|Sometimes outside eyes are needed to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses|
By G. Michael Dobbs, Managing Editor
My friend Tom Devine (read his rantings at www.tomdevine.net) is one of the great skeptics who write about the political life of the Pioneer Valley. I suspect that like many skeptics, he has the heart of a believer who has been disappointed too many times.
I couldn't blame Tom for expressing a "show me" attitude at the beginning of the Urban Land Institute meeting last week and I was heartened to see Tom's positive response to what the ULI team had to say about the city.
Why are the ULI findings so important? The team's efforts to point out specific development projects can only strengthen the city.
Why are these recommendations important to people living outside of Springfield? Because as the ULI team pointed out, there isn't a prosperous region in the country that isn't led by a central city.
And some of the observations that were made by the ULI team about Springfield's downtown could be used to seek solutions for the challenges facing the downtowns of Holyoke and Westfield.
Springfield, as Tom pointed out to me, has been down the path before of presentations of big plans for its downtown. Thanks to Reminder Publications ace account manager Matt "Mad Dog" Mahaney, I have in my possession a copy of a 1978 publication mocked up like "Time" magazine entitled "Time for Springfield." It was a combination state of the city and a plan for the revitalization for the city.
At the time, an organization called Springfield Central, Inc. had enlisted the cooperation of heavy hitters such as Mayor Charles Ryan and Springfield Newspapers Publisher David Starr to spearhead a renovation of the downtown.
For history and political fans such as myself, it's fascinating to see what was accomplished at that time and what were considered to be the projects that would help the city.
Among the accomplishments was Riverfront Park, described as having "turned the banks of the Connecticut into a prime recreation spot." In its early years it was used as the location of a jazz festival as a spot to view the Fourth of July fireworks.
It certainly lost that early momentum.
The publication lauded Mattoon Street as a "prime example of what restoration can accomplish" and was candid enough to note that Baystate West now Tower Square could not re-start the retail scene downtown.
The publication contained the city's master plan that was drawn up in 1970 and then revised in 1977. It called for the closing of Main Street from East Court Street to Taylor Street as a pedestrian mall. The Forbes & Wallace building would be used as a mixed-use office and retail site, and the Paramount Theater now the Hippodrome nightclub would get a new lobby and Gridiron Street would be closed.
There are other plans listed and, in the harsh light of looking at them today, we can see that not many of the projects got off the ground.
Fast-forward to 2001 and the master plan that was developed during the Albano administration.
The track record here is better. Although how much involvement that administration really had in the completion of these projects is debatable. Among the plan's new initiatives were the new Basketball Hall of Fame, the bike path along the river, the new visitors information center, the new Federal Courthouse, the new civic center, and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden.
Those projects that didn't rise above the planning stage include the renovation of Union Station, a Public Market, a Springfield Senior Center in the former Technical High School, and a new boutique hotel in the downtown area.
The 2001 plan also suggested there be a ferry service established from downtown to Six Flags; a city-owned ice skating rink that could be removed and stored in non-winter months; and creating a number of "pocket parks" in neighborhoods.
Neither plan should be criticized for lack of vision or sincerity. There were plenty of good people who worked very hard to come up with these visions for the future. The problem is they came up with too many projects and the priority for those projects undoubtedly was swayed by political concerns.
The lesson the ULI team gave all of us in the Valley is that outside eyes are needed to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses and to identify what we should do first.
No matter whether you live in Chicopee, Holyoke, Westfield or Springfield, the ULI team underscored the importance of developing housing to attract new residents that would then spur retail growth.
Tom Devine wasn't the only skeptic impressed by the ULI. I was, too.
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