Excitement, yearning for a destination, a place to meet
Past the restaurants gracing Capitol Square and the Center, you drive by Brattle Square as the grade of Mass. Ave. rises. Are you in the Heights yet? Hard to say.
Surely, somewhere past Jimmy's you've entered a part of Arlington who name suggests elevation ... something higher ... better -- the Heights.
If only it were true.
Or to put it another way: With citizen involvement, perhaps the bottom third of the town's three business districts could move up.
That is the hope of Claudine Swartz, originally from Ohio who has lived in the Heights five years, and Heidi Wach, a neighborhood resident for almost 20 years.
In an unlikely Arlington scenario, an estimated 100 people crowded into the Dallin School cafeteria in midsummer to participate in an effort to push for changes in Arlington Heights.
Led by Support Arlington Heights (SAH), a citizens' group backed by town officials and the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, the first meeting spurred an energy in the room on a hot evening Thursday, July 28 -- and an unexpected excitement about how residents can help improve conditions in the western end of town.
Organizers discussed the results of a survey that had 346 responses, made plans for community cleanups and looked forward to two September meetings, the second a "visioning" forum.
What do residents want?
What would people like to see in the Heights? Those surveyed earlier put a pub on top, followed by an independent coffee shop, a "replacement for Panera" and a taqueria.
Panera was a Heights destination until it closed in March 2013, followed by Bagelville, which did not last. Now AFC Doctors Express Urgent Care is preparing to open in a Village Shops location that has higher rent than its neighbors.
What do those surveyed not want to see? More pizza parlors, nail salons, hair places and bank.
Those present at the meeting favored a place to gather where you could have a drink.
A man who emphasized the need for a "destination" called Panera a "great loss."
Brooks Harrelson, a businessman who works at home, seconded the destination comment and said he would like to see another place like Workbar, the coworking space in a Mirak building that opened last winter. In the light of so many home-based artisans and others in town, he said he sorry to see that such a space did not work out for the former about Disabled American Veterans along Mass. Ave.
Can town help?
The possibility of a pub -- which spurred applause -- drew questions about zoning and licensing. "Can the town help?" an audience member asked.
Jenny Raitt, town planning director, said zoning posed no barrier. Selectman Joseph Curro called the town's approach to alcohol licensing "an evolution." He was referring to its dry status until residents vote for changes in a 1993 referendum, leading to bylaws the next year that has led to a restaurant boom.
Asked why there is as yet no pub in the Heights, Curro responded: "A lack of applications."
It was not mentioned at the meeting, but Sono, an Asian restaurant on Summer Street, offers drinks.
The selectmen's office said Aug. 1 that five all-alcohol licenses are available.
Remember the long-timers
Audience comments included those from a man who expressed concern that any changes take into consideration longtime Heights owners and a woman who said the lack of a spigot made it difficult to water flowers in Heights planters.
Help from the town? Officials expect to do what they can. That includes facilitating meetings like this one and offering the services of town planners, particularly Ted Fields, who works for economic development.
Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine set some limits, noting the town's structural deficit and the fact that there is not a lot of opportunity for growth in Arlington.
"The town has limited impact on controlling what is developed in Heights," he said, because, overall, it lacks the authority to require changes.
Raitt cited the town's master plan, which offers parameters for growth, as well as suggestions made in the 2010 Koff report (read it here >>).
Heights' 'walkshops' due
Getting beyond Town Hall and hitting the streets during "walkshops" this spring, residents and officials joined to help envision how Center might look. Plans are to do the same for Heights this fall. After that, she said, she looked ahead to devising an action this winter.
During public comment, Ted Peluso, a member of ATED, Arlington Tourism and Economic Development, told Raitt that the action step "should be done now," not in winter. "Don’t put that off."
Elaine Ashton of Lexington, president of the East Lexington Community Association, which is looking to do much of the same as Heights group, said: "Landlords -- they're the key."
Discussion of rents
Mention of landlords led to questions about rent: Were they going, and has that led to vacancies?
Fields said he estimates Arlington rents are rising $2, from $22 to $24 per square foot. He said Belmont rents average $25 and Lexington more than $30 per square foot.
The Village Shops, managed by Bierbrier Development of Lexington, includes the block with the butcher shop, goes for $40 to $45.
One woman who disagreed with the rent estimates on rent and said she had a hard time finding reasonable rent after searching said everyone needs to be the room, including landlords.
Later, when the audience was asked whether landlords were present, one hand went up.
Scott Samenfeld, a musician who has lived in the vicinity for 30 years, called for the need to expand the idea of the Heights: "It's a larger community than just Mass. Ave."
He noted his publicity efforts for jazz concerts at artlounge seemed to fall on deaf ears. "If you want to support the Height," he said, "you have to show up."
As he spoke, a woman asked the person next to her: "Where's artlounge?" (It's at 1346 Mass. Ave.)
David Levy, a 16-year resident and former head of the Housing Corporation of Arlington, saw the issue in two parts -- town and the market. Need is a viable plan and the energy to act.
Beth Locke, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, noted monthly meetings with Heights merchants drew few, as there seemed to be no good time to meet. Suggestions from the audience indicated there might be better time, and Locke agreed to look into it.
Also present were Selectman Kevin Greeley and DPW Director Mike Rademacher.
March 6, 2013: Panera Bread rises elsewhere, but not here
This news report was published Monday, Aug. 1, 2016.
FACEBOOK BOX: To see all images, click the PHOTOS link just below