By John Anderson
Most newcomers to Auburn have likely asked, “Where is downtown Auburn?” The truth is: there isn’t one. Even Main St. is a diminutive place that lacks any commercial quality. Some say the closest thing to a town center was Sam Drury’s tavern across from the Congregational Church. Back in the 1700’s, Drury’s Tavern was not only a watering hole along the Post Road but also served as the location for town meetings and other gatherings. Drury made an impression in Auburn, and Drury Square (at the current intersection of Auburn and Southbridge streets) is named after him.
Over the years, Drury Square has changed a lot. The Holstrom building was torn down for the high school project, Verizon occupies the building that once housed such businesses as Walk-Rite Sundial Shoes and the Coffee Cup, and the Auburn Fire Dept. is its second home in the southwest quadrant (The first was built in 1924 and torn down in 1964).
In the Town’s 2006 Master Plan, it was proposed that Drury Square should become a Village District with more identifiable architecture, improved walkability, and a downtown feel. From the Master Plan:
“The Vision for Auburn in 2020 is one where Drury Square has been revitalized to become Auburn’s “downtown”. With extensive community input, a design consultant prepared a plan to make the area a community asset. The Town made strategic infrastructure investments, obtained grants, improved parking and circulation, and worked closely with landowners to achieve the vision for the area. Drury Square has become a quality ‘Village styl’ shopping area with small-scale retail and service uses and a pedestrian oriented building and parking layout.”
The first step in this direction was taken last Thursday as a group of concerned residents, town officials and consultants gathered at the high school to discuss the potential for a downtown Auburn. A $10,000 Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Grant spurred this session that was led by Steve Cecil and Margarita Iglesia from The Cecil Group in Boston. They were retained by the Town to assist in developing a plan.
During his project overview, Steve Cecil told the audience, “I’ve seen that mall for years, but I never knew about Drury Square.” He said this was about the community image and they hoped to develop a vision of a walkable district that is friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists. They also want to strengthen the area’s identity and enhance economic value. It was not lost to anyone in the room, that there is a huge volume of traffic moving through this area as well.
Three working groups were put together, and they each evaluated the existing conditions and opportunities, planning goals, and vision elements. After writing down their ideas, each presented to the combined audience.
The information was taken by Cecil and Iglesia who will refine the data, establish some plan ideas and present back at a future date. Cecil said it often takes about ten years to see major changes when plans like this are developed.