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Urban Land Institute presentation addresses city's riverfront development

Date: 3/15/2010

March 15, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD - How the city's riverfront should be developed and how that development would be funded were issues touched upon in a presentation by the Urban Land Institute Boston Chapter on March 4.

John Judge, the city's chief development officer, explained to Reminder Publications after the meeting the discussion was only "a starting point." Judge said there would be another meeting in April to address Springfield's specific needs.

Judge said at the next meeting there would be a "strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats" evaluation done of the riverfront in order to explore development options.

About 100 people gathered at the Basketball Hall of Fame on March 4 to listen to how Lowell, Boston, Manchester, N.H., and Providence, R.I., approached making their riverfronts and waterways a positive part of downtown development.

Of the cities discussed, Manchester most closely resembled Springfield. Jay Minkarah, the economic development director of Manchester, described how his city of 110,000 people had to cope with the placement of an interstate highway that bisected its downtown. Like Springfield, the highway created a zone of downtown that was next to the river and cut off the rest of downtown from the river.

In order to bring people to the river, the city built an 8,500-seat baseball diamond and a 10,000-seat arena, Minkarah said. Each facility was built with a minimum of parking, ensuring that people attending events would park throughout the downtown area and walk. This approach helped people to be aware of downtown businesses, he explained.

The economy has slowed other redevelopment projects, he added.

Judge said he is interested in establishing a non-profit riverfront conservancy within the next 18 months that would develop and program the city's Riverfront Park. He believes such a group could raise money to make improvements to the park and to create programming for the space such as an outdoor concert series.

"A riverfront conservancy would be the perfect group to oversee the park," Judge asserted.

There are two major access points to the park and the river walk one being the entrance at the foot of State Street, while the other is a bridge over the rail tracks behind the L.A. Fitness building at the Basketball Hall of Fame complex. Judge acknowledged there has been an ongoing concern over access to the footbridge for the disabled as the elevator at the bridge has been closed. He has met with Director of Parks and Facilities Management Patrick Sullivan to discuss funding sources to repair the elevator and which entity would be in charge of its maintenance.

"It's outrageous that it is broken," Judge said.

"It's kind of a meddlesome spot," he said of the location. "It's kind of hidden."

Judge is also interested in investigating the construction of several 20-to-30 foot permanent docks into the river at Riverfront Park that could used for fishing or sunbathing.

One of the panelists at the March 4 meeting, Richard Henderson, executive vice president of real estate of MassDevelopment, said a challenge for the city is to create a connection from Forest Park to the river walk and to have a bike path that could be used by people working downtown.

Henderson said connectivity to the river is very important and suggested an easy and relatively inexpensive way to highlight Riverfront Park is to paint sidewalks leading to the walk a distinctive color.

Reacting to an observation made by Henderson about vendors bringing kayaks and canoes to Riverfront Park to rent as they do along the Charles River in Boston - Judge expressed concern about liability issues as well as the navigability of the Connecticut River in the stretch bordering the city.