Place Maker \\ Insightful Planner of Mashpee Commons
It is a bit of a chicken or egg scenario as far as which has come first: the town of Mashpee or Mashpee Commons. Mashpee Commons increasingly has become an iconic hub of Cape Cod. Not quite centered on the arm-shaped sandbar, it does benefit from a bulls-eye proximity of being at one of the significant crossroads of the Upper Cape. But 40 years ago, the landscape was little more than a rotary that provided a few destination options: Route 28 that connected Falmouth and Barnstable, Route 151 that provided access to and from the Bourne Bridge, and Great Neck Road that led to Mashpee’s modest town center to the north and the newly created New Seabury, an exclusive retirement/vacation enclave, to the south. Buff Chace, whose father was one of the developing partners of New Seabury, was just entering the family business after spending some creative years making documentary films in Cambridge. “I had my first office here in 1978,” Chace recalls. “But it wasn’t until 1986 that we received our special permit from the town to build the first phase of Mashpee Commons. It was called New Seabury Shopping Center then, and it consisted of a Star Market, a house and garden store, a pharmacy, a small bank, and a cinema.”
“Phase One” created a business center unlike anything around, and not only for the Cape—Mashpee Commons has been recognized nationally for its ingenuity. Chace, together with Doug Storrs (who tirelessly pursued permitting and approvals for the first few phases of the “Master Plan”), created the town center that Mashpee had been missing. Other developers might have easily identified the area as the perfect place for a mall; instead Chace paused and considered why the Cape has such a positive connotation in the public consciousness. “People are attracted to the water, the beaches and the character of the old Cape towns,” Chace explains. “So I thought, ‘why can’t we build something that is inspired by the historic towns?’ As I got further into it, I realized the zoning from the sixties and seventies had segregated uses to try to deal with unchecked growth. It made some sense to segregate residential, commercial, and industrial uses, but it was antithetical to the way communities organically grow.”
“Phase One” showcased streets with charming, familiar names like “Steeple” and “Market,” retail storefronts, restaurants and places to pause, like fountains and open arcades, all punctuated with benches and knee-walls for a place to rest and take it all in. Form drives function as Chace notes that clusters of buildings feel most natural in their environment when they have multiple floors and vary in size and scale, so while the goal was to find tenants for the street level establishments, second and third story apartment spaces were offered for below market rates at the time. Today, the appeal of “in-town” living in the current 77 units, particularly for young adults and retirees, has resulted in low, single-digit vacancy rates, all at current market rates.
“People like to live in a community,” Chace notes but also mentions that the concept of “urbanism” is not a principle that is generally embraced on the Cape. However, the challenge of housing inventory on the Cape can be mitigated with the type of solution Mashpee Commons offers and as Chace confirms, “at different price points.” In addition, Mashpee Commons is a responsible neighbor in that it treats its wastewater, has invested in solar power and the latest phases are incorporating modular construction for greater efficiency both during the building process as well as for the tenants’ day-to-day energy use.
Nationally there is now a push for mixed-use communities in the forefront of community planning, something that was a foreign concept during the early years of Mashpee Commons. “In fact, Mashpee Commons is cited as an example of reform in a lot of the national literature,” Chace mentions. Chace’s early vision in 1986 was the catalyst that aligned him with influential architect, Andres Duany and the newly formed Congress of New Urbanism, which has established the lexicon and standards for how communities can be successfully built and thrive in today’s changing world. “It was a response to modernism,” Chace explains. “We were looking at traditional development patterns. There had been a trend as to how towns and cities had been developed: without any consideration for how buildings related to the street, or the building next to it. Basically, that was fine for monumental buildings like town halls and libraries, that sort of thing. But buildings should work together, and it’s really the street that is important, and the things that create connectivity between people and buildings, and commerce and leisure.”
When asked how Chace views his contribution, the word “developer” is discussed. Despite the positive definitions of the word in the context of software, photography or shipbuilding, the negative connotation in the world of real estate maligns the best of intentions. “I was in the film business and the title of producer didn’t have a negative connotation, but it is essentially the same set of responsibilities. You have to round up the actors; you have to budget; you have to communicate and advance the vision you are trying to create. So, producer is a better word for what the development process is,” he says. “I’m interested in community building. Really, I like to think I am a place maker.”
Chace and his team at Mashpee Commons have given the town of Mashpee a heart, and a center.
Make sure to visit the Commons and check them out at mashpeecommons.com!
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