtown, according to surveys conducted by the students for their report. The economy has a role to play in that, so the report recommends displaying art in empty storefronts to mitigate the negative impression until spaces can be filled.
In terms of the big-picture findings in the report, Hadlock emphasized the need for downtown Waltham to create a brand image as a destination where people want to wander around.
It has a personality that can’t be found at generic, big-box shopping areas, he said.
“It has the beautiful river, the common, the kinds of shops you don’t find at malls, the distinctiveness of an old, well-established city,’’ Hadlock said, “and we need to find ways to take advantage of that.’’
Lisa Kocian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.