Northampton Expands Housing and Its DowntownFor more than three decades now, Northampton’s downtown has been the envy of cities and towns in this region and well outside it.
It is known for — and in many cases has won awards for — its cultural community, inventory of dining establishments, vitality, diversity, liveability, driveability (with bicycles), and sustainability. And moving forward, said Mayor David Narkewicz, the goal is to essentially make this city, well, even more of all of the above.
Indeed, plans are underway or on the drawing board for additional housing (especially in the ‘affordable’ category), traffic improvements, a wide range of developments on Pleasant Street (Route 5), long-awaited revitalization efforts involving Pulaski Park in the heart of downtown, new retail, and more.
“Northampton has won awards for its walkability and for having the best Main Street in America,” said the mayor. “And I’m excited about the progress being made and am very bullish about our city.”
The net effect of these many initiatives will be to effectively expand downtown, enable more people to live in it — thus providing more foot traffic for existing businesses and potential new ones — and make the city even more of a destination.
And that’s an important factor in the casino era set to begin in Massachusetts and especially the South End of Springfield, just 20 miles to the south, said the mayor, and also at a time when rail service will improve across the region, making Northampton that much more accessible.
Overall, Narkewicz says Northampton’s initiatives to expand its downtown, add more affordable housing, and make infrastructure improvements is a “winning strategy,” one that should enable it to withstand whatever threat the casino presents to its vitality.
“We need to focus on how to prepare and position ourselves so that we can remain a successful and viable downtown destination,” he said, adding that this is a multi-pronged initiative.
For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, we take an in-depth look at the many developments underway or planned for Paradise City, and how they are expected to improve what is already considerable quality of life.
At Home with the Idea
Narkewicz said one of the few downsides to Northampton’s three-decade-long resurgence has been consistently high property values that have had the effect of pricing some people out of the city and its downtown.
Plans to increase the inventory of affordable housing will not only help remedy that situation, but they could also result in a more diverse population.
Two major housing projects that will feature affordable units and are in different stages of development are part of a broad initiative to expand and improve the Pleasant Street corridor.
HAPHousing Inc. is purchasing the Northampton Lodging House and plans to transform the multi-story building from single rooms into 72 units of housing, with half of them affordable or subsidized. The new apartments will be built on the upper stories of the building, and the first floor will contain 3,500 square feet of retail space, enough for two storefronts.
In addition, the Northampton Lumber Site, which sits perpendicular to the Northampton Lodging House, is under contract negotiations. Valley CDC is planning to purchase it and convert the property’s 70,000 square feet into 55 affordable housing units, each with one to three bedrooms.
“It’s a plus for our future to have new housing near state-transit-oriented development; these two projects are on a route served by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and within a five-minute walk to the Amtrak passenger rail station,” Narkewicz said, adding that the rerouted Amtrak Vermonter train service is operational, and although there are only two trains stopping in Northampton each day right now, ridership is strong and will continue to grow.
“There are also other benefits associated with an increase in downtown housing, including more customers for retail stores and restaurants. The housing will also allow people to be within walking distance to jobs, and the affordability factor is important,” he continued. “We take pride in trying to make sure that Northampton remains affordable to people on every rung of the income ladder.”
New housing options will also become available this year for elders when construction on Christopher Heights is complete. The senior housing facility is being built on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital, and half of the 86 assisted units will be affordable.
“It is part of a continuum to try to provide affordable housing for people of all ages,” the mayor said, adding that the Christopher Grantham Group which is building the facility, applied for and received housing tax credits from the state, which were boosted by $250,000 in Community Preservation Act funding from the city.
In addition to new housing options, other developments are planned for that area of the city. The state will begin construction on a major reconfiguration of the intersection of Route 5 and Conz Street, and the fork in the road that people encounter when they enter Northampton from the south will become a roundabout.
“This is one of our busiest intersections, and many businesses are centered around it, so this will help to make the traffic pattern more efficient and will be a more aesthetically pleasing gateway from the south,” Narkewicz said.
The vitality of the roadway was enhanced when the Fairfield Inn by Marriott opened late last year on Conz Street and added 108 new hotel rooms within walking distance to downtown, increasing the city’s hotel space to 300 rooms.
