Downtown Decision Dissected After Close of Town Meeting


Parking garage post-mortem & preview of future revitalization efforts

An informal meeting convened just after the close of Monday’s final town meeting session offered an interesting post-mortem on the parking garage debate as well as a preview of coming efforts to revitalize Wakefield‘s downtown area.

Steve_Maio_hs2Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio announced at the start of Monday’s Town Meeting session that Elm Street resident Jim Scott had come to him with the idea for the post-Town Meeting brainstorming session. Minutes after Town Meeting was dissolved, several dozen local citizens and town officials accepted Maio’s invitation and gathered at the front on the Galvin auditorium.

Maio began by discussing the town’s continuing efforts to revitalize and improve the downtown business district. He talked about the Main Street Program and said that the town has applied to become a “target economic area,” which would allow the town to attract businesses through tax incentives.

Maio added that Wakefield has a bill pending in the legislature for $980,000 in “streetscape improvements” to the downtown, but stressed that the bill had not yet been funded.
Maio noted that he and Selectman Paul DiNocco among others have been looking for ways to bring a “village atmosphere” to the downtown that would include mixed use commercial and residential space in downtown buildings.

But, Maio said, having had discussions with every major landlord in the downtown, he has found that it can be difficult to get some of them to make improvements or even change a sign to comply with the new sign bylaw.

jim_scot_hsJim Scott talked about his idea for a scaled back assisted living and garage in the downtown.

But Selectman Paul DiNocco said that Brightview Senior Living has not yet come back to the town to say whether or not they still want to do something with the downtown site behind the Wakefield Cooperative Bank.

Expanding on Maio’s comment, DiNocco said that presently many landlords’ don’t want to deal with Wakefield because they don’t want to be “put through the ringer.” He said that people trying to dictate who landlords can lease to and “slamming the property owners” on social media has had a chilling effect on landlords.

“You don’t think they’re looking at that?” DiNocco said. He suggested that Maio’s efforts to work with landlords had been hampered by the property owners’ fears that any plans that emerged would just be shot down at Town Meeting.

savings_bankMaio cited the examples of The Savings Bank and the Cooperative Bank, both of which were involved with the downtown parking garage proposal.

“They were vilified,” Maio said, and characterized as “greedy bankers. We’ve got to be a little more civil on our social media.”

Maio admitted that the town could do a better job of communicating its redevelopment ideas to the public, but added, “There has to be a little more trust out there as well. Some of us do know what we’re doing.”

Jody Sherman of High street suggested that if the town got the information on projects like the parking garage out to citizens sooner it might eliminate some of the last-minute second guessing.

Karen Faler of Lowell Street said that if the forum on the garage had been held before the February Special Town Meeting it would have answered a lot of questions. She also suggested that providing an earlier rendering showing the elevations of the proposed Brightview building might have changed the outcome.

Ami_Wall_hsBut Ami Wall of Elm Street said it was a mistake to blame town officials for not doing more to get the information out.

“The information has been there,” Wall said. “If you want information you have to go after it yourself.”

WCAT’s David Watts, who produces Maio’s monthly cable TV show, agreed with Wall.

“Our system of government means very few responsibilities,” Watts said. “But one of those is to stay informed.” He noted that both the Daily Item and WCAT covered the garage issue extensively. “People have to take responsibility to be informed.”

Finance Committee member Doug Butler maintained that realistically people were not likely to spend a lot of time and effort educating themselves about any given issue. He said that town needed to do a better job of communicating in a sound-bite culture.

“You didn’t have anything to compete against ‘Stop Town Land Giveaway’” Butler said.

town_meeting050814Jim Scott said that another issue was open town meeting. He argued that in towns with representative town meeting the members tend to make more of an effort to do their homework and inform themselves before they attend town meetings.

Marcie McCauley of Walden Road disputed any suggestion that those who opposed the garage were not informed. She maintained that if the “before and after” renditions shown on the night of the final Town Meeting vote had been available two weeks earlier it might have been “a complete game changer.”

Library Director Sharon Gilley suggested that town officials needed to paint a broader picture of a vision for downtown so that when voters are presented with a specific proposal like the parking garage, they understand it in the context of that overall vision.

matthew_jewett_hsMatthew Jewett of Byron Street questioned the assertion that all of the information was available to anyone who made the effort to get it. He said that he was asking from the very first meeting about the roofline and elevations of the assisted living facility. “That information was not that easy to get,” Jewett said.

Another resident called the general lack of civility over the garage issue “a huge embarrassment for our town.” He said that Wakefield would have to repair its image with developers, small businesses and families looking for a place to relocate.

DiNocco said that on either June 12 or 19 there would be a program offered on the Main Street Program and its benefits to Wakefield. He stressed that town officials do have a vision for a vibrant downtown, but it will take time as well as buy-in from the downtown landlords to make it happen.

[This story originally appeared in the May 14, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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