Downtown shopping districts face challenges in 2021

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Across Massachusetts, many downtown districts are bleak as more stores close up shop.

This troubling trend is causing a drag on local economies and leaving people to wonder about the future of Main Street.

In Brookline’s Coolidge Corner neighborhood, a new art gallery just opened. “There are so many challenges,” said Yng-Ru Chen, the owner of Praise Shadows. “I certainly never thought I would open a business like this in a pandemic.”

Chen says she received a lot of positive reinforcement even before she opened her doors. “When we were announcing that we are opening, the number of people who came by and said thank goodness you’re not another bank, not another cell phone company.”

The storefront vacancy rate in Brookline is now 11.9% which is 2% higher than it was last year. It reached 7.1% in 2009 during the Great Recession,

Chen feels lucky she found a landlord who believes in improving the area’s quality of life.

Stephen DiMarco didn’t want to do an interview but previously told the Boston Globe, “The world is changing, Mom and Pops are going away... I want to bring different people in. We’ve got so many banks. It doesn’t bring people in to shop here.”

“He gave one of my neighbors the lease over an ATM. He just said why would I want an ATM here? This has no soul,” added Chen.

Finding a philanthropic landlord is a bonus for a small business, but it’s going to take more than that to bring back Main Street.

“They face a lot of challenges,” said Ali Carter, the Economic Development Coordinator in Arlington where a marketing campaign encourages shoppers to buy local.

“There really is a direct relationship between how you spend your money and what your neighborhood business district looks like,’ explained Carter.

Town planners now have a sense of what works well in a pandemic, according to Carter. “We’re all working to find ways to do more things outside and make those changes actually a little more permanent, you know, outdoor dining and repurposing parking spaces and giving people more freedom to just do things outside. Also, fitness activities in parks and open spaces.”

Zoning laws can present a hurdle, particularly when it comes to trying to favor one kind of business over another. “It’s difficult to make those changes even though they’re actually to get things that people say they want. Just the perception of change can be scary,” explained Carter.

In recent years the push has been to create more walkable communities, to improve both public health and the environment.

Stacey Beutell of Walk Boston is worried about losing momentum. “We know that lively, walkable communities that have destinations, and places for people to go, promote volunteerism, it promotes community engagement, and really a sense of belonging.”

That’s exactly what Chen hopes “Praise Shadows” can do for Brookline. “Coming across this on your walk to work, or to the T, or getting your coffee is kind of a really pleasant surprise for people.”

The gallery is open for people to browse for free. They also offer affordable items like books and handmade gifts.