The Stoughton Select Board heard a presentation from Stoughton Redevelopment Authority (SRA) members on the potential for creating an urban renewal plan for the downtown area at its Feb. 18 meeting.
All parties involved have a common vision – to see Stoughton Center reinvigorated, said the SRA's Reggie Nunnally, who has worked for both the state and City of Boston. This includes the SRA, the Select Board, the Planning Board and the community.
He explained that an urban renewal plan is a strategy for “redeveloping and revitalizing substandard, decadent and blighted open areas” and converting them into a number of possible property uses, such as commercial, government, education, hospital, recreational or other buildings. He later noted that those adjectives were not his choosing, but were terms included in state law.
Under Massachusetts General Law 121B, urban renewal agencies are allowed to take a range of actions in designated urban renewal areas to encourage investment and sound financial growth in areas that have been neglected.
Nunnally said that this plan would differ from the 2015 version in that it would have a narrower focus, concentrating on the downtown.
Mark Zamanian of the SRA said that the previous draft of that plan’s boundaries had been approved by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). But because the SRA, Board of Selectmen and Planning Board never had convened to set up a plan of action or pick specific projects or proposals for redevelopment, nothing was done.
Nunnally said that the new urban renewal plan would be a vehicle to bring additional tools to finance capital projects without putting a burden on taxpayers.
“I want to be as clear as possible that we are just talking about the downtown area initially,” he said. “We feel as if we can get the redevelopment of the downtown area that will increase revenue because we’ll have more businesses hopefully coming to the area.”
Another component is the ability to establish rehabilitation and design standards for buildings. Properties also could be taken by what Nunnally termed “a friendly eminent domain process” if it were in Stoughton’s best interest to do so. Buildings then could be demolished so that sites could undergo environmental remediation and preparation for marketing to private developers.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for government to get into the development business,” Nunnally said. “I really think that government can help spur development.”
He added that under the plan, Stoughton would have the ability to borrow money and have bonds issued to help with the development projects. Stoughton could apply for grants and loans. This would encourage “infill rather than fringe development.”
“I want to have businesses want to be here, and I want people working here that want to go to those businesses,” Zamanian said. “It’s that simple.”
Nunnally noted that the plan would complement the town’s rezoning process. He also said that the SRA, the Planning Board, the Select Board and the Downtown Task Force all should be in sync in this process. Ultimately, the Select Board will have to approve an urban renewal plan application.
“Without you, without your partnership, without your nod, we can’t move forward,” he said.
Selectperson Joseph Mokrisky took exception at the term “blighted.” Zamanian told him that it was part of the legal terminology and not their word choice.
Selectperson Steve Cavey thanked Nunnally and Zamanian for their work.
“What you’ve presented, what you’ve given us to read, and I can tell in your eyes, that you’re very knowledgeable about this and that you’ve put a ton of work into this,” he said.
He added that the boards need to develop a clear communications process so that they won’t “step on each other’s toes.” Zamanian said the SRA could work on a draft.
Selectperson Christine Howe asked what the timeline would be to come up with a urban renewal plan draft. Nunnally responded that a consultant told the SRA that it could take “as little as six months,” but that it would be done in alignment with the zoning policy.
Nunnally added that the urban renewal plan would include specific projects with detailed plans for development and financing.
“I think that messaging is really important,” Howe said, voicing her support. “From what I’ve heard, that may be something that held up the last approval of the previous plans.”
“We need to do big things in the downtown because little things over the past 30 years have turned into big things,” Chair Bob O’Regan said. “What I’m encouraged by what you’ve said and where you want to partner with everybody, is find the tipping point where government action will spur private investment.”
He added that “friendly eminent domain” only should be “the bottom tool in the toolbox.”
“Frankly, we can’t expect anybody else to invest in our downtown if we’re not willing to invest ourselves,” O’Regan continued. “And the number-one investment we can put in is what you’re doing, which is time, talent and energy.”
He said he hoped everyone involved could be on board to be able to present the urban renewal plan at a special Town Meeting in the fall.
In addition, he said he wants to create a communications process among boards, in compliance with Open Meeting Law, so that everyone would be apprised of each other’s efforts.
This issue will be discussed with members of the Planning Board at the Select Board’s meeting on March 17.