Rockland leaders discuss what's in store for downtown area
By Tom Gormanrockland@wickedlocal.com
For years, downtown Rockland has been struggling with deteriorating buildings, vacant commercial buildings and outdated infrastructure.
Recently, the town, through federal funding, has taken steps to improve the downtown area by replacing crumbling sidewalks, upgrading outdated building facades and adding benches and trees.
But, officials say, the area is in need of a boost and a revitalization plan needs to be supported.
Business leaders and town officials gathered Tuesday, Feb. 14 to discuss opportunities, steps and challenges in revitalizing downtown Rockland and its adjacent neighborhoods.
The Rockland Chamber of Commerce hosted the event during a breakfast at the DoubleTree by Hilton.
A panel including Mountain Bank President and CEO Bob Fraser, Rockland Town Administrator Allan Chiocca, Rockland School Committee chairman and business owner Dan Biggins, and Metropolitan Area Planning Council principal planner Ralph Wilmer gave their perspectives of how to improve Rockland Center, in the area of Union Street between North Avenue and the East Water and West Water streets intersection.
According to the panelists, rezoning, allowing access to Union Point, adequate parking and attracting businesses to downtown Rockland are the main ingredients to a thriving town center.
Fraser said that rezoning to allow a mixed use of commercial and residential is the first step to take.
"We believe there is a tremendous opportunity for the downtown," Fraser said. "The key point is zoning. What it is today doesn't have to be what it should be for tomorrow. We need to recreate the footprint within downtown."
A Chapter 40R zoning proposal that would allow for mixed use residential and retail buildings in the town center goes before the spring Town Meeting, according to Chiocca.
"This allows us to provide more retail space and more residence space without overly impacting any one area," he said.
Fraser noted that downtown Rockland is "not a destination point by itself" and that mixed use zoning would help "draw people to downtown and make it a place for dining and small stores. Any town that has invested in its downtown, it's all about mixed use."
"Zoning should open the door for redevelopment in the downtown area," he said. "It won't happen overnight, but there is development interest. It won't happen without zoning changes."
Biggins said the idea of revitalizing downtown Rockland has been around for years, but there is now a serious move to make it happen.
"The next three to five years will be the most important in modern history in this town," Biggins said. "I think we are in a good position to plot our own destiny and our own course."
Biggins noted there are two new schools and an athletic center near the town center and the Massachusetts School Building Authority is expected to approve funding for a new elementary school this week for the district. He said a strong school system is an important asset for a town.
Biggins also said there is momentum of small businesses moving into town and with the initiatives being proposed, the town is poised to grow.
"There is reason for excitement," said Biggins. "The carrot is there, we just need to reach out and grab it."
Wilmer said that new zoning would help improve parking in the downtown area. He said there could be shared parking with residents and patrons or some type of parking lot could be established.
Chiocca said the town has made "marked improvements" to its roads and aesthetics and continues to move forward in attracting families and businesses to Rockland.
He noted the town maintains one of the lowest tax rates on the South Shore and has a single tax rate that is attractive to businesses.
"We've resisted efforts to split the tax rate and put more burden on businesses," Chiocca said, adding, "We have tax incentives to encourage businesses to locate and stay here."
He also said the town is in the process of purchasing street lights that includes a survey to improve lighting in the downtown area "without putting street lights into neighbors' windows."
Chiocca said he welcomes input from the public on improving the downtown area.
Fraser said Rockland can take advantage of the rejuvenated Union Point development in South Weymouth, the site of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station. Construction of 55 and over units, residential housing and commercial development has been sparked by the new developer, LStar Communities.
In November, the east-west parkway - that runs through Union Point and connects to Weymouth Street in Rockland - opened up.
Chiocca explained that a comprehensive traffic study is underway to determine the impact the new Union Point parkway will have on the town as well as plan for the future growth of Rockland.
"As we move forward, we want to make sure Rockland expands in a reasonable way," Chiocca said.
Fraser said that while there has been "skepticism" with Union Point, considering the former developer was unable to build out the site as planned, there is now momentum that Rockland can take advantage of. He said the east-west parkway opens up access to the town as well as to the commuter rail line adjacent to Union Point.
"We believe in the vision of Union Point," said Fraser. "It will be a tremendous asset to Rockland."
Chiocca also said Rockland needs to share more of the wealth generated by Union Point. Last May, Town Meeting approved zoning allowing Union Point to create up to 1 million square feet of commercial development.
"Rockland needs more than traffic from the east-west parkway," he said.
LStar Communities New England Division President Matthew Barry told the gathering that redeveloping downtown Rockland "is important to us" and directly interacts with development at Union Point.
He noted that because of zoning changes by Abington, Rockland and Weymouth, infrastructure improvements were made at Union Point including completion of the east-west parkway that will draw more commercial and residential development.
Barry said that a robotics company is coming to Union Place that has potential to draw related businesses and the benefits realized can be shared by all three towns.
After the meeting, Rockland Chamber of Commerce Co-Chairman Jeff Phelps said that he hopes the forum "serves as a jumping off point for a little bit more substantive discussion about how we plan to approach the issue of revitalizing the town."
Phelps also said Union Point needs to play a role in the town's future. He noted there is resistance to allowing additional access to the newly zoned Rockland portion that he said has potential for commercial and residential development.
"Personally, I feel it's imperative to have access to Union Point," Phelps said. "Some residents are dead set against opening that passageway to Union Point. What use to be a gate are two large stones. People from Rockland should be able to access it. I think there is some little wave of support for kind of breaking down that barrier literally. There is traffic flow through downtown and there is access for eventual residents and workers at Union Point. It can't help but benefit the town."
Phelps said Rockland is well situated to revitalizing its downtown.
"A lot of towns would love to have the bones of a downtown that we have," he said. "We need to find a way to bring it back to what it once was."