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D'town Holyoke development plans discussed at meeting

By MaryClaire Dugre

Staff Intern

HOLYOKE Plans to renovate the streetscape of South Holyoke were discussed in the Downtown Improvements Public Meeting conducted Thursday evening in the Holyoke Heritage State Park Visitor's Center. The event was sponsored by Mayor Michael Sullivan, the Office of Planning and Development, the Department of Public Works, and the Recreation Department.

Before a crowd of roughly 50 individuals including city councilors, city employees, and vocal Holyoke natives the mayor and the city's hired consultant HDR, a Boston engineering company, outlined possible alterations to be made to Front, Dwight, and Heritage streets as well as Pulaski Park. The city has received a $50,000 Transit Oriented Design grant state to fund the planning of such construction, the purpose of which is to facilitate a greater pedestrian presence in the area. In doing so, the mayor hopes to revive downtown Holyoke as a place where people will want to congregate and populate again.

Representing HDR were engineer Jerry Friedman and landscape architect Lisa Decker. The team suggested both minor and major modifications to the three main streets in South Holyoke. Due to its location and milder traffic scene, Heritage Street was noted as a more pedestrian-friendly area and recognized for its potential to accommodate special historic and cultural events. HDR presented two schemes that could realize this potential.

Currently, Heritage Street exists as a two-way street with available parking. The first plan called for eliminating parking and extending the sidewalks on both sides, rendering wider space for trees and walking. The second plan proposed Heritage Street maintain its parking areas but become one-way, achieving the same desired effect.

In addition, a chicane, or "wiggle," as Friedman described, would be implemented to the layout of Front Street to slow traffic and allow for more crosswalks. Dwight Street would undergo less dramatic geometric changes but receive greater landscaping enhancements instead.

The goal, Decker explained, is to create a promenade effect, inviting locals to stroll the historic streets of Holyoke on wider sidewalks amid more pleasant scenery. Inspired by existing cherry trees on one end of Front Street, Decker reinforced the aesthetic benefits to planting more flowering trees along the streets as well as installing benches and streetlights, and possibly using the original cobblestones as accent marks in key places.

She also stressed the importance of integrating views of the canal and mentioned incorporating the Skinner mill into the streetscape, "so people will know they are in Holyoke."

Plans for Pulaski Park were less developed. Caroline Cooney Associates are the planners. Cooney and partner Darryl Bird offered three tentative ideas for the park's future. In all three, Feldman swimming pool has been eliminated in favor of a spray park, an alteration that would prove less financially burdening and require less maintenance. Other issues to be decided are whether or not to include a soccer field and whether a cul-de-sac parking arrangement would be more efficient.

From the beginning, the mayor and his staff established the meeting as a medium through which the public's opinions and input would be heard and appreciated. Sullivan spent much time in dialogue with interested citizens, who were allowed to place stickers on their favorite plans at the meeting's end. While the general mood of the audience was one of caring concern for Holyoke, many in attendance were careful to balance hopes for a more beautiful Holyoke with doubts about the project's practicality.

Donald Welch, city councilor of Ward 1 in Holyoke, expressed apprehension about the problems tree roots could cause to sidewalk traffic safety and the cost of maintaining the trees in the future.

Holyoke resident Bill Welch continued along a similar vein, stating, "I don't think the city can afford to look pretty."

Others agreed, suggesting that the grant money could be better spent.

Sullivan and Kathy Anderson of the Office of Industrial and Economic Development explained the narrow confines of the grant, which, by its nature as a Transit Oriented Design grant, allocates funding only to an area extending a quarter mile from a transportation node in this case, Veterans Park and only for the purpose of improving the pedestrian access way between the transportation center and the canal walk.

The $50,000 planning grant does, however, put the City in a good position to apply for and receive an additional $500,000 grant that would help finance the actual construction.

For now, Sullivan remarked, "We're happy they're looking at the City of Holyoke [at all.]"

Anderson says the next round for this project will likely take place next April, after public input has been considered and a specific design has been decided on. The grant will be applied for the following September.

The two-hour meeting wrapped up with hints of demolishing the decrepit police department near City Hall, incorporating the dam area into the canal walk plans, and inviting local artists to display their work in windows along busy streets.

The crowd was also reminded that a press conference is scheduled for Sep. 6, at which Phase 1A of the canal walk will officially go out to bid to interested contractors.