Agawam Officials Look to Create Walkable Downtown
Mayor Richard Cohen recently unearthed a 30-year-old newspaper article that said Agawam’s Walnut Street Extension area needed to be revitalized.
The story reveals just how long that area has been a target for redevelopment, and also how current efforts may finally produce headlines of a different nature.
Indeed, the mayor said it has long been his plan to transform the area into a walkable downtown where people want to live, work, and play — and that dream may be approaching reality.
“It will take time, effort, and money to achieve, but we are moving in the right direction,” said Cohen, adding that the area has been a primary focus since 2010.
The town’s efforts received a tangible boost on April 1 when David Peters of Site Redevelopment Technologies purchased the former Games and Lanes bowling-alley property at 346-350 Walnut St. Extension. It has been a highly visible eyesore since it closed in 2001 after a fire caused extensive damage to the 30,000-square-foot building, which sits on a 2.3-acre lot.
The property was owned by Standard Uniform Corp. from 1969 through the ’80s, and in 1989, widespread groundwater contamination was discovered that spread off-site in a northeasterly direction.
The former owner worked in partnership with the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection to clean up the brownfields and spent $1.5 million on the effort, but eventually gave up; the property has been vacant for 15 years.
In the past, developers shied away from purchasing it due to the unknown amount of environmental remediation that still needs to be done. But Peters didn’t view that as an impediment.
“I’m a purchaser of last resorts; I look for environmental disasters, and although they can be costly and time-consuming to clean up, this gave me an opportunity to rehabilitate the property and the neighborhood,” he said, explaining that his work as a chemical engineer led him to create Site Redevelopment Technologies, which specializes in purchasing, cleaning, and redeveloping environmentally impaired properties.
However, before making the purchase, he did want to know how far the pollution had spread. The town had received a $50,000 grant to study the property and completed the first phase of that investigation in 2014, and after Peters sent a letter of intent stating he was interested in purchasing it, the City Council approved an additional $12,000 for the study.
Peters spent a year working closely with town and state officials to get the results, and estimates it will take another year and cost about $300,000 to complete the cleanup. But the property is already on the market, and a developer has approached him about using it as an indoor recreation area that would feature go-karts.
“This project is like a pebble thrown in a pond,” noted Marc Strange, the town’s Planning and Community Development director. “It will have a ripple affect on the entire Walnut Street Extension area. It could become an anchor development that will drive traffic and new customers to the neighborhood, especially if it is coupled with new programs like a Taste of Agawam or a block party.”
The Walnut Street Extension area is home to about 30 service-oriented businesses, retail shops, and restaurants, with a loyal customer base.
But it was clear that improvements needed to be made to transform it into a town center, and last October, the town hired the engineering firm Tighe & Bond to create a design plan that would be inviting and attractive.
The company worked with landscape architect Andrew Leonard to create several conceptual designs, and Strange said two public meetings were held with property owners in the Walnut Street Extension area to gather input on their preferences.
The majority chose an outdoor market concept, which will be reflected in the final design that is anticipated in about a month. It will include the outdoor market area, a 12-foot-wide sidewalk and 12-foot-wide island with new trees and sidewalk furniture on one side of the street, a roundabout at the end of the road, and a 10-foot-wide bicycle and pedestrian lane. Parking will be maintained on the side of the street with the narrower sidewalk, and new spaces will be added on an adjacent street.
The town was also recently awarded a $10,000 Massachusetts Downtown Initiative grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development to provide support for businesses on Walnut Street Extension.
A portion of the money was used for a June 14 workshop conducted by Christine Moynihan of Retail Visioning titled “Best Retail Practices.” It was open to the public, and six Walnut Street Extension area business owners were selected for free follow-up, one-on-one sessions, along with $350 worth of improvements made on their behalf.
In addition, the reconstruction of the Morgan Sullivan Bridge, which spans the Westfield River and runs from West Springfield into Agawam, serving as a gateway to the nearby Walnut Street Extension, will also help to revitalize the area. The $13.3 million rehabilitation project will add new traffic signals to relieve congestion and prevent the traffic jams that occur daily during rush hour.
In addition, the former Food Mart store on 63 Springfield St., which was most recently home to the Agawam YMCA, has been put to new use.
Cohen said the nonprofit vacated the structure May 31, and the next day it reopened as the West of the River Family Community Center.
“The Y’s misfortune was our good fortune,” he told BusinessWest, explaining that the community center will offer an expanded menu of more than 100 programs and will help draw more people to the area.
