I am prompted to write this column by a controversial new building in Swampscott’s old downtown. People love it or hate it — but I’ll get to that.
In Swampscott, as in so many old communities, the traditional town center has been buffeted and somewhat hollowed-out by the decades-long competition with shopping malls and other retail nodes.
Before World War II and through the 1950s, the unequivocal and uncontested “downtown” of Swampscott was located alongside the ocean along the stretch of Humphrey Street from the fish house and harbor to the Hawthorne-By-The-Sea restaurant and the obelisk monument on the town green.
Without the pressure from the many stores that are now located in Vinnin Square (a mile from downtown) and the region’s malls, Humphrey Street possessed enough businesses, offices and residences to form a critical mass of synergistic mixed uses that together formed an economically viable and visually imageable town center.
In such a downtown — just as in a mall — no single building and its architecture, and no one shop and its economic activity, explains the success of the whole. Rather — both visually and financially — a healthy, attractive town center is a commercial and architectural ensemble. Each structure and each business, while possessing individual merit, is a player in a symphony that creates both a memorable sense of place and a functioning business district.
In a thriving, welcoming downtown, the quality and design of the buildings are important, and the mix and quantity of businesses are important. Critically — and suburban downtowns often undershoot this target — creating a distinctive, exciting, vibrant downtown demands an intensity and a density that are significantly greater than the surrounding precincts.
Critically, it is density, stimulation, opportunity, business, visual interest, physical placeness and other people that draw us into town centers.