Reminder Assistant Editor
WESTFIELD The revitalization of downtown has been the talk of city officials and residents for decades. Two recently appointed officials, Mayor Michael Boulanger and Westfield State College President (WSC) Evan Dobelle have teamed up to take their talk of downtown revitalization and turn it into tangible results.
Last month Boulanger and Dobelle hosted the first charrette defined as a "collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem" of over 30 local, state and college officials at WSC to determine their exact course of action.
In an interview with Reminder Publications, Boulanger explained that preliminary discussions with Dobelle upon his hiring at WSC earlier this year concluded the need for a greater WSC presence throughout downtown. He added that included in the discussions during the charrette was the proposal of a WSC 800-seat performing arts center, a 500-person dormitory, possibly in conjunction with the proposed multimodal transportation center on Elm Street.
Boulanger added that the kickoff to downtown revitalization and the city's collaborative efforts with WSC will begin with the college's renovation of the former Washington Street courthouse this summer.
According to Barry Maloney, vice president for advancement and college relations at WSC, the college will be renovating the building as a new facility for graduate courses, conferences and off-campus student and faculty housing.
"The president's vision is that a good downtown Westfield helps Westfield State College and a strong Westfield State College helps the community," Maloney said.
He added that the facility's projected completion is in late 2009 or early 2010, at a cost of approximately $6.5 million. Maloney explained that the aim is to keep students in downtown Westfield for dining and entertainment rather than spending their dollars in Northampton or Springfield.
Boulanger explained that in addition to the 12 WSC employees, 11 city employees and representatives from numerous city businesses and organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement District (BID), Westfield on Weekends, the Community Development Corporation (CDC) and the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority, private investors also attended the charrette. He added that the revitalization of downtown would take too long if funding was sought via state and federal sources.
"It's a long and arduous process," he said. "Private investors want to get in on the ground floor of a good thing."
Boulanger said that he is exploring other improvements to downtown, such as widening the sidewalks for easier pedestrian travel and access to storefronts and condensing Elm Street into a two-lane street with angled parking the street currently allows four lanes of vehicle traffic and parallel parking. He explained that this solution will allow for "maximum parking potential and slows traffic."
Boulanger said he is also considering metered parking to generate increased city revenue, increased activities on the Green to boost downtown pedestrian traffic for businesses and also bigger and brighter signage for rear parking lots.
He added that increased pedestrian traffic and second-story housing will allow businesses to thrive and empty storefronts to once again be filled with new retail.
Mark Noonan, executive director of the Westfield CDC said the corporation has already taken action to aid the revitalization. He explained that the CDC has bought three downtown buildings, 105-107, 120 and 168 Elm St., and plans to begin renovations to allow the buildings to have first floor retail space and second and third floor moderate-income housing. Noonan added that the projected cost for the renovations total $6 million and is paid through "state funding sources."
"It's important for people to see downtown as a vital part of their neighborhood," he said.
Boulanger said the aim of the charrettes is to "create a destination in downtown Westfield" and to turn it into "a gateway to the Berkshires." The second charrette will take place on May 12 at WSC.
Another Westfield resident and local business owner, Gerald Tracy, owner of the Tea Pot Gallery on Elm Street, is also looking at ways to revitalize downtown.
Last Tuesday, Tracy hosted a discussion forum at the Tea Pot Gallery for residents and elected officials to discuss closing Elm Street between Franklin and School streets during the summer months in order to increase foot traffic.
In an interview with Reminder Publications, Tracy said he wants to "start things now," rather than waiting for city officials to change traffic and parking patterns years from now. "It's a perfect opportunity to try something new," he said of closing the street.
"It's about bringing foot traffic into downtown," Tracy wrote in an e-mail to advertise the April 29 meeting. "It is about new people and small businesses seeing the empty buildings for rent or sale and seeing what the BID calls 'Opportunity' . The decay of our downtown is inexcusable and has had a deep impact on our perception of this once vibrant soul of the city."
He said that he would like to see city officials clean up the downtown streets and parking lots, repair the dilapidated parking lots by re-striping and repaving, and building owners must take responsibility for the condition and aesthetic beauty of their own buildings, as opposed to the broken windows and graffiti that decorate them now.
However, some who attended the meeting have said that they do not approve of cutting off curbside access to Elm Street storefronts.
"My feeling is that we're not in a position to close Elm Street because we don't really know why we'd want to close it at this point," Noonan said. "Curb appeal is big in business and if you're small retail you need to be seen."
City Councilor Christopher Keefe said he cannot fully support the idea of closing Elm Street "until the evidence rolls in that this is clearly the way to go." He added that he is open to all ideas of how to revitalize downtown.
Lynn Boucher, executive director of the Westfield Chamber of Commerce, agreed. "It's nice to talk about and maybe a direction to head for but things have to start out and grow."