Art of the Matter
Northampton touts a new initiative called “Pleasant Futures,” which Narkewicz describes as a “community re-visioning process for Pleasant Street,” and a number of public meetings have been held to get input from residents in surrounding neighborhoods about what needs to be done to increase density and expand the downtown area in the neighborhood in a way that is pleasing to everyone.
It kicked off last May and is a collaborative effort between the Office of Planning and Sustainability and the Ward 3 Neighborhood Organization. “The concerns expressed in the meetings focused on pedestrian safety and vibrancy along the corridor,” Narkewicz said.
To that end, the city filed an application for a MassWorks grant to install new sidewalks, increase on-street parking, and create an attractive streetscape that would make the roadway more walkable. Traffic-mitigation funds from a new medical-marijuana dispensary soon to open on Conz Street will be used to help fund the planning process, and the mayor said Yes Computer renovated a building there a few years ago, while the owner of the shops across the street has renovated several storefronts.
“One of the advantages of interjecting more housing is that it pushes Pleasant Street to be more walkable and increases downtown’s vibrancy, which we are looking to expand,” said Economic Development Director Terry Masterson.
Change is also occurring in the heart of downtown. The Academy of Music, the oldest municipally owned theater in America, has increased its programming, and a major capital campaign kicked off in the fall of 2013 to install new seating, repair damage to the building’s ornate plaster from a leaky roof, and return the interior to its original colors.
“The city partnered with the Academy to improve the exterior and replace the roof,” Narkewicz said. “Most of the work was done last summer when the academy went black, and the city installed a new fire-escape system in the building at that time. The Academy is a major driver for tourism and brings 45,000 to 50,000 people to the city every year.”
He told BusinessWest that arts and culture play a major role in Northampton’s success, and venues like the Calvin Theater and Iron Horse Music Hall, events such as First Night and a monthly Arts Night Out, and retail stores that showcase the work of artists and artisans are part of the thriving arts fabric.
“A really exciting development in the same realm is also taking place on the other side of town,” Narkewicz said. “The Arts Trust has purchased the Universal Fitness Center, and through fund-raising and grants, they are turning it into an arts center with a black-box theater and space for artists to work in, which is important because Northampton’s success and the growth in property values and rents has made it difficult for artists to find affordable studios to work in.”
Meanwhile, another major development is the broad effort to revitalize Pulaski Park.
It sits in the center of the city’s downtown, and a $2.4 million renovation and addition is being planned that will create more green, open space for residents and visitors to enjoy.
“We think the park will become a crown jewel in our already-excellent downtown,” said the mayor. “It sits between City Hall and the Academy of Music and hasn’t undergone a major renovation since 1976.”
Although upgrades had been considered in the past, cost played into the equation. But revamping the park recently became a viable option due to a change in state law that allows cities to use Community Preservation Act funds for existing parks, rather than just for new ones.
As a result, last year Northampton sought and received a $400,000 Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations (PARC) Grant to help fund the construction, as well as some initial design money from the City Council.
Stephen Stimson Associates was hired to create a plan for the park, and after holding a series of open meetings with residents to determine what they would like to see done, “they produced a breathtaking new design,” Narkewicz said. It is pending approval from the Community Preservation Committee, and, if it’s granted, construction will begin in June and continue through July 2017.
“Sustainability is part of the design, and it features a unique bioswale that will collect rainwater runoff and process it in an environmentally friendly way. The park will also have a new nature play area that will replace the existing, dated play structure. It will incorporate rocks, logs, and platforms and have a small slide,” the mayor said.
However, additional funds will be needed to complete the project, and the city is seeking $1,675,000 in the next round of PARC grants. About $200,000 of that funding would be used to comply with state PARC requirements to move utilities and communications lines underground.
Narkewicz said his office, the Department of Public Works, the Recreation Department, and the Office of Planning and Sustainability are all committed to identifying construction funding through a combination of local monies and state grant opportunities.
For decades now, downtown Northampton has set the standard when it comes to vibrancy, diversity, and, as mentioned earlier, overall liveability.
Mayor Narkewicz and other city officials believe that the overall impact of the many initiatives underway will be to set the bar even higher. And, in doing so, they will give new meaning to that nickname Paradise City.
Northampton at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1884
Area: 35.75 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $15.81
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.81
Median Household Income: $57,991 (2013)
Family Household Income: $81,680 (2013)
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; Smith College; Veterans Administration Medical Clinic
* Latest information available