Downtown Springfield once bustled with foot traffic as shoppers scurried around from store to store, especially during the holidays. From Forbes & Wallace to Steigers and the many specialty stores opening onto Main Street, people would peek in windows or go in and out to browse through all the possible choices. They might even stop at the Colonial Tea Room to refresh themselves with a great meal or an enticing dessert.
There was one store few people would walk past—Johnson’s Bookstore. The best part of Johnson’s for kids was not the bookstore whose entrance fronted onto Main Street, but the toy department housed in the rear of the building that opened onto Market Street, also called Market Place. Parents felt perfectly comfortable browsing in the bookstore while the kids skittered out the back door to daydream about the toy they wanted most.
Supporting only foot traffic, Market Street was a cherished place to roam, and while those are only memories, they may well be a reality again one day with the planning moving forward in Springfield.
To breathe new life into downtown, the Office of Planning and Economic Development has forged critical collaborations among partners like Develop Springfield that was begun in 2008 “to advance development and redevelopment projects, to stimulate and support economic growth, and to expedite the revitalization process within the City of Springfield” (http://www.developspringfield.com/about_us.html) and Springfield Business Improvement District (SBID) that has operated since 1998 to “restore or promote business activity in targeted commercial areas with a range of management, marketing and economic development services and programs.” (http://springfieldDowntown.com/about-the-bid/) Each of these organizations brings their unique focus and talents to support the development of both major and small scale projects to spur the economic vibrancy of downtown.
There are many major economic development projects underway. In the report entitled City on the Rise: The Right Direction published in November 2015 by the Office of Planning and Economic Development, significant public/private investment has been spent, and is projected to be spent, on both current and pending projects that offers clear evidence that Springfield is on the move. The value of the investments discussed in the report total $1.817B, combining $1.227B in private investments and $589.97M in public investment. (http://tinyurl.com/cityontherise)
The report outlines nine projects that include the MGM Springfield and Union Station projects. Additional projects such as the renovation of the former Morgan Square Apartments now called Silver Bricks Lofts that retains market rate housing in downtown, the Dr. Seuss Museum at the Quadrangle, and the Pynchon Park/Museum Connection attest to the scope of work underway to revitalize the city.
While not downtown, the CRRC USA Rail Corporation development on Page Boulevard will rebuild the manufacturing base. The economic vitality this project will bring to the city will become an essential driver in its resurgence.
Although these BIG projects represent anchors to a successful journey, the development of targeted projects will tie it all together. As reported by Paul McMorrow in an article entitled Turning around Mass. gateway cities published in The Globe on December 2, 2014, “The comeback of the American city is a place-based phenomenon. It’s about tapping into what’s unique and vibrant about a specific neighborhood in a specific city.” Springfield recognized the importance of such targeted efforts to the overall success to drive the rebirth of the city, and another partner joined the work.
In December 2014, the Boston Business Journal reported that Springfield had been named as one of the Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) districts in the State. (http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/real_estate/2014/12/massdevelopment-names-transformative-development.html) As reported by Ash and Jones in a report entitled Targeted Redevelopment Assistance to Strengthen Massachusetts Gateway Cities published in MassBenchmarks in 2015:
The ten TDI Districts in Development will receive enhanced technical assistance, real estate services, and equity investments in real estate to support local visions for redevelopment, and to catalyze and leverage private investments and economic activities. MassDevelopment recently announced that it has hired TDI Fellows in Haverhill, Lynn, and Springfield to advance redevelopment visions by working in their host districts for three years to add needed capacity and focus on collaboration with local partnerships. http://www.massbenchmarks.org/publications/issues/vol17i1/6.pdf
This initiative is working in the Worthington and Bridge Street section of the city—the Taylor-Bridge district. As cited in the City on the Rise report, the goals of this initiative are “to rebrand the ‘Entertainment District,’ bring back full service restaurants, create more upper floor market rate housing, attract innovation-oriented businesses and to do park and infrastructure upgrades.” Laura Masulis, transformative development fellow, listed the project partners as SBID, Develop Springfield, the City of Springfield and MassMutual. This coalition has conducted fifteen community group meetings, several focus groups, two public stakeholder meetings and 200 one-on-one meetings with community members to gather information on what is important to residents. The most recent stakeholder meeting was held at UMASS Springfield at Tower Square.
UMASS has been an important partner in the ongoing work to revitalize downtown and the new facility in Tower Square only touches the surface. According to Frank Sleegers, an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at UMass in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, the UMASS Design Studio that is a collaboration between the City of Springfield and UMass Amherst (UMass Extension, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, Department of Architecture, and Building Construction Technology) has worked on sixteen projects throughout the city in neighborhoods from Brightwood to the South End, from the X to Indian Orchard and in the heart of the city in Bay and McKnight. Professor Sleegers shared that in each project, “the students have been able to show residents what is possible and that the students learn from the residents as well.” Their most recent project ties directly into the work being done downtown.
While these small-scale projects represent small steps, when mixed with major initiatives they will have a dynamic impact on efforts to revitalize Springfield. In conjunction with city planner Scott Hanson, Principal Planner in the Office of Planning and Economic Development, organizations including Develop Springfield and SBID have come together to work with the Springfield Central Cultural District and the UMASS Design Studio to bring these efforts forward.
According to Morgan Drewniany, Interim Director, the Springfield Central Cultural District was formed in 2014 by cultural stakeholders downtown, as Springfield was one of the first twenty-five communities to receive state designation as a cultural district. Morgan explained, “The designation is the recognition of an area that is dense in cultural assets including historical, architecture and galleries.” As a coalition of local organizations, the mission of the Springfield Central Cultural District is to “make Springfield a cultural destination, revitalizing the creative economy downtown.” She explained, “The creative economy is that portion of business and services that have an artistic and creative value such as engineers, artists and writers.”
In collaboration with UMASS, the twenty two member Springfield Central Cultural District has moved forward with the full support of Mayor Sarno and a small amount of funding each year through the Community Development Block Grant. Their initial effort to create a place for artists to show their work, in conjunction with SBID, has lead to the Holiday Market Artisan’s Gallery. Part of those efforts included planning to activate the Market Street space. The first phase of the project focused on short-term solutions and engaged the UMASS Amherst Landscape Architecture students. Students designed wayfinding spray chalk designs on sidewalks throughout downtown “to get both residents and employees downtown thinking, walking, and talking about Market Place as a destination” and installed colorful lights using paper lanterns on Market Street to create a welcoming atmosphere. According to Morgan, “Their work brought attention to revitalizing downtown in low cost ways.”
In the second phase of the project, the seven student team developed a long-term vision that calls for more public art, seating, planting, expanding the walkway, and services and retail. According to Morgan, “Their vision took into account not just the larger projects but the current population of the city.”
One of the students, Cameron Roach, explained that being from the Northampton area, his knowledge of Springfield was limited to negative news reports, so he was excited to be part of a team that would work on a small scale project. Cameron said, “It was something that would be good.” He shared that he “learned something new with each visit as he talked to the people of the city and SBID.” He said, “I got a sense of what people wanted to enliven the space.” Cameron also shared that the work will continue as a few students will work with Morgan to develop modular containers to repurpose them for the space. He “feels so good and thankful for a new vision of Springfield”—a vision that the coalition of partners hopes will be shared by many.
For more information on the Transformative Development Initiative visit http://www.courbanize.com/springfield-tdi/.
For more information on the UMASS Design Center visit https://designcenter.umass.edu/.
For more information on the Springfield Central Business District visit http://springfieldculture.org/
Lucie K. Lewis, Ed.D, Executive Senior Staff Writer