Downtown New Bedford Planning Process Stirs the Imagination

By Jack Spillane
Imagine downtown New Bedford with a Union Street dormitory for UMass Dartmouth graduate students and a new classroom building for Bristol Community College across from the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center.
Imagine a tree-lined Custom House Square and a new, architecturally significant building on adjacent Union Street.
Imagine a movie theater under the Elm Street garage and an abolitionist museum at the First Baptist Church, right across from City Hall.
Imagine the cobblestones and antique lanterns on Mechanics Lane continued farther down the hill, and imagine thriving commercial businesses from one end of Purchase or Union street to the other.
Now, imagine that the gentrified residents of the one downtown New Bedford street that has already been completely revitalized — Centre Street — do not flee as popular new night spots nearby become increasingly rowdy.
“It’s a nice problem to have,” said Mayor Scott Lang last Saturday of the tensions between pubs and downtown residents.
He was speaking to a small gathering of downtown gentry, promising he would not allow the pubs — Rose Alley Alehouse, in particular — to pack huge numbers of young people into an unreasonable setting.
The residents were meeting at the National Park’s Corson Building, another downtown success story.
They said the music from the lower downtown upscale bars is so loud, and the late-night reveling so pronounced, that it’s literally invading their living and bedrooms.
The alehouse is seeking to open a patio seating 48 people in an area thick with condominium development.
Jean Bennett, who along with her husband, Arthur, long ago committed to living in a rejuvenated downtown, reminded planners they should think about attractions “for the 70-somethings, not just the 20-somethings.”
The gathered 70-, 60- and 50-somethings noted that a restaurant with a bar is a far better animal than a bar with a restaurant.
Downtown New Bedford is finally facing the problem of resolving differences between one set of urban pioneers and another. In fact, the Rose Alley tensions are the best indication yet that downtown New Bedford once again seems on the verge of popping.
The downtown has looked as if it were going to pop any number of times over the last 30 years, but it never really has.
But for the first time in recent memory, the city has now conducted a truly public downtown planning process that was not a dog-and-pony show.
Real downtown residents, real investors, real landlords and real city retail establishments actually showed up Saturday to get a glimpse of what the professional planners and consultants have come up with so far. City officials and their planning consultants actually seemed interested in the opinion of the people who live and work downtown.
The professionals are emphasizing colleges and tourism. On Saturday, they showed planners artists’ conceptions of possible school and residential development to a hopeful crowd of 50 or so people.
And despite the dour economy, you got the feeling it might really happen.
The Coffin and Union Street lofts have already brought an influx of residents to the upper floors of the downtown commercial buildings. The mayor, on Saturday, noted that the foundation for the waterfront hotel has been poured.
Provided the state doesn’t go broke, the university buildings seem more likely to attract development money than, say, a new office or residential building, for which planners said that, in the foreseeable future, there will continue to be virtually no market in the local area.
It all remains a big “if,” of course, when it comes to downtown New Bedford.
“If the economy” recovers,” and “if the city puts the right planning” in place.
But more and more, “if” in downtown New Bedford seems more of a question of “when.”
Contact Jack Spillane at
July 14, 2009
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