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A Writer’s Observation: Is Downtown Holliston Becoming a Ghost Town?

To the casual observer, the quantity of For Sale and For Lease signs displayed downtown is obvious. Could it be the town’s high rental fees and/or high tax rates keep companies from doing business downtown?

747 Washington Street, presently home to Kamala Boutique, is currently for sale. A real estate advertisement offered the property for $1,600,000. The ad suggested the property would make a good home for a CVS, Walgreens, or Dunkin Donuts.

A recent Patch article ranking Massachusetts’ towns’ tax rates from low to high listed Holliston’s tax rate as 290th out of 351 cities and towns. Other area towns were ranked as follows: Sherborn 305th, Millis 289th, Hopedale 254th, Milford 212th, Medway 226th, Hopkinton 237th, and Ashland at 197th. (For the entire state list click here: https://patch.com/massachusetts/boston/ma-residential-property-tax-rates-each-community.)

The former home of TD Bank at 746 Washington St. is looking for a new tenant. In previous years, the building was home to the town’s First Baptist Church and later the Colonial Pharmacy.

At one time, Yankee Magazine noted that Holliston had one of the most beautiful main streets and downtown areas–comparable only to Newburyport. Newcomers often cite Holliston’s quaint New England village-like downtown as one of the reasons they moved here.

Formerly the home of a bank and more recently an accountant, 760 Washington Street has been vacant for a number of years.

Holliston’s image is not far removed from 1890’s photos with a few subtle changes over the past century. Perhaps the lack of significant change is due to the lack of municipal sewage, although the town had envisioned completing such a system not so many years ago.

The lack of sewage treatment on small lots limits expansion/tear down/rebuilding possibilities. Additionally impactful, newer regulations such as Title 5 dictates septic disposal.

Foreclosed by the town for non-payment of taxes ($143,615 according to Tax Collector Mary Bousquet), 9 Green Street, was a bowling alley during the Depression and later home to clock hand producing Ty-Car Mfg.  The 9 Green Street Committee is now weighing options for the future of the property.

Local officials have various opinions about downtown issues. Select Board member Tina Hein said there has been an increase in the number of trucks through downtown streets. She hopes town boards and committees can create a united effort to solve downtown problems.

Space is available on Water Street at the former Goodwill Shoe building, later known as Water Street Mill.

Assessor Mary Greendale told the Reporter she believes empty storefronts are a cyclical issue. “To create a viable retail climate, merchants must provide services and products not found elsewhere,” Greendale explained. “More people are shopping online.”

Several storefronts languish at Hollis Plaza on Central Street following the building’s revitalization and second story addition several years ago.

Select Board Chair Mark Ahronian said that while the town has done a good job preserving open space, more expensive available and buildable land results. Ahronian believes some downtown landlords take advantage of the times, and charge exorbitant rents for downtown locations. “Its just too much.”

D & M Auto Parts at 15 Winthrop Street now stands vacant.  A handwritten note on the front door announces the company’s move to Medway. (Are Holliston vehicles no longer breaking down?)

Select Board member John Cronin said, “We have a group working to resolve the eyesore at 9 Green Street.  We just signed a contract with a firm to perform environmental work to allow us to take the next steps to redevelop the property:  these could include razing the building and providing new and convenient downtown parking for folks to easily navigate the park, playground, Fiskes, Superette, the Library and other downtown locations.” Cronin also mentioned the new parking spaces that will be created behind Casey’s on Railroad Street.

Space is available at 75 Exchange Street, former home to Berkshire Shoe.

Additionally, the Town will redevelop the stretch of land behind Casey’s this year due to a state grant received to improve the space and parking. And we expect to hear from the Blair Square Committee on the redevelopment of Blair Square.

The former Gulf Station, 799 Washington Street, most recently served as a repair and auto inspection shop but has been vacant for the past several years. The Reporter has learned of plans to revitalize the station.

The Gulf station vacancy continues to be a challenge. Its owner (as well as the owner of the space next to Cumberland Farms across from Bertucci’s) appears content to leave vacant property unchanged.  Of note, some members of the Economic Development Committee (EDC) have contacted both owners.   

Peter Barbieri, in one of his many roles in serving the town as an assessor, member of the Blair Square Study Group, and Chairman of the EDC (Economic Development Committee), sees no rationale explaining empty storefronts downtown. Barbieri underscored the rail trail location and its [previously mentioned] parking space creation behind Casey’s and at 9 Green Street as way to help business owners attract customers.

What are your thoughts about downtown issues? 

Bobby Blair

16 Comments

  1. Ed Daniels on February 11, 2020 at 8:19 am

    I’m “all-in” supportive on Holliston and it’s Holliston customers! I’m buying the Winthrop St building with the front row seat to the NEW Blair Square… thinking about what we can put in over there…

    • Kathy Keogh on February 11, 2020 at 9:47 am

      Ed that’s fantastic! The location is ideal with the rail trail right there and schools right down the street. So many possibilities.

      Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a new children’s library, a tennis/swim club, a space for an art program! I’ve been thinking about this as I see all of these for sale and lease signs.
      Great article.

  2. Bill Wintringham on February 11, 2020 at 8:34 am

    Why not lease/buy one of the adjacent buildings to the library for a children’s center?

    Also some sort of local sewer system to allow more restaurants downtown? Just look how Hudson has revitalized its downtown.

  3. Andy Rodenhiser on February 11, 2020 at 11:08 am

    I love Holliston’s downtown.
    The lights and loss of parking represent a significant blunder that bears mention.
    I don’t feel any safer on foot or in a vehicle.
    Certainly our companies vehicles contribute to traffic but our people transact and live in the Comunity as well as provide service to the community.

