Planner: Downtown Medford progress held up by red tape

Efforts to breathe more life into downtown Medford can be stifled by the city's own bureaucracy, the City Council was told Thursday.

Jim Huber, Medford's planning director, laid out a series of issues that have been problematic for the downtown.

Among them: When a business applies for a building permit it could be confronted with two separate commissions that require two separate public hearings and separate fees.

Huber proposed consolidating the functions of the Site Plan and Architectural Review Commission into the Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission for downtown business applications. SPAC would still be responsible for reviews in the rest of the city.

He said the single commission would be more concerned with the architecture of the building and less concerned about the layout of the interior of the building.

The city also has land-use rules that apply to the downtown that can also make it confusing for a prospective business owner. Huber said a long-range project would make the code less vague and create more clear-cut building and design standards.

Huber described issues that confront the downtown, including promoting more attractive storefronts to encourage pedestrian traffic.

Ideally, a downtown block should have openings to stores at regular intervals of some 20 to 30 feet to entice customers, Huber said. But some buildings offer only blank walls or don't have any openings on Main Street.

In general, Huber said, most downtown merchants attempt to make their storefronts as appealing as possible, though that effort doesn't work as well when there are empty storefronts.

Some owners of vacant buildings in the downtown have decorated the interiors or used artwork to make them more appealing while others simply throw up butcher paper on the glass, he said.

The city also needs to do a better job providing signs that direct customers into the downtown. Existing signs can be confusing, Huber said.

"I've had people ask me where the downtown is," he said.

Surface parking lots also create a visual break that discourages pedestrians from venturing farther down a street, he said.

In the future, the city could encourage more new construction with storefronts abutting the sidewalk, Huber said. He also recommended that 80 percent of the front of a building at street level should be glass and should be well lighted to help invite customers inside.

The council encouraged Huber to continue to look at ways to simplify the city's process as well as to create ways to make the downtown more appealing to pedestrians.

Some of the proposals, such as having just one commission review application, could take effect this year. Efforts such as clearing up vague code provisions would be tackled next year. Simplifying the various zoning rules in the downtown could take longer, possibly into 2015.

Huber said the city removed caps on residential housing in the commercial area in 2012, which should encourage more downtown housing, which is one of the city's goals.

Huber said the city also may consider changing some codes to allow a greater variety of business in the downtown.

Light manufacturing such as glass blowing is not allowed in the downtown, but drive-through businesses and car sales lots are permitted even though many downtowns elsewhere don't allow them.

Sally Densmore, president of the Heart of Medford Association, said she supported having just one commission review building projects in the downtown.

"I think the real wonderful thing is streamlining the process," she said.

Densmore said she also supports a city effort to encourage more glass on store fronts and to have entrances to stores at regular intervals.

She cited an area from Central Avenue to Front Street where there are few windows in the buildings. Looking west from these buildings across the railroad tracks are empty lots.

"It's a long way to walk without anything on either side," Densmore said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email

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