Down town

Following one failed comeback scheme after another, Malden may finally get smart

smart-growth policies are often associated with leafy suburbs in commuter rail territory (see Town Meeting Monitor). So it’s easy to forget that there are older cities in Massachusetts that already have all the right elements—high density, mixed-use zoning, extensive public transit—and have still fallen short of the urban village ideal.

The city of Malden, where I grew up, is a particularly frustrating example. Its once-vibrant downtown has few pedestrians, and there are as many empty storefronts as viable businesses. This lack of activity has continued despite the area’s advantages: Malden has recently added a significant number of housing units, it’s on a subway line, it has a poverty rate slightly below the state average, and the crime rate is no worse than in thriving parts of Boston or Cambridge. But the city of 56,000 just hasn’t been fertile ground for the principles of smart growth—or New Urbanism, to use the older term. (It may also be the more accurate term, given that many cities in need of smart planning have already reached their population limits.)

Many Malden residents are unhappy with this situation, and about 300 of them were at City Hall on a Wednesday night in June, attending a “Visioning Workshop” facilitated by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The turnout “elated” City Councilor Gary Christenson, who said he expected to find 30 or 40 participants, given how few people attend regular government meetings.

I attended one of nine smaller discussion groups at the Visioning Workshop and was impressed by the enthusiasm of participants, if not totally sold on their chances of achieving consensus. A poll of the two dozen or so members of my group revealed that the two most popular goals were revitalizing downtown and limiting development, but the first may be incompatible with the second.

Still, things are happening. Strolling through downtown after the workshop, I came across several places buzzing with activity—a new pan-Asian restaurant, a martini bar, a couple of Italian eateries, two Irish pubs. Unfortunately, no two were next to each other, and there were no way stations—no cafés or convenience stores—to help glue the area together. The upscale Asian restaurant, for example, was between a discount store that closes early in the evening and a space formerly occupied by a lingerie store. (The sign in the window informed customers that Lady Grace had moved to a site in Woburn with “plenty of free parking” and “easy access” from major highways.)

The city touts its accessibility via public transit, but visitors who take the Orange Line to Malden Center can look toward downtown and see nothing but parking garages and the plain brick cube that serves as City Hall, though the city is promising to put up signs that indicate life beyond these forbidding structures.

If you turn south from the T stop, you’re within walking distance of two supermarkets, but don’t expect any window shopping along the way, since you must walk past more parking areas and such anti-pedestrian businesses as a muffler shop and a liquor mart. The Super Stop & Shop has been here for years, but the Super 88, farther down on Commercial Street, just opened this February, extending a chain of Asian supermarkets that had been highly successful in Chinatown, Dorchester, and Quincy. Many of the staff did not seem to understand English, reported a longtime resident (my mother), but eggs were cheap, and the fish selection was mind-boggling. I haven’t seen the fish yet, but I am bemused by the changes that have taken place in a city where I remember “Chinese food” as something you got in Polynesian restaurants—and where there were twice as many supermarkets as there are now, but none of them carried anything you couldn’t get at the A&P.

Malden’s fortress of a City Hall,
a business strip enlivened by a new Asian
Restaurant, and the looming towers of 160
Pleasant Street.

Disembarking Orange Line passengers can also walk north on Summer Street, past a family-style restaurant in a converted train depot. The next block features mixed-use zoning, with apartments above first-floor storefronts, but none of the businesses attract many pedestrians (certainly not the gutted remains of a typewriter-repair shop), and the neighborhood convenience store turns out the lights at 9 p.m. A couple of years ago, I was elated to see a café with an art gallery open on this block, but it didn’t last very long. “I was making money but not enough to hire somebody to help me,” the café’s former owner, Sylvie Moretto, e-mailed me from her new home in Paris, “and doing it all by myself was just too much. Besides, the Dunkin’ Donuts was just a few blocks away [right next to the T stop]; it didn’t help.” After the café closed, it became an office for a home-mortgage company.


Perhaps the lack of a “brand” has hampered commercial development in Malden. The city seems to be an enigma to most people I talk to, even though it has almost twice as many people as (admittedly more cinematic) South Boston. When the Boston Globe named Kevin Cullen as a columnist for its Metro section in June, editor Martin Baron pronounced Cullen “Boston to the core,” even though the writer grew up in Malden and graduated from Malden High.

You probably have been in Malden, even if you don’t realize it. Its most heavily traveled road is a stray-hair section of Route 1, between Saugus and Revere, that’s too short to have any exit ramps. If Boston is “All That Jazz,” Malden is “Mr. Cellophane.”(“You can drive right through me/And never know I’m there.”)

Or you might have a dim knowledge of it as one of those “M” cities to the north of Boston, along with Medford (Malden’s opponents in a 101-year-old high-school football rivalry) and Melrose. Its name brings to mind such words as middling, mediocre, and run-of-the-mill—unlike those wonderfully wealthy “W” towns of Wellesley, Weston, and Westwood. (“There’s just a lack of grace and beauty in this town,” said an older woman at the Visioning Workshop.)

