Plans in motion to make Upper Common a national historic district

By Elizabeth Dobbins, edobbins@sentinelandenterprise.com

UPDATED:   08/01/2017 08:19:27 AM EDT

FITCHBURG -- The concept of creating a national historic district around the Upper Common, first kicked around in 1977, is almost historic in itself. 

However, after many starts and stops the idea may be moving toward reality, according to Mary Beth McKenzie, who is the Assistant Vice President for Finance and Administration at Fitchburg State University and one of the partner's pushing the creation of the area. 

"We have a draft district that has been developed," she said. 

McKenzie and Nicole Benjamin-Ma, a preservation planner for the Watertown-based VHB, a professional planning and engineering firm, presented the plan for a district stretching along Main Street from Grove Street to Park Street to the Fitchburg Historical Commission and Historical Society last week. 

The area, according to Benjamin-Ma, has been a center of civic activity since the second meeting house, which is now De Bonis & Davin Florist, was built in the area in the late 1700s. 

"It was really the second civic center that developed in Fitchburg and the one that lasted," she said. 

The area boomed in the 19th century with the construction of churches, civic buildings and the city hall, eventually seeing the construction of commercial buildings and theaters. 

"Even though the uses have changed ... the significance of this area as a center of civic activity in so much of Fitchburg is still there," she said.

Benjamin-Ma and her co-workers at VHB are developing an application to make the area a National Register District, during a planning process mostly covered by a $50,000 Working Cities Challenge Technical Support grant from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, according to McKenzie. 

The effort is being led by ReImagine North of Main, the Montachusett Opportunity Council, Fitchburg State University and the city, she said. 

McKenzie said national and state historic districts are less restrictive than local historic districts, which can require special hearings for property owners interested in making changes. 

A National Historic District designation would make buildings in the area eligible for some federal grants and tax credits, something that McKenzie hopes could aid in the development of old city hall or the Theater Block that was recently purchased by the university. 

Applying for and earning a designation can take several years and Benjamin-Ma said VHB plans to complete the first draft of the application by the early fall. 

At the other end of Main Street, the Moran Square historic district is still in the approval process. The application has been sent to the state review board where it must be approved before moving on to the federal level, Benjamin-Ma said. 

Another public meeting on the Moran Square Historic district is scheduled for September. 

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @DobbinsSentinel

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