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Q&A: Mayoral Candidate Mark S. Tilden

(Editor’s note: Since there is no primary for District 2 City Council or School Committee, I sent District-focused questionnaires to candidates for Mayor and At-Large City Council. I will be posting responses as I receive them. Mark S. Tilden’s is the first.)

Why are you running for mayor?

I have lived in Framingham since 1986 and have kept up with town affairs through my work as a criminal defense attorney in the Framingham District Court, as a landlord on the southside and northside of town, and as a parent of two children who attended the public schools. I see many things that could stand improvement through an active and engaged Mayor. Downtown is one of them. Since moving here, it seems that the economic health and business activity of downtown has not changed much for the better. Commercial activity in the area near town hall is stagnant. Waverly Street, part of the marathon route, featured on the national stage once a year, looks tired and outdated. I would gather an economic development team of landlords, lenders, developers and brokers and I would seek suggestions and insights on improving these areas. The voters I have spoken to while gathering 800 + signatures voice similar concerns. I have proposed that we create an “overlay” district to ease up on zoning, permitting and signage restrictions to let businesses know that if they choose to invest here, we will cut through the red tape for them.

This is only part of my platform, but I mention it because I drive through downtown frequently and grow frustrated that it hasn’t grown along with the economy. People blame the railroad crossing, the Salvation Army and traffic. I refuse to believe that even with these obstacles, we can’t enliven the downtown with more businesses and investment. I will not surrender. Moody Street in Waltham was transformed from a moribund commercial district into a flashy destination. Main Street in Hudson has recovered from the recession and recently filled the last of its empty storefronts. Why can’t Framingham do the same? We can, with the right combination of energy, creativity and persistence.

As a 30-year resident I have also become frustrated with the town meeting form of government. Participatory democracy is great, but for a town this big, town meeting devolved into an ineffectual body where active debate amounted to just so much dithering. I was especially flustered by the vote against purchasing the Millwood Golf Course. This was an opportunity that we will never have again. Aside from preserving an attractive recreational area, it would give us flexibility if we needed space for construction of town offices or a new school, for instance. Instead, it is rare and valuable open space sacrificed for just more residential housing. Truly, if we bought the land and it turned out to be a bad deal, we could always re-sell it.

What would you like to tell voters about your qualifications?

I have practiced law in Framingham for 30 years as a criminal defense attorney and in the areas of real estate and commercial practice. I have become familiar with the problems of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and domestic abuse. Also, as a landlord, I have become close to the immigrant population. I also operate a strip mall in Sudbury which has given me knowledge of the problems in running a retail establishment.

One of my platforms is to reduce ICE arrests; their current practice of waiting outside our courthouse to arrest persons who may have no criminal record is abhorrent to a safe community. These arrests tear apart families and spread fear in the community. A Mayor’s job includes protecting its residents, even those whose status is not resolved. If this means standing up to ICE agents enforcing a failed federal immigration policy I will do it.

(See more about Tilden’s professional history on his LinkedIn profile.)

What if any are your plans to keep in touch with residents – to seek their input and communicate your votes and other activities?

I will continue to meet residents the same way I did collecting signatures; meeting and speaking with them at gathering places such as the Friday night concerts and neighborhood festivals. Also, I plan to walk as many neighborhoods as possible in the mornings with my dog Sammy. He’s a political animal and a great ice breaker.

District 2 has two long-vacant or near-vacant commercial areas: Nobscot Plaza and the old Saxonville Lumber. What do you think should be done about these properties?

These “zombie” strip malls are one of my biggest gripes. It’s also a big issue among folks I’ve met along the campaign trail. I own residential property in Nobscot and used to buy my tenants gift certificates from the Country Fare Star. Now it’s an asphalt desert under a master lease from Shaw’s and kept empty strictly for the selfish purpose of stifling competition from a new supermarket. This, along with the vacant Franklin Street and the State Lumber sites constitute blight and every day they remain idle is a continuing assault on our neighborhoods.

Although it is virtually impossible to force an owner to develop his land, there are some ways we can lean on owners to either sell or invest in improvements. I would engage them in a constructive way to convince them of how much these properties are damaging our neighborhoods.

Perhaps call for a boycott of Shaws or flood the owners with telephone calls demanding change. I would also consult town counsel for input on how we can enforce our ordinances which prohibit commercial blight. As described above, I would look for ideas from my economic development team to address this issue. We need to end this blight and take our neighborhoods back.

Town officials have rightly complained about vacant properties in town. However, the town itself has left the old McAuliffe branch library building sitting vacant for almost a year and a half. What should be done with this building?

If the town does not sell the building to a business or developer ready to put it to good use, the town should consider converting the building to a rooming house and rent to homeless persons. We could charge \$150 per week and earn revenue rather than spend \$179.00/day to house them in shelters. The housing authority could run it and we would address the homelessness problem.

What are your opinions regarding Friends of Saxonville’s proposals to redesign McGrath Square? Renovate the Athenaeum?

I have read the FOS newsletter describing the efforts to revitalize the square and renovate the Athenaeum. I would urge your organization to seek funding from area business owners as they have the greatest interest in realizing these improvements. Downtown Hudson was successful with this strategy.

I would want to see the traffic study before commenting on the supposed roadway changes.

Do you have any thoughts to share about how to balance desire for more development with strains on transit infrastructure? The competing needs of vehicular traffic, bicyclists, and pedestrians?

This is a thorny problem. Traffic congestion is one of the more common issues brought up by voters. We can’t make our roads any wider and upcoming residential construction (the Fabric Place, Harley Davidson) will only bring more cars on the road. We could urge employers to stagger work hours to avoid the commuter rush. The real solution, however, is getting people out of their cars. Create more bike lanes and encourage more use of public transportation. A direct bus into Boston may help.

In addition, the recent proposal to develop the Mount Wayte shopping plaza is a welcome bid to revive that neighborhood. Apparently, the applicant believes that the strip cannot support retail and only residential use will make financial sense (with a new restaurant site, in a bow to residents who miss the 400 Club and Lounge). This of course will generate more traffic, but as a strip mall operator myself in Sudbury, I agree that attracting retail tenants is very difficult. Framingham faces some tough choices. We may have no option but to accept new apartments or this site will remain a wasteland.

How can Framingham best balance the need to serve less fortunate members of our community with the need for a viable tax base?

The character and value of a community is best judged by how we treat those who struggle and exist on the margins. We should give thought to giving a tax break to local landlords who reduce rents below market value to needy families. We would make up for the reduction in tax revenue with the savings in housing people in shelters.

If elected, how do you plan to help Framingham transition from a town to a city?

I would contact Mayors of similar sized cities in the Commonwealth and ask their advice. I would ensure that city services are equal to or superior to the quality of town services which our residents have grown accustomed to. I would direct department heads to treat residents as loyal customers and leave every resident feeling good about the service they’ve gotten.

What’s the best way for voters to find out more about your candidacy? (Web site, Facebook page, etc.)

My website, MarkTilden.com. Also, I am currently expanding my social media presence. On Monday [July 24], I am scheduled to appear on State Representative Jack Lewis’ cable talk show. Or, voters can call me, 508-259-7765.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the voters of District 2?

A city’s strength derives from the vitality of its neighborhoods. Saxonville is an historic treasure. We must do all we can to preserve it as a safe and welcoming neighborhood. As your Mayor, I pledge to do all I can to keep District 2 and Saxonville a great place.