It doesn’t have the glitziness of Boston or the teetering-on-disaster problems of Springfield and Lawrence. The city rarely appears in newspaper datelines unless there’s a press release from the state Department of Education, whose headquarters are in a nondescript office building downtown. Malden was the site of one of the biggest Boston-area stories of the 1980s: the accusations (and the still-controversial convictions) of child abuse involving the Amirault family and the Fells Acres day-care center, which was about six blocks from my family’s house. But I don’t remember and can’t find any stories speculating on why it happened in Malden, perhaps because it was too hard to plug the city—not entirely urban but not quite suburban, no longer working-class but not really white-collar —into any cultural stereotypes.

The city is neither glitzy nor teetering on disaster. The city brings to mind Gertrude Stein’s famous quip about Oakland, Calif.: “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.” In Massachusetts, that means it has no college, no hospital (Malden Hospital closed in 2001), and few entries in the Zagat’s restaurant guide.

Cities like Malden are especially prevalent in Massachusetts, thanks to Boston’s failure to annex much of the territory to the north and west of its downtown. In 2005, the Hub accounted for only 13 percent of the population in its own metropolitan area; the comparable numbers were 43 percent for New York, 30 percent for Chicago, and 25 percent for Philadelphia. There are 13 communities in the Bay State with a population of between 30,000 and 100,000 and a density of more than 5,000 people per square mile; only California and New Jersey have more. Besides Malden, they include: Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence, Lynn, Medford, Quincy, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown. Malden is at the high end of this category, with 11,103 residents per square mile. It has an area of 5.12 square miles, or half a Wellesley, and 61 percent of its land has housing on it. (The comparable figure for Boston is 41 percent.)

In France, a place like Malden might be considered part of the banlieue, or the crowded outskirts of a major city. Paris’s banlieue received worldwide attention two years ago, thanks to several nights of rioting by people who will probably never be able to afford living in the “inner city.” That frustration, if not the violence, is becoming familiar to people priced out of Boston. None of Boston’s older suburbs is as badly off as Newark and Passaic, both in northern New Jersey, where per-capita income is less than half of the citywide average in New York. But Chelsea, Lynn, and Revere are already poorer than the Hub, and incomes in Everett, Malden, and Quincy did not grow as fast during the 1990s as they did in Boston itself. The pawnshop and half-dozen “dollar” stores in downtown Malden, only a few blocks away but completely out of sight to shoppers at the more respectable chain stores along Route 60, also suggests a kind of economic segregation.


Malden’s population peaked at 59,804 in 1950 (when it was almost entirely white), gradually declined to 53,386 by 1980, and is now estimated at 55,871 (with a white population of 70 percent). For decades its most famous export was Converse footwear. Converse was founded here in 1908, and until the 1970s, it had a near-monopoly on basketball sneakers.

Converse’s demise was at the hands of newer sneaker manufacturers such as Reebok and Nike, which bought the company in 2003. And the overall decline in manufacturing jobs in Malden (down to 8 percent of the city’s total employment in 2005) coincided with the deterioration of a once-thriving downtown and the rise of shopping malls in nearby Medford and Saugus. Before then, Jordan Marsh was the district’s anchor store, where I’d rifle through LPs on the top floor while my mother inspected linens in the basement, but there was also a movie theater (the Granada), a Brigham’s ice cream parlor, and the family-owned Dandy Donuts (instead of the two Dunkin’s there now).

There has been one reason after another to hope that the downtown would come back. When the Orange Line was extended to Malden in 1975, city leaders hoped that shoppers would come from elsewhere. Instead, the subway seemed to make it easier for Maldonians to get to the bigger Jordan Marsh in Boston (and for me to get to the more interesting movie theaters in Harvard Square). At about the same time, Malden built a new City Hall literally in the middle of Pleasant Street, blocking traffic from the West End of the city and ensuring that people disembarking from the Orange Line could not see that there was a shopping district a few yards away. The idea was to create a pedestrian area similar to that in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, but it didn’t help that City Hall was nothing but a brick-and-glass cube with a windswept plaza—a more mundane version of Boston’s “Brutalist”-style seat of government.

As walkers and subway riders proved elusive, the city turned back to the auto, approving the construction of two huge parking garages downtown and a bypass road that made it possible for residents to go for years without seeing Pleasant Street. Indeed, Route 60’s lower elevation makes the apartment towers and the largely vacant two- or three-story retail buildings seem rather menacing to strip-mall shoppers, like a cut-rate Gotham City. A florist and an ice cream shop—two independent businesses that would seem a natural fit for a downtown district—are instead hunkered down in a little building in the middle of a Route 60 parking lot that was built in 1994, not even allowed to touch the Walgreen’s and the Blockbuster videostore behind them.

