The old, tattered, but magnificent and certainly historical Stanley Woolen Mills was only one element in the planning and vision discussions held throughout the day on Thursday, October 23, 2003 in Uxbridge. The Uxbridge Charette, in fact, was dedicated to envisioning a town for the future by changing some aspects, like Rte 16 with a major road alteration, to possible renovation and use types for the Stanley Mill, the Waucutuck Mills in Wheelocksville and even the fairgorunds abutting the State's Department of Environmental Management's eventual canoe/kayak access or the partnering RI-Mass Bike Path along the River.
Dodson Associates, a landscape architecture and planning firm, has been involved through the Heritage Corridor to undertake a more detailed look into the inventory of community assets, natural or historical, that are integral to a community. The broader review of critical assets was enumerated in the 1997 "Natural Resources Inventory and Assessment", a National Heritage Corridor study assessing Worcester to Providence.
Dodson Associates Sarah LaCour hosted a series of workshops throughout early 2003 to gain community insight and daily experience of each community to further elucidate how our often empty, or diminished downtowns can be transformed into a different paradigm that enriches the "sense of place" community depends on, each being unique yet facing similar challenges within the Valley.
Four charettes are being held throughout the Valley with the third held in Uxbridge after similar charettes in Blackstone, Ma. and Lincoln, RI. About 15 Uxbridge residents and leaders met at 10 a.m. to walk the downtown area, then onto Bernat Mills and then to Stanley Woolen Mills in Uxbridge to closely understand the opportunities and the challenges that might lie ahead. Further insight was gained as another group of about ten people met at 2 p.m.
The evening session started at around 7 p.m. after a few late straddlers arrived due to a simultaneous meeting looking ino the recent leak of sewerage of 4 million gallons into the Blackstone River. In the few hours between the sessions, Dodson Associates had adapted some changes into their prepared possible options. After more community input, more changes were considered.
The fourth Charette will be held in Grafton at the Fisherville Mill site in Grafton at 10 a.m. with follow-up afternoon site walk and a 7 p.m. evening discussion of possible options towards a Grafton vision.
What is The Vision for Uxbridge?
The most dramatic and unilateral assumption of the Charette seemed to be the movement of Rte 16 from its jagged right hand turn along Rte 16 in front of the former Uxbridge Inn which then changes to a quick left over the bridge crossing the Mumford River across from the multi-use Bernat Mills. This smoothing out into a straightaway would pass through the location of the present Koopman Lumber building and block off the present Rte 16, separating the old Uxbridge Inn, (now being renovated into a Bank), from the Town Common. Unifying the Common would give more sense of place, according to those who have fully explored this change to Rte. 16.
In addition, substantial parking for walking along downtown would be available to the west of the new route. This alteration of Rte 16 came out of extensive study by the Central Mass Regional Planning Commission which has documented the increased use of all roads leading west to east when historically, travel had been predominantly north to south. East to west, or vice versa, routes are limited and are a major concern for transportation experts, according to the CMRPC study. Far more commuters are traveling towards Rte 495, or eastern sites for work as more commuters are moving to the Valley to find more affordable housing and land.
Some locals, of course, object to changing the road configuration and no dates were formally established, due in part to budget concerns Statewide. Town Planner Floyd Forman also raised concern about limiting downtown parking spread throughout South Main Street. He stated that not all people want to park and walk, even though the sites are fairly close in proximity.
The conversation then moved to various other areas in Uxbridge after reviewing the numerous assets that have played a strong part in Uxbridge's history. The Capron Park, the privately owned floodplains down from the Stanley Mills, the historic, but wooden and thus more costly to renovate Stanley Woolen Mills, the Waucatuck mills in Wheelocksville, the Bernat mills currently in full use with shops, art studios and the downtown area along with the Bike Trail along th River. A suggestion was made to bring the Bike Trail through the downtown, but objections as to safety for family use was immediately a concern.
Dodson Associates mentioned the fact that infill or buildings constructed on the Main Street where parking now exists would create a stronger identity for downtown. Memories of downtown in 1955 will never be re-established, Peter Flinker stated, but there are remedies to liven them up and produce more economic impacts and sense of community. Flinker also stated that adding trees would enhance the downtown tremendously.
A short walk away is the historic John Cornet Farnum house surrounded by Capron Park along the Mumford River and an empty lot which would be a tremendous location for a great restaurant, Flinker exclaimed. This site is also across from Prospect Hill Cemetery, going back to the 1700s. A short walk from there is the Stanley Woolen Mill, a huge series of structures, with paint peeling throughout. In one building, an antiques shop, the Eagle Eye is located on two floors which is structurally sound. The owner, a Canadian, has not kept up with taxes, apparently owing around $400,000 and the possible redevelopment agent, Nick Deane of Boston, has explored possible use but profitability is negligible, if at all at this time, although plans have been developed for partial renovation in stages.
John Mullin, who also added his broad experience as a professor in planning at UMass Amherst and has followed the Blackstone Valley for decades, including a recent speech for the Chamber on economic impacts and future planning in the Valley, added that it was important for the community to assess the potential, and if not profitable at present, secure the buildings after getting a 21E assessment. This brownfields assessment would allow the owner, the Town and any future use potential to be predicated on an established baseline for evaluation. Mullin also stated that this was an important element in Uxbridge's history, though he stated that it is not always possibly to save these important structures unless a broader search is made for interested parties and agencies. He suggested getting Mass Historical and the Antiquities Association involved and working with the developer in partnership. Liability, of course, appeared to be a problem and Selectman Julie Woods mentioned that something must be done, even if it meant tearing the buildings down. Mullin, however, reaffirmed the need to do our homework to make an informed decision, especially when the significant history is a strong part of the community, as this Stanley Woolen Mills certainly is.
Down the street a bit further is an access location, owned by DEM, that is being developed as a kayak/canoe access point. When Dodson's Peter Flinker mentioned possibly creating a building nearby this, the reaction was quite strong that not only was this natural setting important to retain, but that this was traditionally a floodplain area that flooded quite often. Flinker stated that this was a vision only and could be easily changed, based on community experience and insight. Perhaps an overhand structure would dually create a focus point while creating an extension of the kayak/canoe access point, Flinker then stated. Most of the 25 or so in attendance seemed to reject any building at this site, however.
Moving down to the Wheelocksville section of Uxbridge are the less aesthetic Waucatuck Mills. However, the site has some good opportunity, according to Flinker. He stated that the more attractive buildings were at the core along the River. These could be renovated for housing, offices and mixed use while some of the less attractive, wing buildings could be torn down. An architect, who had looked into the finances of several options, stated that it was also unknown what remediation would be needed on these sites, if any. More thorough assessments are needed before any of these challenges could once again become assets in the community. Mapping created by Dodson Associates indicated all of these small subsections of town which allowed those in attendance to more fully realize the possibilities. This meeting was also filmed for cable television in Uxbridge.
This overview of possibilities offered a glimpse into the possible future of Uxbridge with a downtown offering a sense of community, a walking area and the Bike Path along the River which heads to River Bend Farm in northern Uxbridge. Possible reuse of some of the historic structures and the potential for new infill that would contain the community rather than add to sprawl are critical elements that came out of this Charette. Several Heritage Corridor members were in attendance and have been following and supporting these Charettes to more fully assemble leaders to more fully investigate and envision the Valley communities in the future.