DARTMOUTH — Longtime residents wax eloquent when they talk about what Padanaram Village used to be like once upon a time — busy and bustling.
Stephen Caravana, who grew up in Dartmouth, remembers a fish market, a grocer’s, a bait and tackle shop and several restaurants there in the 1960s.
“It was more quaint than it is now and much busier than it is now,” he said. “It was quite a nice place to go to. You could dock your boat, get some provisions, grab a bite.”
Nestled along the Apponagansett River, the scenic South Dartmouth village once boasted thriving shipbuilding and saltworks industries. It was among the land tracts purchased from the Wampanoags in 1652 and was settled by people involved in maritime trades, town history shows.
A thriving waterfront village, Padanaram faced two big attacks. Its early 17th century homes were destroyed in fires during King Philip’s War, and a British attack during the American Revolution ravaged its 18th century houses, according to records of the Dartmouth Historical Commission.
Featuring beautiful old homes and unique shops, the village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic district is roughly bounded by Elm, Water, Middle, High, Pleasant, Prospect, Hill, School, Fremont, and Bridge streets. It lies along Buzzards Bay and is a coveted residential community with several historic waterfront homes, many of them seasonal.
In recent times, residents and town officials alike have despaired about shuttered properties and closing businesses in the struggling village. But after languishing for several years, the village of late is seeing developments that signal change.
Two landmark properties recently sold, a traffic and streetscape analysis is underway, a new restaurant is opening and Caravana will be the first to harvest oysters in Padanaram Bay this spring.
It took two years and thousands of dollars worth of investment, but Caravana said he expects to put seeds down in April and harvest his first crop in the fall. Padanaram Oyster Farm will sell oysters to area restaurants and off his boat in the harbor, he said.
With a licensing process in place for oyster farmers for the first time in town, Caravana said he is happy to have paved the way for aquaculture in Dartmouth and hopes it will help revitalize the village.
These new developments are heartening for many who have longed to see the sluggish village rejuvenated.
Lara Stone, local resident and outgoing Select Board member for six years, said she is thrilled to see the Padanaram changes, having always been “a champion of its redevelopment.”
“I’m excited of the prospect of a renewed economic engine and interest in this little area,” Stone said. “We’ve finally reached the point of having all the properties purchased and having a real vision for the future.”
“Looks like things are looking up for the village,” said Steve Melo, harbormaster. “As the village thrives, visiting boaters should return to enjoy and increase the success of the new enterprises.”
A new restaurant
There are returning enterprises, as well. A popular bakery on Bridge Street, the Beach Plum Cafe, has been closed and under renovation for 15 months. It will reopen soon as a full-fledged restaurant named “Little Moss” (from Moby-Dick) that will offer dinner, lunch and weekend brunch.
“We are very excited,” said owner John Lofberg. “We didn’t anticipate it would take this long, but we are putting in the final touches on and expect to open around mid-March or April 1.”
During the summer months, the cafe will have a takeout window open by the parking lot for coffee, baked goods and sandwiches.
Lofberg recalled a time when there were several restaurants in the village and said he hopes the revitalization will bring that back.
“You want to have a good mix of businesses,” he said. “It would be really nice to have a market here and the streetscape improvement project would be a big help.”
7-9 Elm St.
Across the street, the long shuttered section of a building formerly owned by Kevin Santos recently sold to Per Lofberg, John’s father, much to the relief of area businesses and residents who had labeled it an eyesore.
The plans aren’t final but John Lofberg said they are planning two commercial venues there — a retail space and a market with a counter service restaurant.
Lofberg bought the building for $600,000 in December.
The real estate brokerage company Milbury & Company LLC has had an office in the building at the corner of Bridge and Elm streets since 2007. In November 2007, Will Milbury and his partner George Leontire bought that section, along with a parking lot across the street, for $965,000. Milbury said then he hoped the sale would spark “a renaissance” in the neighborhood.
The building once housed the Village Market, Village Cafe and Not Your Average Joe’s offices but has been vacant since Santos bought it for $1.8 million in 2006.
10A Bridge St.
A second corner property across the street that was vacant for more than a decade and tied up with contamination issues, sold this month. Once a gas station and then the popular Bridge Street Cafe, the property at 10A Bridge St. was purchased by town resident Jordan Hitch for $255,000.
“That property has been sitting there for a long time and falling apart and my plan is to improve it,” Hitch said.
It includes a small residential house on Elm Street and the old shuttered cafe building around the corner on Bridge Street next to the firehouse.
Hitch said he plans to fix up the three-bedroom house, create retail space on the street level, and a small community space with benches at the corner.
As for the old cafe building on Bridge Street, Hitch said he plans to expand it with retail on the ground floor and offices above. He does not plan to operate a business there himself but said he hopes the redevelopment encourages new prospects.
“I think this is a huge opportunity for the village to be better than it has been,” Hitch said.
Frank Veale, an environmental lawyer in Easton, who sold the property to Hitch on Feb. 2 at a $35,000 loss, said the environmental concerns have been addressed. He said he believes the new owner will make positive changes there.
“It is safe to say that everyone associated with the Fire Department is pleased that the redevelopment and improvements planned for the property by Mr. Hitch are moving forward,” said District 1 Chief John Judson in an email.
In 2013, the town commissioned planners and architects from The Cecil Group in Boston to come up with potential village improvements. The public meetings packed rooms in Town Hall and yielded more than $3 million worth of recommendations. The study, released a year ago and available online, includes ideas such as extending sidewalks and creating more crosswalks to make the village more pedestrian-friendly.
A team of students from Northeastern University is analyzing the findings and will make recommendations for improvements by the end of April at no cost to the town.
The report will include an engineering analysis of the traffic, parking, pedestrian needs, and roadway and streetscape improvements geared toward a coastal village, officials said.
The latest in a series of positive changes at Padanaram Village, the project was applauded by Select Board members this week.
Meanwhile, the state is scheduled to go to bid this year for a causeway improvement project on Gulf Road that could close Padanaram Bridge for a whole season in 2016.
The Department of Transportation has a $7 million project in the works to reconstruct a busy stretch of the scenic roadway. It includes rebuilding the road, replacing sidewalks, adding street and pedestrian lighting and new guard rails along Gulf Road from Apponagansett Park to the Padanaram Bridge and about 400 feet into Smith Neck Road, according to MassDOT officials.
A Special Town Meeting on March 2 will weigh in on the easements required. Construction is expected to start next winter.
A new phase
Town Administrator David Cressman said he is pleased to see the progress in the village. The recent sale of the two vacant properties is especially “favorable” and will “help improve the economy and vitality of the village,” he said.
Residents and businesses owners, old and new, are looking forward to the next phase, too.
Anne Sadow, longtime resident and owner of Flora, a home goods store on Elm Street, said she is happy new business is coming to the village.
“People are very enthusiastic about it, and our customers are thrilled about it,” she said. “I hope this will lead to a nice resurgence of energy for everyone.”
In her second year operating Refried Tees on Bridge Street, Lisa Litos said she is excited about the changes. Even 10 years ago, when she first moved there, Litos said there was a diner and store in the village, both of which have gone.
“I do think it will be different,” she said. “I am looking forward to the vacant buildings getting redeveloped and bringing new businesses to the area.”