Breaking Grounds Café has joined the dining scene on Main Street. | Photo: Reba Saldanha
By Cyrus Moulton
When she started as the new director of community development and planning, Karen Sawyer Conard asked her colleagues how to make a good impression.
“They said bring back Brothers,” she recalled.
It took her seven years, but Brothers Restaurant and Deli is returning and, with it, a new era for Peabody’s downtown.
“When it left, it really marked the downturn of the downtown, so to bring Brothers back marks the renewal or rebirth, if you will,” Sawyer Conard said.
But downtown revitalization has involved much more than the return of a restaurant, and has taken years.
The first major project began in 2011 with a city- and state-matching MassWorks grant totaling $2 million. The project realigned Main Street and decreased it from two lanes to one lane in each direction from the Salem line to the TD Bank building approaching Peabody Square.
This year, the city completed a $3.85 million MassWorks grant—$1.85 million from the state, $2 million from the city—to reconfigure the square itself into a true four-way intersection rather than what Sawyer Conard called a “bit of a speedway” with ramps enhancing right-hand turns.
Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt, Jr. called the projects “a dramatic makeover.”
“Few cities and towns of any size can boast such a large commitment of public funds to infrastructure improvement,” Bettencourt said.
The square also benefited from a project that— although out of sight of the square—has made improvements to mitigate flooding in the square, which is at the convergence of several rivers.
In 2014, a 2.8-million-gallon retention pond in Scouting Woods was completed. This helps slow water draining from impervious surfaces around the Northshore Mall and areas upstream of Peabody Square into three rivers that then flow into the downtown.
Sawyer Conard said the city’s investment in the square has attracted new private interests. In February 2015, a portfolio of 14 properties in the square—12 of which have buildings—changed hands from a longtime owner.
“The MassWorks project yielded that great investment,” Sawyer Conard said. “We’re hoping that the second MassWorks project will do the same for some buildings that are in serious need of new ownership and new blood.”
One property that also saw renewed interest as a result of the first MassWorks grant was 9 Main Street, which was purchased in 2013 by a developer with experience in mixed-use developments. Bettencourt has spoken of a possible boutique hotel or restaurant at the site, but Sawyer Conard said a specific project has not yet been proposed. Nevertheless, she said the city was encouraged by the developer’s past projects.
But it’s not just new developers that are popping up in the downtown.
The city has embraced the idea of “pop-up” establishments—businesses or events that operate in a specific place for a short period of time—and one has grown roots.
The City of Peabody hosted a popup cafe last summer at 67 Main St., but its tenant decided not to continue into the fall. So Northeast Arc, a nonprofit agency that works with people of all ages with disabilities took over, officially opening Breaking Grounds Café on Oct. 18.
The café provides work opportunities for adults with disabilities through Northeast Arc’s employment services programming. Participants get to try working in a café, learn about the food services industry and what types of jobs they might enjoy, and gain some job skills and experience so they can move on to another job in the industry, said Tim Brown, director of day services for Northeast Arc.
“We’re filling the needs of the people we work with but also we’re able to help out the city in addressing one of their needs at the same time,” Brown said.
The café also complements Northeast Arc’s other activities in the downtown such as its community art center.
“One way to make our art center successful is to have a successful downtown, so we really want to be a part of that,” said Brown. “The downtown is at a turning point where we can become one of the keystones in that turning point, whereas if we were to move into another downtown area, we would just be another coffee shop.”
Meanwhile, it’s not just new, or expanding entities that are part of the revitalization of Peabody Square.
Seventeen years after it left, Brothers Deli and Restaurant has returned to its former location, opening for business Nov. 1.
To be sure, Sawyer Conard said that there are still challenges that remain and that the downtown remains a work in progress.
“It would be great to see more retail storefronts transformed into spaces that would attract new pedestrians and new shoppers to the downtown,” Sawyer Conard said.
She said perhaps the biggest challenge is overcoming a mindset that there’s nothing to do in Peabody Square. But a new Peabody Main Streets nonprofit was incorporated in September, and the city is looking to other downtowns for activities that could be brought to Peabody.
“By encouraging a smart mix of housing and commercial development in the years ahead, I believe downtown Peabody is well on its way to realizing its potential,” said Bettencourt.