'Few cities in New England have what (Springfield has) and are walkable': Viewpoint

Jennifer Kiely

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'Few cities in New England have what (Springfield has) and are walkable': Viewpoint

President and owner, NAI Plotkin in Springfield

With reference to an article, "Agencies' roles examined," (Sunday Republican, Jan. 26), I would like to expand upon and clarify comments I made that might be a bit misleading to anyone who is not familiar with the work that I have been behind in downtown Springfield.

The MGM-Springfield development will live up to its full potential as far as being a catalyst for a downtown renaissance only to the extent that a strategy is deployed to activate the entire downtown. The use of the term "ghetto" surrounding a resort gaming development was an exaggeration to make a point about the fundamental premise that is the basis for any cultural district – its walkability.

The walkability of the downtown, for example, is a measure by which the Massachusetts Cultural Commission used to qualify downtown as a cultural district. They confirmed that the walkability of our downtown is excellent as we have a significant number of cultural and historic sites in close proximity to one another. Few cities in New England have what we have and are walkable. Readers should be reminded that the Business Improvement District's efforts over the past few years, along with other stakeholders downtown, led to the installation of the first public art exhibit in the downtown with the Giant Sneaker Exhibit, followed up a few years later with over 30 pieces of sculpture by artist James Kitchen.

Maps were distributed to show their location, encouraging visitors to walk. Other public art galleries at 1350 Main St. and 1550 Main St. were established, again to promote the foot traffic downtown. The BID has been a key player in the implementation of these exhibits.

It is important that the BID and other economic development partners create a vision plan that will take into consideration the commercial dynamics of the downtown. This will require a market-based strategic plan to guide the actions and decisions made by all the businesses and economic development agencies involved in the district revitalization. The BID can, and should, lead the effort along with DevelopSpringfield to seek out the cooperation from the many stakeholders and business holders downtown.

I would emphasize that the vision needs to include incentives (ie. new market tax credits, historic tax credits) to developers and multifamily property owners to develop more market-rate housing downtown that will attract the creative economy worker, the millennials and the baby boomers who will benefit from and be attracted to an urban lifestyle that is walkable. In this context, walkable means safe and clean sidewalks. Vacant storefronts should be activated with art galleries and other startup businesses, and rent should be free until enough critical mass is created from increased market rate housing demand. This, in turn, will create new demand and investment in retail to fill those storefronts with rent paying tenants.

Improvements to city parks like Stearns Square, Pynchon Park, the Apremont Triangle, and Riverfront Park are critical connecting points that support and enhance the cities walkability as well as the quality of life and livability downtown.

The historic, one-of-a kind character of our downtown provides for an inherent and strategic advantage over shopping centers and malls. Downtown Springfield offers more than just retail stores, including housing, office space, government, entertainment, cultural venues, service businesses and industry. Consequently, the people who live and work in and around the downtown provide a built in customer base for local businesses, an advantage shopping malls just don't have. It is our job to attract the kind of retail that will meet the local customer's needs. As a result, there are unrealized opportunities to launch successful new businesses.

It is the job of the economic development organizations downtown to seek out businesses that will match the needs of the business and residential consumer downtown. For example, in the South End, storage facilities are being developed to serve the needs of the small business and residents who need a convenient place to store their belongings.

Not too long ago one of the nation's largest office supply retailers left the market downtown, because there wasn't adequate "foot traffic." That is not the same thing as the number of people who live and work in downtown, as the population downtown during the business hours was sufficient to support this retailer's demographic and business model. The problem was they were not on the sidewalk.

A University of Massachusetts campus downtown is a very positive development, but it will not be an economic driver unless students leave Tower Square and support surrounding businesses and retail establishments yet to be developed.

The Union Station development and MGM resort will bring thousands of permanent and construction-related jobs. The promise of a commuter rail connecting Springfield to points south and north along the Knowledge Corridor will also enhance the potential for market-rate housing and new retail business to support a growing population in the city.

While the MGM development is a significant economic development driver, the creation of the aforementioned vision plan will lead to urban renewal and revitalization, the likes of which most of us have never dreamed or imagined. A true renaissance that will be measured not only by a thriving retail and housing market but by safe, clean streets that are infinitely walkable.