“We’re moving in the right direction with our dream,” he reiterated, adding that the Valley Opportunity Council plans to open an office in the building and was very helpful with the transition.
Cohen said the town will continue to seek funding to help with revitalization efforts, and will apply for a $1 million MassWorks grant to help pay for the new streetscape project that is being designed in conjunction with the Complete Streets plan, which encourages the development of safe and accessible bicycle and pedestrian traffic lanes.
Efforts are underway to make Agawam into a ‘dementia-friendly community’ in conjunction with an initiative created by Dementia Friendly America to increase awareness about the disease.
Cohen said the idea of providing ongoing education was proposed by Melinda Monasterski, and he believes it is important.
She told BusinessWest that she put together a meeting with the mayor, Strange, and officials from the senior center, library, and home-health agencies with the idea of providing the public with more education and information about dementia.
“It can be difficult to know how to interact with people who have dementia. It’s also hard for families to understand and cope with the changes that occur in their loved ones, and it can be challenging for first responders to help people with the condition during a crisis,” said the director of Heritage Hall’s dementia program, citing studies estimating that 10 million Americans will be affected by the disease over the next decade.
As a result of Monasterski’s efforts, educational sessions and support-group meetings will be held in the senior center, library, and new family center, and informational videos will be shown on the town’s website and broadcast on the public-access TV channel.
Progress is also occurring at another gateway in town; last month, the Colvest Group purchased and razed the former Agawam Motor Lodge on the corner of Suffield and Main streets. Cohen said the company has plans to redevelop the entire corner, which will make a decided difference, as the motor lodge had become a public nuisance.
Another significant project kicked off in March at Agawam High School, where construction began on a new track and sports complex. The $8.1 million project is expected to be completed in September and will include a new synthetic track and multi-purpose artificial turf field, new bleachers and electronic signage, new lighting, eight lighted tennis courts, a new baseball field, a new basketball court, upgrades to the softball fields and added dugouts, a new concession stand with room for an athletic trainer, and handicapped-accessible bathrooms. Work will also be done inside the school and will include new locker rooms and state-of-the-art bathrooms. In addition, the grounds around the complex will contain bicycle and pedestrian walkways so people can easily access different areas.
The designs were created by Milone and Macbroom of Springfield and Caolo & Bieniek Associates of Chicopee, and the construction is being undertaken by Lupachino and Salvatore of Bloomfield, Conn.
“We haven’t had a track in well over a decade and were in desperate need of new tennis courts,” Cohen said. “When the work is finished, it will be a very impressive sports campus.”
A $2.2 million upgrade to School Street Park was also completed last year. The project was done in two phases and encompasses 50 acres.
Cohen said it was the largest park project undertaken in the state in the past 25 years and offers something for everyone of any age: it boasts a water-spray park, a band shell and stage, volleyball courts, a small playground, and an additional 200 parking spots, which were all paid for with Community Preservation funds and a $1 million PARC grant.
A new dog park, built on Armory Drive with a $250,000 grant, was also finished last year and has proved to be very popular.
Infrastructure improvements are also on the agenda, and this year’s budget contains money to hire a four-person crew to maintain and repair the town’s sidewalks, which went by the wayside for a few years due to a lack of funding. In addition, the town is working with SCORE to start programs for people who want to open businesses.
But even though development is taking place in many areas, Cohen noted the town has worked to maintain open space by putting restrictions in place to preserve farmland and prevent it from ever being developed.
On June 3, the mayor received notification that Standard and Poor reaffirmed the town’s AA+ bond rating, and an accompanying report states Agawam has a strong economy and strong management team, and employs good financial policies and practices.
“I’m extremely proud of what we have done, what we are doing, where we are going, and our AA+ bond rating,” Cohen said, adding that, whenever a new project is planned, the impact on taxpayers is taken into careful consideration.
“We still maintain the lowest split tax rate in the area, offer full services including free trash pickup, and are committed to elevating the quality of life,” he continued. “I want Agawam to be a place that has a lot to offer where people can afford to live.”
Revitalizing the Walnut Street Extension area will go a long way toward realizing that goal, but the mayor noted that all of the projects that were recently completed, are underway, or are in the planning stages have a synergistic element.
“The pieces dance around each other, and we are trying to put them all together,” Cohen said. “There is a lot of positive change taking place in Agawam.”
Agawam at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 28,976 (2016)
Area: 24.2 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $16.18
Commercial Tax Rate: $29.98
Median Household Income: $63,682
Family Household Income: $72,258
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England
* Latest information available