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Folks like Vicki Danberg and Chris Steele are putting a lot of good effort into revitalizing Newton Centre, but their efforts, as captured in the TAB’s Ashley Studley’s piece on Newton Centre (not online yet) seem like a band-aid on an arterial bleed.

The piece talks about ice rinks, employee parking, and local events. All good, but they pale in the face of the structural problems facing Newton Centre, and the other village centers:

  • For generations, retail has been migrating to highways (our Boylston Street/Route 9) and out of city centers. Not more than two miles away from Newton Centre, construction is full-steam ahead on Chestnut Hill Square and more renovation is around-the-corner for Chestnut Hill Shopping Center (the lower mall)
  • The three Chestnut Hill mall-like thingies all have city-mandated free parking
  • Local independents cannot compete against chain economies of scale
  • The Internet is taking a bigger-and-bigger share of the retail pie
  • The Internet provides a more than adequate substitute for the kind of specialized knowledge that used to be the exclusive domain of small-businesses

It’s going to take an awful lot more than ice rinks to reverse these trends. If we want vibrant village centers, we, as a city, need to ask ourselves some hard questions and then take some big steps.

First and formost, commercial centers need people — feet on the street. As a number of smart people have said to me and in earshot lately, we need to decide if we want to be a suburban city, an urban city, or, at a minimum, a city with some significant sections of urban-like development. Frequent is the cry within the aldermanic chambers: we don’t want to be like Brookline. Why not? It’s got a nice range of densities across its neighborhoods. Adding some more apartment buildings in Newton Centre would be a big jolt to the commercial district.

Second, we need to level the parking playing field. Big lots of free parking at Boylston Street malls, at Needham Street stores, anywhere in Newton, is bad public policy. Not only does free parking elsewhere create a competitive disadvantage for the businesses in the village centers we claim to cherish, it creates an automobile-centric ecosystem that is killing us on a number of fronts. (Free parking in the centers, by the way, is not the answer.) It’s going to take a long time, but we’ve  take steps to limit the attractiveness of driving to shop. The collateral benefit is that walkable commercial districts, like our village centers, will become more attractive.

Third, we’ve got to figure out what it means to Newton and it’s village centers that the retail experience is losing its power to operate as a way of ordering our civic life. If we’re looking for a shared community experience, shopping isn’t going to play the role that it used to. I have been meaning to write about Chris Steele’s TAB op-ed on independent retailers and Newton villages (also published on the Newton Villages blog). In it, he pines for  a time when friends and neighbors strolled the same sidewalks and browsed the same shops, which were independently run by wise experts, dispensing recommendations and practical how-to advice. Those days of strolling and browsing are gone. We’re meeting online, buying online, getting (better) recommendations and how-to advice online. If not, we’re jumping in the car for big-box deals.

The consequences are two-fold. Especially without a significant increase in density, Newton probably has too many village centers to support, much less revitalize. And, we need a new model. The one thing we can’t do online is grocery shop. (Okay, we can, but most don’t.) A small grocery store in each village would be a great anchor for a new model.

Fourth, we’ve got to invest in our village centers. Newton Centre is the supposed crown jewel of our villages, with Langley Street the prime stretch. The sidewalk is a disaster. Too narrow. No amenities. Scraggly street trees. It’s an embarrassment.

If we don’t take these four steps, any discussion about revitalizing our village centers is just lip service, any actions are token efforts.