After Route 60 made downtown even more irrelevant, the city looked elsewhere for economic growth. In 1995, Malden joined Everett and Medford as the host communities for TeleCom City, a 200-acre site on the Malden River that’s little more than a mile south of downtown. But in 2004, after nine frustrating years of trying to lure high-tech industry to the area, a multi-city commission changed the name of the development to River’s Edge and announced that it would consider other options for the land—including more housing. As it turns out, being within a couple of miles of Boston and Cambridge doesn’t necessarily mean you can be a big player in the New Economy.


Malden’s latest strategy seems to be an embrace of the people who are moving here anyway: students, single adults just out of school, and mostly Asian immigrants, all priced out of Boston. Many of these people may not even realize that Malden is a separate city from the Hub, and they may wonder why Mayor Menino doesn’t extend his Main Streets program out here. (Suburbs such as Malden resisted becoming part of Boston because they wanted no part of the big city’s problems, but they also don’t get the benefits of large-scale revitalization programs.)

These newer residents are largely responsible for the scattered signs of life downtown. There are Vietnamese, Indian, and Haitian restaurants among the dollar stores, as well as the Irish pubs and Italian restaurants that recall Malden Square’s heyday in the previous century. More diversity is probably on the way: The demographics of Malden, the state’s 18th largest and fifth most densely populated community, are changing at least as rapidly as in Boston—or in relatively well-known cities such as Worcester, Lowell, and New Bedford. From 1990 to 2000, Boston’s Hispanic and non-white population rose by 26 percent; in Malden, it went up by 163 percent. At the same time, Boston’s foreign-born population increased by 32 percent; in Malden, it was up by 98 percent. Indeed, I hear more non-English-speakers on the Orange Line platform at Malden Center than at Boston’s Downtown Crossing station. In my subgroup at the Visioning Workshop, “diversity” was voted the biggest strength in Malden—but several participants cited what they diplomatically called the “transient population” as one of the city’s biggest challenges.

In accordance with the smart-growth principle that the best new housing is near public transit and already-existing housing, Malden has also been getting even more crowded. The city approved 892 permits for new housing units between 1997 and 2006 (more than two-thirds of them in multifamily buildings). Compare that with two communities of roughly the same population: Over the same period, the more affluent “streetcar suburb” of Brookline approved 342 units, and the western Massachusetts city of Chicopee—with cheaper home prices but far from Boston’s economic sphere—approved 560.

But several participants in the Visioning Workshop said that there are already enough residents to support a revitalized downtown.

“There’s a way to do it [revitalization] without piling on more,” agrees Christenson, the city councilor, adding that developments such as 160 Pleasant Street—an 11-story, 204-unit luxury apartment building primarily responsible for the rather spooky look of the downtown skyline—have sparked something of a backlash against more high-density housing.

Malden may be developing a healthy skepticism of quick fixes, but there is another Big Idea to try, and it happens to be something that Boston is also considering: Tear down City Hall. Mayor Richard Howard reiterated his support for knocking down the building in his “State of the City” address in February, a move that could reconnect the two halves of Pleasant Street and allow subway riders to see downtown Malden from the Orange Line platform. Rather than build a new structure, Howard supports a move of City Hall operations to the “Art Deco wing” of the underused Malden High School on Salem Street, across from the H.H. Richardson–designed public library.

More modestly, Christenson says that angled parking on Pleasant Street, which could replace parallel spots as early as this fall, would encourage quick visits to the business district.

“It makes all the difference,” he says of easier parking. “You don’t fear going downtown.”

There’s also hope that, with more people actually living downtown, Malden will reach a tipping point, with too many potential café and boutique customers for entrepreneurs to ignore. The 60-unit Central Place Apartments opened across from the T stop in 2005, and tenants have just begun moving into 160 Pleasant Street (with one-bedrooms starting at $1580 a month). Of course, that complex does include parking, and its Web site touts its location “near major highways,” but the city can hope that some of the new residents get around to exploring their immediate surroundings.

There’s already some evidence of that. The startlingly chic All Seasons Restaurant, which features a sushi bar and live jazz, seems to have established a steady clientele since opening in May. At the nearby Exchange Street Bistro, one patron told me that the 120-seat restaurant is “more South End than Malden,” and it seems to be doing a good business in drinks with South End prices; all of the seats at the bar were occupied during both of my visits there. It has a modern, attractive exterior, even if the location is a bit more cautious—not among the ghosts of Pleasant Street but on a lower-level block facing the parking lots and strip malls.

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“You saw how Davis Square changed,” says Bistro owner John Carlino, who formerly worked at 29 Newbury St. in Boston’s Back Bay. “We need three or four more restaurants to become a destination place.”

Perhaps this historically working-class city may finally experience a rebirth—and prove that smart development isn’t just for towns with new growth. How will we know that Malden has finally arrived? Carlino has one suggestion that’s not terribly original but has worked in plenty of other places: “If only we can get a Starbucks…”