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Steering committee and consultants agree to make changes to proposed Downtown Master Plan

The Downtown Master Plan Steering Committee gave unanimous approval Thursday evening to a final version of the proposed plan to govern downtown development after making a series of tweaks to the proposal on topics including historic preservation, homelessness and inclusion.

Among the changes in the draft, the consultants who drew up the plan agreed to remove a controversial suggestion that the popular Replay Lounge and Red Lyon Tavern could eventually be candidates for redevelopment.

The steering committee, made up of downtown business people and residents, spent more than three hours discussing changes and edits to the proposed final draft of the plan, which was prepared by Houseal Lavigne Associates, a consulting firm based in Chicago and Pasadena, California. A new version of the plan will be published July 20 and brought to the City Commission for consideration on Aug. 3.

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The committee’s work was based on more than 100 large and small issues that were raised by public comments since the final draft of the plan was proposed two months ago. The planning process, which was delayed by the pandemic, has been underway for almost three years, at a cost of $147,000 in consulting fees.

The steering committee members had an extended discussion about the plan’s language regarding historic preservation, which initially suggested that the city’s preservation process had stymied downtown development and made some specific proposals to weaken the preservation rules. That language was totally rewritten by the committee to reflect that the preservation guidelines are currently being reevaluated by city staff for the first time in more than three decades and are expected to go through a public updating process beginning later this year.

The committee also agreed to strengthen language in the plan to make inclusion a more prominent goal, and to take stronger, more concrete steps to address downtown homelessness. A proposal to install “solidarity lockers” downtown to serve homeless and houseless people was stricken from the plan after several committee members suggested it didn’t adequately address the overall issue.

The consultants said they would revise the plan’s suggestions for eventual redevelopment of specific sites such the Replay, the Red Lyon and the Post Office. There was significant public pushback to the draft plan’s suggestion that Replay and the Red Lyon could be potential redevelopment sites, and Nik Davis, the lead consultant, told the steering committee that that would be removed from the final document.

“I immediately realized our mistake in calling that out,” he said. Houseal Lavigne also agreed to change language in the plan to note that the Post Office would be relocated downtown if that site is eventually redeveloped.

The consultants said they would add a disclaimer that the illustrations of potential redevelopment projects were included in the plan simply to show possibilities.

“There’s always concerns about doing these visualizations, because it’s one of a million things that could happen on this site,” Davis said.

Another extended discussion concerned the idea of recommending a “vacancy tax” that would penalize landlords who left downtown properties vacant for extended periods of time. The committee agreed to let the plan suggest that such a tax be considered by the city in the future.

The oft-suggested notion of turning Massachusetts Street into a downtown mall was rejected after the consultants advised that most such projects around the country have ultimately failed.

Once formally adopted by the city, the Downtown Master Plan is expected to provide a blueprint for downtown development for the next 20 years, though it can be revised in the future.

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