What goes into being one of the greatest streets in America?
According to the American Planning Association, Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence is one of those streets. Being one of 10 streets so honored this year is a nice recognition and confirms the positive opinion of many local residents, but what exactly does it mean?
The APA’s website reveals several common elements for the 10 streets on this year’s “best” list. They all have a link to their communities’ history. They are walkable and architecturally appealing. They accommodate different kinds of businesses, but mostly restaurants, bars, boutiques and other small shops. Although they may have been at one time, the streets don’t appear to be the current retail centers in their cities. They are, however, a center of activity for both their own residents and visitors.
In other words, Lawrence’s Massachusetts Street fits right in.
Jane Pennington, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said the APA recognition reinforces the image that Lawrence wants to sell to both visitors and residents. “Coming to Massachusetts Street is like stepping back in time in a lot of ways, just the whole atmosphere is warm and inviting. It is very historic and there’s a lot of character.”
In what way is it like “stepping back in time”? Fifty or 100 years ago, Lawrence was a far different place. It played a much greater role as the city’s center of business activity. It included most of Lawrence’s major retailers, including grocery stores and car dealers. Residents of 50 or 100 years ago would be amazed at how few downtown businesses cater to the basic necessities of life.
What those people might recognize, though, are some of the positive attributes recognized by the APA and gaining attention from city officials seeking to bring new vitality to Lawrence’s downtown.
According to APA, a “great street” is one that has strong urban design or architectural features and encourages human contact and social activities. It is lined with a variety of interesting activities and “has a memorable character.”
The criteria set by the national planning group, in fact, indicate that local leaders may on the right track when they say the downtown Lawrence “experience” plays a more important role than individual businesses do when it comes to luring people downtown to live, work and play. Final Fridays, the recent Busker Fest and other downtown events feed that experience and, hopefully, benefit the downtown businesses that provide a base for those activities.
Responding to the “great street” designation, Mayor Mike Amyx said Massachusetts “really is our town square. It represents our community and what it believes.” Back in the 1980s, Lawrence believed it didn’t need a downtown mall development. Massachusetts Street today reflects that decision.
At least according to APA, it may not have been a bad choice.