Framingham city councilors voted recently to hit “pause” on apartment construction downtown, overturning a decade-old plan to redevelop the area as a transit-oriented destination.

For years, downtown Framingham was mired in a post-industrial funk, with empty storefronts and a hardscrabble look. 

An urban center built out for a time when thousands worked at a nearby GM auto plant and other factories, it badly needed a new lease on life. 

Downtown Framingham got that boost – and then some.  

Local planning officials, businesses and residents came together more than a decade ago to leverage the city’s commuter rail station to spur new development. 

Progress was slow at first, but the past few years has seen surge in new apartment construction in downtown Framingham, with a number of major projects totaling 1,400 new apartments having opened or under construction. 

New businesses and restaurants have followed, including microbrewery Jack’s Abby, joining other shops and restaurants started years earlier by the city’s vibrant Brazilian community. 

“A lot of times it is the folks living in the apartments that come downtown and spend their money downtown,” said Courtney Thraen, executive director of Downtown Framingham Inc. 

Many would see a success story to boast about, but apparently not the Framingham City Council. 

The council looks at all those new apartments downtown and sees not new life, new residents and a newfound vibrancy, but rather trouble ahead in more traffic on city roads and more students in city schools. 

Traffic from TOD? Not Likely 

To that end, councilors recently voted in favor of a months-long moratorium on any new apartment construction. 

The proposal, which would also involve a study of the impact of the new development downtown, now sits before the city’s Planning Board. 

It’s hard to make sense of the push for a moratorium. The arguments for it are wafer thin, the timing is terrible and the whole thing reeks of petty local politicking. 

Moratorium backers cite traffic congestion downtown and the potential for rising school costs. 

But it’s not clear how building apartments within walking distance of restaurants, businesses and a city’s busy commuter rail station could make downtown Framingham’s nightmarish traffic congestion any worse than it already is. 

After all, it seems unlikely anyone is going to jump in their car to drive a few blocks to from new apartment buildings whose big draw is their proximity to the T. 

Alta Union House is one of several apartment complexes totaling 1,400 units to rise in downtown Framingham in recent years. Image courtesy of The Architectural Team

And traffic has been a major headache downtown for decades now, long before anyone was remotely interested in investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new apartment projects. 

Moratorium supporters have also cited the potential for a bump up in the number of new students in city schools. 

Yet there are good reasons to be skeptical of such claims. New apartment projects have long been a favored scapegoat of local officials for rising costs, despite study after study having shown such concerns are typically overblown or nonexistent. 

It also conveniently glosses over the fact that enrollment increases are far more typically the result of natural turnover of the local housing stock, as empty nesters sell their homes to families with young children. 

Vote Undercuts Decade of Reinvestment 

In pushing for the moratorium, some city councilors have pointed to a supposed lack of planning for downtown’s future, suggesting some sort of a reckless development surge by Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer. 

However, Spicer took the oath of office as the city’s first mayor in early 2018 as part of an overall transition by Framingham from a town to a municipal form of government. 

By contrast, planning for the transformation of downtown Framingham dates to 2009, with another round of research and planning five years ago by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. 

Construction on at least two of the projects began before Spicer was elected or shortly after she was sworn in. 

This apparent amnesia about the city’s extensive downtown planning efforts fits a larger pattern of pattern of sparring between the council, whose members including mayoral race loser John Stefanini, and Spicer, the first African-American woman elected mayor in the history of Massachusetts.  

But maybe even a bigger problem is the message an apartment construction moratorium would have on Framingham’s reputation as a place to live and do business. 

The moratorium would effectively pull the rug out from under the developers and business owners who invested heavily, betting on the city’s vision of a revitalized downtown. 

Jack Hendler, co-founder of Jack’s Abby, noted at a recent public hearing that Framingham’s larger vision for transit orientated development downtown played a key role in his company’s success. 

Scott Van Voorhis

We believed in the dream about what was trying to be recreated in downtown Framingham,” Hendler said, according to the MetroWest Daily News. I’m very concerned we could lose a lot of that progress we’ve seen. 

And as far as the timing goes, frankly, how could it be worse? 

The development and business communities are reeling from the impact of the coronavirus crisis and the savage downturn it has triggered. 

Fears of another wave of new apartment development in Framingham, or for that matter, anywhere else right now, are clearly misplaced. 

If I were sitting on the Framingham City Council right now, I would be concerned not about new development, but no development at all. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at   

Framingham Apartment Freeze Could Upend City’s Revitalization

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min