About Boston Main Streets

History of Boston Main Streets

In 1983, then Boston City Councilor Thomas M. Menino brought the Main Street program to Boston's Roslindale neighborhood. At the time, Roslindale suffered from disinvestment and a deteriorated building stock. Using the National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street model, Roslindale merchants, owners, city officials and residents built an organization and workplan to reverse their prospects.

By its third year, the volunteer-driven organization saw amazing results: 73 facade changes, 43 commercial building renovations, 29 business gains and 132 net new jobs, totaling in an investment of more than $5 million.

In 1995, newly elected Mayor Thomas Menino challenged the National Trust for Historic Preservation to expand its National Main Street model to Boston. The result was Boston Main Streets, the first urban, multi-district Main Street program in the United States. Boston Main Streets now brings the technical knowledge of business district revitalization to nineteen Boston business districts.

This is the first intensive urban use of this highly successful model for commercial district revitalization in the nation. Ten neighborhood commercial districts were designated as Boston Main Street programs in 1995 following a city-wide competition. Four districts were selected in 1997, four more in 1999, and two more in 2001. Roslindale Village continues as a mature program today.

Each district receives financial and technical assistance and intensive training in the Main Street approach from the City of Boston Main Streets office and the National Trust Main Street Center.  In turn, each Main Street organization hires a full time Executive Director, raises matching funds, incorporates its organization and implements its programs according to an annual work plan.

Boston Main Streets districts follow a four-point comprehensive approach that creates and sustains the district's image: 1) community organization, 2) promotion, 3) design and 4) economic restructuring. Specific Main Street activities and operations include storefront improvement grants, public enhancements, local promotional and fund-raising events such as road races, parades, auctions, multi-cultural festivals and holiday shopping events that strategically aim to enhance the image of the business district and attract consumers. Using the Main Street four-point approach, district staff and volunteers draw upon the skills and experience of the local stakeholders to revitalize the district.

Program Funding

The City of Boston commits a significant portion of its federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to the Boston Main Streets program, Neighborhood Development Funding (NDF) is used for the districts that are not eligible for CDBG.  In addition, the City of Boston commits six full time staff to assist the local districts in many aspects of their programs. Local districts also have access to city architects, design staff, transportation planners and technical assistance specialists.

The funding is provided in four basic categories:

  1. Executive Director Salary

  2. Physical Improvements through Restore Boston

  3. Technical Assistance and

  4. Promotion

In addition, Boston Main Streets provides local districts with design assistance from local architecture firms in the form of Design Hours. The contracts with the architecture firms are administered by the Office of Business Development Design Services Unit.

Boston Main Streets also provides workshops and trainings.

Boston Main Street Statistics

The Main Street districts continue to mature and develop into solid volunteer based organizations with realistic strategies and action-oriented programs. Quantitatively, the results are impressive. The following statistics have been compiled by monthly district reports from 1995 to December 2012:

2012Since 1995
Number of New Businesses1301,125
Number of New Jobs7296,774
Volunteer Hours Invested27,000297,062
Volunteer Hours in Dollars$770,120$4,207,422
Businesses Completing Storefront Improvement Projects74877
Businesses Receiving Design Assistance22957
Storefront Occupancy Rate % in Main Street Districts95% averageN/A
Main Street Events393N/A

Qualitatively, the overall goal of the Boston Main Streets program is to improve the quality of life in Boston's neighborhoods. The vitality of a neighborhood's business district is critical to the health of the neighborhood as a whole and for that reason all sectors of the community are involved with each Main Street organization. Stakeholders include residents who typically represent the consumer to business and property owners, public and private institutions, community development corporations and merchant associations.

Lessons Learned

For Boston, the need to strengthen the commercial and community center of each neighborhood supports several economic development goals: jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for Boston residents; commercial districts that are the social heart of the community; unique neighborhood commercial districts that attract prospective investment; and to an understanding that the commercial core of each neighborhood is vital to the residential community and vice-versa.

The City of Boston, through a community-based, public-private partnership, has established Boston Main Streets, a successful model for urban commercial district revitalization that strengthens local business districts through strong organizational development, community participation, resident and merchant education and sustainable development.

The Boston Main Streets' innovative approach to neighborhood business development brings significant resources to the community. The complex urban issues faced by Boston's historic commercial districts are examined through a holistic framework that realizes that many of the neighborhood problems are linked. It is this comprehensive approach that has brought the action-oriented projects to completion.

The volunteers who have brought more than 222,064 hours of time to their communities are a strong indicator of community interest, enthusiasm and investment of stakeholders working to better their communities. Main Streets events and promotions have fostered community pride and spirit. Façade improvements offer physical proof that the community is prospering. Merchants are using current market information provided through this project to improve merchandising and retail sales.

Boston Main Streets has learned from experience that government can not do everything and that each community must take leadership in shaping the character of their neighborhood. Our nineteen districts participate in this grassroots program to improve their physical appearance, economic structure, and overall quality of life. Our districts pride themselves on the development of their individual identities. The diversity of Boston's neighborhoods is reflected in each of the districts. At the same time a city-wide perspective is maintained through unified support for each other's programs and events and the exchange of knowledge and information across the city's neighborhoods.

The obstacles that face Boston's urban commercial districts are not unique. The Boston Main Streets framework teaches communities how to begin a successful revitalization process. We believe the foundations are set for Boston Main Street Districts to serve as a model and to share their challenges and accomplishments with other urban commercial districts.