Discover Downtown, a committee of community members, business and property owners, formed to facilitate projects to revitalize downtown Cambridge.
The committee presented its recommendations to the public at Cambridge-Isanti High School’s Richard G. Hardy Performing Arts Center on March 22.
Community Collaboration principal consultant Todd Streeter has served as facilitator of the committee’s work over the last six months. He opened the presentation with an analogy comparing a town’s downtown district to a car engine: Although we’d like our vehicles to always run smoothly, they sometimes require attention.
“Downtowns are really no different,” Streeter said. “They have to be maintained as well.”
The Discover Downtown committee includes 25 members, separated into several subcommittees that worked on specific components of the revitalization project. After Streeter’s introduction, each subcommittee took a portion of the presentation to talk about their work and detail a few of their revitalization ideas.
Jeremy Ellingson and Julie Immel represented the Experience Downtown subcommittee, which worked on ideas to make downtown Cambridge more attractive to visitors.
“A busy downtown is a successful downtown,” Ellingson said.
Among the problems they found with downtown Cambridge’s aesthetics were sidewalk litter, lack of light (except during the holiday season) and a lack of curb appeal. Recommendations they made to fix some of these issues included trying to carry forward some of the decorative flair downtown Cambridge displays during the holiday season throughout the year, as well as encouraging blade signs for businesses, so that people on the sidewalks can look down a street and know what businesses are on it.
Ellingson and Immel also presented Experience Downtown’s recommendation that businesses work to beautify their back entrances, in addition their front entrances, so that they’re welcoming from both sides.
Pam Streed presented on behalf of the Destination Downtown subcommittee, which produced ideas toward the goal of making downtown Cambridge a place where people want to be.
A key component of the Destination Downtown subcommittee’s work was conceiving the right mix of businesses for downtown to succeed. Streed and her subcommittee noted the presence of many businesses on the east side of town, including chain restaurants and several big box stores, that downtown businesses need to complement and differentiate themselves from.
“Any business in the downtown is going to have a very hard time if they’re trying to sell similar products downtown,” she said.
Streed suggested the types of businesses that could succeed and be desirable in downtown include specialty retail stores, businesses that double as public gathering spaces (since the east side’s larger establishments are mostly unable to provide such space and because that area is less friendly to foot traffic than downtown), a wider variety of dining establishments and spaces for evening entertainment.
An element the Destination Downtown subcommittee’s portion of the presentation stressed is that downtown businesses should try to provide products and experiences that are unique to Cambridge. Streed cited examples that already exist, such as the caramel cream cheese buns customers can buy at Herman’s Bakery on Main Street, which were invented by a worker there.
Chad Struss presented for the Community Connections subcommittee, which worked on determining how different parts of the revitalization project connect to one another, as well as looking at ways other initiatives that may be happening in Cambridge’s future can be connected to revitalization or used to benefit it.
One project Struss mentioned running parallel to downtown revitalization is the possible construction of an underpass beneath the railroad tracks that cross Highway 95 in Cambridge. Although he noted other types of reconstruction in that area are being considered as well, and toward the same purpose, Struss said an incidental benefit of creating an underpass is that it would create a “gateway into downtown” for people traveling into Cambridge from the east side.
Struss also presented projects that would create a sense of connection between the businesses downtown.
These included putting QR codes, which are scannable by smartphones, in store windows, featuring sales or other opportunities or using such codes as guides for a walking tour of Cambridge; marketing Cambridge’s already-existent free parking so that people realize how much there is in downtown; and possibly putting together a bus or shuttle service to and from downtown.
“Otherwise it’s just isolated stores and businesses that don’t really connect together very well,” Struss said.
Melissa Bettendorf presented on behalf of the Downtown Promotion subcommittee, which focused on developing a brand for downtown Cambridge to market the revitalization.
One of the subcommittee’s goals for branding downtown is to make sure the district’s brand identity connects back to Cambridge’s history.
The subcommittee also looked at the webpages of other towns’ downtowns to identify strategies that could be repurposed for Cambridge. Bettendorf suggested that the downtown section on the city of Cambridge’s website could be updated as part of the revitalization or an entirely separate website for downtown information could be created.
Bob Roby and Greg Carlson spoke on civic support and community funding, respectively.
Roby focused on potential zoning modifications that could be needed to accommodate the types of projects proposed by Discover Downtown. He ultimately suggested that the creation of an “overlay district” for downtown might be a good solution. Such a district would create a different set of zoning rules and regulation for properties in a defined downtown area; this would open the legal door for some of Discover Downtown’s ideas, like outdoor dining.
Carlson spoke briefly about the planned creation of a community foundation to fund Discover Downtown’s projects. He likened the revitalization project to the way the community came together to fund Cambridge Medical Center.
“A community foundation will be the means to unlock our capacity,” he said.
For more information on ongoing revitalization activities, contact Lynda Woulfe at 763-552-3216 or at [email protected]