Activating the Downtown
Arts Initiative Strives to Breathe New Life into Springfield’s Central Business DistrictEvan Plotkin is a firm believer in the power of the arts as an economic driver. He says he’s utilized the creative economy to improve the ‘quality of life and experience’ for the tenants in two downtown office buildings — One Financial Plaza and 1550 Main — and now he’s planning to take his so-called “downtown revitalization through the arts” initiative to another dimension with ambitious plans for the Morgan Square area. As with those other properties, his plan is to take dormant or underutilized facilities, and “activate” them.
Evan Plotkin needed both hands as he gestured to various components of the spacious courtyard within the Morgan Square apartment complex in downtown Springfield — the ornate clock, the large shade trees, the walkway to the back door of the deli that’s been closed for nearly a decade, and an alleyway that would connect the courtyard with Main Street, except the gate at the front is always locked.
“It’s a beautiful area, but very underutilized,” said Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, which recently won a contract to manage the property. “It’s asleep … and we need to wake it up.”
He would use similar language as he discussed other aspects of the massive Morgan Square/Armory Commons complex — including a host of vacant storefronts, another courtyard behind a building along Taylor Street, and a traditionally large inventory of vacant residential space — and other properties in that section of downtown.
The word he used most often, and pointedly so, as he talked about various properties and assets was “activate.”
That’s what he intends to do through the expansion of an ambitious project he calls the “downtown revitalization through the arts” initiative, which, as that name suggests, attempts to use the arts as an economic driver to change the look and feel of that part of Springfield. There are many moving parts, but the concept is fairly simple — to incentivize artists to live and work in that area, and to provide them with vehicles for showcasing — and selling — their work.
Plotkin is quite optimistic about the prospects for the Morgan Square property, which would be rebranded as the “Art Space at Morgan Square,” because he’s already conducted a good amount of ‘activation’ in other buildings managed by NAI Plotkin, and with considerable success in his estimation.
He pointed to 1350 Main St., the office tower also known as One Financial Plaza, as an example. There, a long-dormant fountain has been restored, a café has been opened on the ground floor, the lobby’s walls have become artists’ galleries, and a small patio area has become a venue for performing artists. These changes and added amenities have no doubt contributed to a higher occupancy rate and success in turning on the lights within several previously dark floors, said Plotkin.
The Morgan Square project represents the latest and most comprehensive activation effort to date, said Plotkin. Based on models created in Pittsfield, North Adams, Washington, D.C., and other communities, the arts initiative calls for attracting artists to the vacant retail spaces in Morgan Square through reduced or forgiven rent, and using downtown office buildings, such as 1550 Main, One Financial Plaza, and others, as well as perhaps the downtown hotels, as galleries to showcase the art.
The broad objective is to use the arts to create energy in the downtown and make it a true destination, said Plotkin, who has spent the past several years advancing his theory that the creative economy is one of the keys — and perhaps the key to revitalizing Springfield’s central business district.
“This is the culmination of a lot of thinking, a lot of thought about the creative economy,” he said. “It’s a chance to really make something happen in the city; I almost look at this as the great Springfield experiment.”
Works in Progress
Plotkin told BusinessWest that the arts initiative amounts to a manifestation of a philosophy that defines the Plotkin company’s approach to property management.
“While most management companies can perform the perfunctory physical aspects of managing the property, our approach also focuses on improving the quality of life and experience for the individuals who live and work downtown,” he explained. “This is achieved in part by programming events, and improving downtown parks, neighborhoods, and other public places.”
The Morgan Square initiative contains all these elements, said Annie Waters, a Smith College student, artist (some of her work is currently hanging in the lobbies at 1550 Main), and summer intern at Plotkin who nonetheless has her own business card, complete with the title “chief imagination officer.”
Waters has been involved in many arts-related projects over the past few months, including a proposal to use scrap metal from Springfield junkyards to create industrial- history-themed sculptures — depicting the Duryea brothers’ car, the monkey wrench, and other Springfield firsts — that would be displayed at 1350 and 1550 Main St.
But most of her time has been spent blueprinting a plan of action for Morgan Square, an initiative aimed at removing those ‘Now Leasing’ signs from storefronts (some of which have been in the windows for years) and otherwise activating dormant or underutilized properties.
The broad goals are to inspire more artists to live and work in the complex, she explained, adding that the endeavor is modeled after a number of successful programs, such as Mather Studios in the Penn neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The 10-floor building has 50 loft-style condos occupied exclusively by artists, and it has become a destination, not simply a mailing address.
Moving past images from D.C., North Adams, and Pittsfield on a Powerpoint presentation she’s shown to many in the area, Waters stopped at images of the vacant storefronts in Morgan Square. Outlining the plans for the complex, she and Plotkin said these commercial spaces will be offered at reduced rents to qualified artists.
There will be a lottery of sorts, said Plotkin, noting that applicants must complete a questionnaire and impress those reviewing them with answers to such questions as ‘how do you plan to utilize the studio and gallery space if accepted?’ and ‘how do you plan to actively participate and contribute to the creative economy at Morgan Square?’
Other components of the initiative call for development of a restaurant/coffee shop (probably on the site of the former deli) and reactivation of that aforementioned courtyard through outdoor seating for the restaurant, decorative lighting, sculpture, art, and music.
In addition, the apartments would be marketed to teachers who work in the city’s public schools and Baystate employees working at 1550 Main. “The goal is to develop market-rate apartments that will attract talented professionals to housing in downtown Springfield,” he said. “The new workforce and talent pool will eventually attract site selectors and new businesses downtown.”
Still another component is to create gallery space in the downtown’s office buildings and perhaps its hotels, said Plotkin, adding that the overarching goal is help artists and their ventures become more economically viable.
“What we’re trying to do is offer artists living space, studio space, and gallery space,” he said. “They need all three to be successful.”
Plotkin told BusinessWest that he’s optimistic about the plans for Morgan Square, and this positive outlook is fueled by what has transpired at 1350 and 1550 Main St., but also by other developments currently unfolding or on the drawing board.
These include the ambitious development projects launched by the New England Farmworkers Council and its president, Heriberto Flores — the expanded portfolio now includes the Hippodrome and the Bowles Building (home to the Fort restaurant), across Main Street from Morgan Square — and the planned redevelopment of Union Station, which can be seen out the windows of some of the apartments.
“If I was a single person and an artist, I couldn’t think of a cooler place to do my work,” he said, expressing the hope that others will be saying such things in the not-too-distant future.
Brush with Fame
Time will tell how Plotkin’s great Springfield experiment, or at least the Art Space at Morgan Square component, shapes out.
But he believes that in time, and probably not much of it, the project will become a poignant symbol of how the creative arts have helped revitalize the downtown area.
Always the optimist, Plotkin said there is already plenty of evidence that the arts can improve the experience of working and living downtown, and he’s energized by the prospects of creating more.
“This is a very exciting project for Springfield that could really change the feel of this area,” he said, while standing in the Morgan Square courtyard. “All we have to do is activate the many assets we have.”
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]