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ULI offers advice to revitalize Elm Street corridor

Date: 10/30/2015

WESTFIELD – City officials, stakeholders and business owners hosted a group that visited downtown Westfield, identified its assets and made recommendations to renew and reinvigorate the area.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) assembled a panel of experts, ranging from city planners to engineers, on Oct. 26. The city and MassDevelopment sponsored the visit. The panel toured the city, focusing on Elm Street, and interviewed stakeholders for an hour about their concerns. They then presented their findings to the public and will release a written assessment in the coming weeks.

John Mullin, a professor at UMass Amherst, noted some of the concerns stemming from downtown Westfield. They included market leakage – losing consumers who would rather drive 30 minutes to Whole Foods than stay in Westfield – a need for local business support, absentee landlords, “brain drain” or losing students from Westfield State University after graduation and lack of private investment.

Mullin suggested that to attract new business downtown, the city should try to bring a national retail store to the strip. Jim Heffernan, the panel chair, said downtown “needs a draw” to get more people and business, like how downtown Easthampton began to thrive around Popcorn Noir.

Mullin also said the Business Improvement District “needs to be looked at again.”

The panel also said bringing a nightlife scene to Westfield would be “critically important” to helping the downtown revitalization.

“The downtown has to be active 17 hours a day in order to make it successful. At 6 a.m., you’ve got the guy with the coffee cup and at 11 p.m. you’ve got young folks doing what young folks do at 11 p.m.,” Mullin said. “So what you get is this combination of things going on.”

While the panel pointed to areas for improvement, it also said the city has natural assets that are opportunities for Westfield to advance, including the new bike path, a “small town feel,” an anchor institution in Westfield State University, historical character, Stanley Park, proximately to the Mass Pike and walkability.

Matt Mrva of Bohler Engineering said the city is “building on a framework that is already established.” He cited the Lawn on D, an outdoor interactive space in Boston that hosts events and activities, as something Westfield could try to emulate by providing residents and vendors a place to gather.

To capitalize on the city’s assets, Mrva suggested bike races, a “River Day” celebration including tubing, kayaking, music and food, creating trailhead amenities for the new bike path and creating an arts overlay district.     

John Markowtiz of MassDevelopment said that with a new mayor, City Council and president of Westfield State looming, the panel “saw lots of opportunity” as city leadership transitions.

The relationship between the new mayor and president of the university needs to be established immediately, the panel said, offering a list of suggestions to incorporate the university into the city.

While Heffernan said a university bookstore or coffee shop might not entirely change the scope of downtown, it will help.

“Westfield State is crucial, and it’s not the only thing. We’ve heard that … that is one of the most critical points we want to recommend is to continue that relationship that was established, keep growing that … you’re going to start creating that vitality and that link so Westfield State becomes less of its own city within a city and is part of the city as a whole.”

Heffernan said parking reform and enforcing codes on absentee landlords are additional steps the city could take to help increase foot traffic and business.

About 50 residents, business owners and city officials attended the presentation, and some raised concerns about the study, saying they have heard it all before but no action has been taken.

Mullin said no revitalization project happens overnight.

“Planners strikeout more times than a Boston Red Sox shortstop, but I think you’re closer than you’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve never hit a home run in a downtown as a planner, but I have hit single after single after single.”

Community Development Director Peter Miller said part of the challenge is engaging the rest of the city, beyond those who attended the meeting.

A written report of ULI’s findings will be given to the city in the coming weeks.