  4. Kate Lamontagne on February 11, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    I learned on January 1 that the building housing my store is for sale. I was told that if it was someone who wants to be a landlord, my lease will transfer. Clearly, however, the listing is trying to entice a developer with the five acre parcel attached to the Fiske House. If that is the case, I was told the lease would be bought out. I have my good days and hard days when I think about Kamala Boutique forced into homelessness. If this had all happened two years ago, I would have been ALL OVER the TD Bank building! I have wished for that place since I was a little girl, with many creative thoughts apparently. 🙂 But now I am locked into a lease, precarious as it is.
    It is mystery as to the high vacancy rate. I do agree however, high rents and aging buildings can be quite challenging to business owners. We often have to ‘make do’ while the rents increase each year. The question is, can the small businesses who are here, survive and wait it out while we wait for the upward shift? Sad downtown vibes make people want to go elsewhere, which adds to the ghost town chills.

  5. Warren Chamberlain on February 11, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    High rent fees and low tax assessments on the commercial parcels . If these parcels of land (value) are under-assessed, the owners can afford to hold the property underutilized and vacant of tenants because the market value of that land parcel keeps on appreciating each year faster than the tax bill. Eventually the present tenants will get fatigued and more spaces will be vacated and then the owner of the land can cash in

  6. Jeanne Murphy on February 11, 2020 at 1:56 pm

    It sickens me to think that 747 Washington is now in danger of being torn down for something like a Dunkin Donuts. These historic buildings, literally the centerpiece of our beautiful downtown, should be protected, in my opinion.

  7. Janine Gerade on February 11, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    As a downtown business owner (Janines Jewelry) I am observing all of this. People don’t know that 841 Washington Street has a few parking spaces behind it that I share with tenants and Holliston Eye Doctors.
    Unfortunately my foot traffic has slowed as the downtown light traffic pics up. I wish people would do a Holliston Boutique Crawl, I know there have been some events that are like that and they are fun!
    We really need to be mindful of where we shop. As I have said before, buying something at a local shop not only gives back to the community but it could pay for a teen’s college tuition, medical bills, groceries etc.

  8. Erica S Plunkett on February 12, 2020 at 9:22 am

    I am dismayed about the Gulf station building. It’s a disgrace. Why isn’t the town allowed to take it by eminent domain again?

  9. Frank Villa on February 12, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    Non-synchronized lights and lack of parking make downtown Holliston a place to avoid. It’s a shame for the merchants. Some truly great stores and owners must be feeling the pinch. I’m certainly spending less time and $$ there.

  10. Toni Clark on February 13, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    As a resident of Holliston since 1979, I have learned to just take the changes in this town and go on with my life. I cannot change the economic forces and greed of people. I’m just happy that I can still live here and can remember better times.

  11. Kate Lamontagne on February 13, 2020 at 3:17 pm

    Comments about avoiding downtown, and spending less money leads to closures. And then everyone will be sad as you say, “oh too bad, I wonder what happened? I thought they were doing SO well.” Downtown businesses all struggle to make it to our bottom line. I am talking about new businesses and the ones that have supported this town forever and a day. We all need YOU. If navigating downtown is not worth your time, then stop complaining about all this.
    So I ask everyone, isn’t it better to invest in your town’s health by parking less than one block and walking to the center to shop? (behind the fire station) Town centers that are in everyone’s archetypal romantic description, only survive with people’s interacting. We employ your kids. Heck, we might even employ your best friend. By complaining that you have to spend all sorts of time sitting at lights, and then racing the rest of the way to Target, you are the ones who are contributing to the downturn. How about adopting a bit of slowness in your life and take the time to meander? You will meet up with really cool people and nourish your soul by stepping out of the rat race for a bit.
    And to all of the faithful, regardless of obstacles, customers to downtown, on behalf of all the merchants, THANK YOU!
    Kate Lamontagne, owner Kamala Boutique

    ps: We have our own ample parking lot for our shoppers. While it is not a public lot and never has been, we are lenient for those who truly want to shop all the merchants downtown.

  12. Paul Guidi on February 13, 2020 at 8:16 pm

    Our downtown is in real danger of having more vacant storefronts in the future. Too much road congestion, lack of parking and the new traffic controls are all factors. I believe we have a pretty good mix of different stores right now. The biggest thing the town can do at this time, to slow down and hopefully reverse the problem, is to make a public parking lot at 9 Green Street while we have the opportunity. This will breathe life into the square and Goodwill Park. Additionally, the town should explore other available parking lots in the greater downtown area. Holliston businesses will thrive only if those people who seek shopping or recreation can conveniently access them. If we fail, the square and downtown areas are going to look a lot different in a just few years.

  13. SUSAN CONROY on February 13, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    I wholeheartedly and completely echo Kate’s comments above. And we at Gracefully Restore Home (next to Kate’s Kamala) also have parking behind our store.

  14. Lee DeSorgher on February 14, 2020 at 9:07 am

    If you want to see what a successful downtown looks like, look at Medfield – and there’s three set of lights through their downtown

  15. Ted Lansdale on February 14, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    The rail trail is amazing but sadly most of us have to drive to a trail head just to access it. The trail is a few hundred feet from my house but it’s inaccessible unless I want to slide down the side of Phipps’ tunnel to get to it; otherwise I’m driving to it. I think easier access would entice folks to make DT Holliston a destination instead of something to be avoided. Easier access would allow more kids to walk and bike to school and take a few thousand round trips by car off the road each month. Imagine sidewalks leading to a rail trail. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

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