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Sarno administration releases downtown innovation plan


Aug. 20, 2014
<strong>An artist’s rendering of how Worthington Street could look like from the perspective of Stearns Square on the left and looking toward Main Street. The building on the left would be constructed on the footprint of the current parking lot and the former Sky Plex nightclub.</strong><br>Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs

An artist’s rendering of how Worthington Street could look like from the perspective of Stearns Square on the left and looking toward Main Street. The building on the left would be constructed on the footprint of the current parking lot and the former Sky Plex nightclub.
Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs

G. Michael Dobbs
news@thereminder.com

SPRINGFIELD – Imagine a Worthington Street in which a new housing block would be built on the space currently a parking lot and the former Sky Plex bar and a revamped Stearns Square park would include a pedestrian mall. The now abandoned Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street could be a combination residential and business center with its own indoor parking facility.

Those are among the ideas presented in a plan to reconstruct and redevelop much of the area that had been affected by the gas explosion in 2012. The plan was recently released by the Sarno administration.

"This will give us a clear roadmap of priorities to help rebuild and reconnect the affected areas and to build on the many strengths and assets we already have in downtown Springfield,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said.

Jay Minkarah, the CEO of DevelopSpringfield, which coordinated the plan paid for by a $200,000 grant from Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, told Reminder Publications there are roles to be played by the city and state, nonprofit organizations and the private sector in establishing an innovation district in that area.

He said the city could take “very critical” steps that would be seen as a starting point, such as re-establishing two-way traffic on Dwight and Chestnut streets, and begin to seek grants that would leverage funds for the projects.

While MGM Springfield could contribute to the development of the district, Minkarah was emphatic that the casino was not necessary to it; the Union Station development now underway is far more important to its success.

DevelopSpringfield, which is currently involved in several redevelopment projects, needs to finds a “catalytic project” within the area that “would have a snowball effect” to attract private developers, he said.

He added that other nonprofits, such as the Springfield Business Improvement District (SBID) have a role. One key part of the plan is the re-branding of the Entertainment District into a Dining District.

Ultimately, most of the investment in the area would be from the private sector in new businesses and housing, for example. “The plan provides a blueprint for that,” he said.

Minkarah noted the new ownership of the Morgan Square apartments and its redevelopment as well as the establishment of the University of Massachusetts at Tower Square and the move of WFCR into renovated studios on Main Street are part of the “organic growth” that is happening downtown.

“These are the kind of things we need to leverage,” he explained.

The report cites Kendall Square in Cambridge as an example of an innovation district in which there are a high density of companies providing employment along with housing, retail and entertainment. The report noted there are efforts to develop such a district in New Haven, Conn., and Providence, R.I.

There are “pre-existing assets” in the area, the report said, such as the architectural character of the building, stock, the public ownership of empty parcels, housing stock that can be upgraded and locations that can are “anchors:” Apremont Triangle, Stearns Square and Mattoon Street.

The area does have the start of innovation development, the report noted, with the “presence of Baystate Innovation Center [that] creates an anchor and partner for health technology start-ups; an emerging support system in Valley Venture Mentors, Springfield Angels and River Valley Investors; [and] Tech Foundry to act as training ground for maintaining local skills and filling job openings.”

The report continues, “While the foundational elements exist – they are still nascent and lack critical mass to have an initial major impact.”

The report recommended on the public side the city upgrade Stearns Square by moving and renovating the fountain; redesign Apremont Triangle’s open space and streetscape; convert Dwight and Chestnut street to two-way streets; restripe travel lanes on cross streets; improve Lyman Street, especially at the entrance to Union Station; and incorporate public art and lighting into underpasses.

Steps recommended by the report to convert the Entertainment District into a Dining District include placing size limits on venues to discourage large clubs and requiring all venues to have full kitchens. 

The Willy-Overland building on Chestnut Street was cited by the report as being a potential “catalytic project,” as the building could be a mixed-use site for housing, small scale manufacturing and other uses. Minkarah said the building is still in private hands.

Minkarah said there has been no specific timelines discussed but added the scheduled completion of Union Station in 2016 “gives us a couple of years to position ourselves.”

He added, “Two years is not a whole lot of time in the development world.”

That time could be used to begin the design phase of some of the projects as well as identify funding sources.

The other time limit is 2017 when MGM Springfield would be completed, if voters don’t revoke the gaming legislation in this November’s elections. Minkarah explained that in the first 18 months of the casino’s opening there would be a “surge of new visitors” to Springfield.

“It would be important for the character to be defined for this area,” he said.

The innovation district would be far more closely aligned to the redevelopment of Union Station, Minkarah said, with the prospect of increased rail service along the Knowledge Corridor in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts.

He believes the initial phase of improvements to the area will take about five years with the second phase, which includes new construction, would take five to 10 years.

To read the whole report, got to www3.springfield-ma.gov/planning/fileadmin/Planning_files/Economic_Development/Worthington_Street_Study.pdf.

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