The process of turning Drury Square into the ‘downtown’ area that Auburn lacks is gaining momentum, with a formal bylaw proposal almost ready for consideration by Town Meeting. The Town has received a grant from the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission to study the Drury Square rezoning and improvement.

At a public informational meeting last Wednesday, September 26, Auburn Town Manager, Julie Jacobson said in her opening remarks, “Auburn really has no identified downtown area” She continued, “We’ve got a roadway reconstruction project upcoming [in 2021] with the state on the entire width of Auburn Street from the bridge right near McDonald’s all the way up to the other bridge [Mass Pike overpass]. We’re working with the state to introduce some nice design elements, such as nice signage, nice lighting, maybe stamped crosswalks.”

The idea of turning Drury Square into what is described as a “village district” goes back some years, to about 2015. In the past year and a half or so, real progress has been made toward realizing this vision.

“We have an economic development plan that was approved about a year and a half ago and we talked a lot in that plan abut the importance of Drury Square” continued Jacobson. “We also are in the process of doing a Master Plan which we hope will be completed this year. Finally, we have developed a specific Drury Square Vision plan that we did just specific to Drury Square.”

Jacobson emphasized that all this planning is not just busy work. “These aren’t plans we intend to have sit on a shelf” she said. “The whole intent of having these plans is to implement them.” Jacobson added that the Town continues to apply for a variety of grants to fund planning and the actual projects.

Jacobson then introduced Shannon Regan, Auburn’s Economic Development Coordinator who discussed some of the initiatives included in the Drury Square Vision Plan. One of the more important facets is the façade improvement plan.

“We held a meeting with the tenants and local business owners, to see if they would be interested in a possible façade improvement program” said Regan. “We’re still working out details, and we applied to CMRPC for a grant to develop some renderings to help us see what the look should be.”

Elizabeth Wood of the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Council speaks at the Drury Sq. hearing. [Jeff LaBonte photo]

Elizabeth Wood from the CMRPC then steeped to the podium to explain that organization’s role in the redevelopment plan, and to ask for attendees’ participation and feedback. “We’re not going to be super formal” she said. “There are microphones around the room, if you have a question or comment please feel free to step up and participate.”

The first item Wood discussed was the Drury Square Zoning Bylaw proposal. “We hope to get this on the Town Meeting warrant for spring [2019]” she said. “The Town Planner Matthew Benoit and a bylaw committee has been meeting since March, so about 6 months, to draft this proposed bylaw. We want full public feedback, this is your bylaw and we want to hear from you tonight.”

Essentially, the bylaw would place restrictions on new development and redevelopment of properties that fall within the defined Drury Square Village District. As of now, the district is loosely bounded by the I290 overpass near Auburn High School to the Mass. Turnpike overpass near the Auburn Mall.

More immediate developments would include improving the walkability of the Drury Square area, improving parking – including adding public parking lots – adding natural edgings and barriers for aesthetic appeal and possibly improvements to the Goddard Memorial Park in Drury Square to make that area more of a focal point.

“We’re trying to create an area where you can walk, where you can shop, visit a café, get your haircut and do your banking, all in one stop without parking and re-parking” said Wood. “It’s pedestrian-friendly with services, offices, retail, also a housing element we want to include in this.”

Longer term, the hope is that businesses will voluntarily implement façade improvements to improve the curb appeal of businesses within the Drury Square district, and incentives for doing so are on the table, though nothing has been finalized.

All parties acknowledge this is not something that will happen in a year, or even a couple years.

“This is something that takes several decades to be implemented” said Wood. “You don’t force anybody to change their property. Existing property is grandfathered in. This [bylaw] is for redevelopment.  If you want to redevelop you would have to follow what’s in any new bylaw.”

Wood recounted some of the comments and suggestions brought forth at previous hearings on the Drury Square topic and explained how this feedback has been implemented into the current draft bylaw. Specifically, residents suggested that future businesses be moved closer to the road, place parking areas to the rear of buildings, allow for off site parking options, specific sizes and types of business allowed within the zone.

Most of the discussion from the residents in attendance pertained to what, exactly, would trigger a business being required to conform with any new bylaw. Essentially, according to Benoit and Wood, only a redevelopment or reconstruction project would cause the requirements to kick in.

“Painting your building would not force you to follow the bylaw” said Wood. “If you wanted to do a new building or change your parking, you would have to follow the bylaw.”

Town officials also state that the sale or lease of a building to a new owner or lessee would not prevent a current business from continuing, even if that business falls under a prohibited use in the new bylaw. For example, the proposed bylaw excludes automotive businesses from the district, but as long as an existing facility continues under its current use, there is no impact form the bylaw.

There will be future hearings, and the town seeks additional resident input before the bylaw appears on the Spring 2019 Town Meeting warrant. Comments and questions can be addressed to Shannon Regan, Economic Development Coordinator at sregan@town.auburn.ma.us, Town Planner Matt Benoit at mbenoit@town.auburn.ma.us or by calling 508-832-7719