Rebuild Springfield Unveils Strategy for Revitalizing the City of Homes
Outside St. Anthony’s Social Center on Island Pond Road, overlooking the parking lot, sits a ridge lined with trees, most of them bent and broken beyond salvaging.
Inside, hundreds of Springfield residents recently pressed into a standing-room-only gathering, where municipal officials and individuals tasked with revitalizing the city in the wake of last spring’s tornado unveiled the outline of their plan.
Unlike that row of battered trees, they testified to a city well worth saving.
“This is a solid, strong road map, a framework of good guidance. This is going to be a three- to five-year plan of action,” Mayor Domenic Sarno told residents. “I need you committed, to stay engaged. We must show the same tenacity and resiliency we showed in tackling the cleanup of the tornado.”
The Rebuild Springfield Plan, the result of months of meetings, discussions, and strategy sessions between local and national consultants and the city’s residents and business owners, aims for more than simply rebuilding the structures devastated by the June 1 twister. It’s a chance, said Nick Fyntrilakis, to activate a master plan for the improvement of the entire city, but it’s only the beginning.
“This plan is not a panacea. We don’t have all the answers,” said Fyntrilakis, who was appointed last year to co-chair Rebuild Springfield with Jerry Hayes. “But by putting the right people in the right room with the right leadership, we’ll get even more recommendations and make better progress.”
The Rebuild Springfield Plan is the latest and most tangible result of a process that began shortly after the tornado, but came to encompass much more than rebuilding what was destroyed in that weather disaster. Sarno helped to mobilize a public/private partnership between the Springfield Redevelopment Authority and DevelopSpringfield, respectively, and a 15-member Rebuild Springfield Advisory Committee was appointed to help guide that process.
Over the past six months, 19 separate meetings, with an aggregate attendance of more than 2,000 citizens, have been held in various locations, primarily in neighborhoods impacted by the tornado.
The Rebuild Springfield Plan was crafted using input from those meetings, and also incorporates many previous plans, reports, and studies from a variety of organizations and stakeholders in Springfield. But Sarno stressed that the plan goes much further than returning the city to its pre-tornado condition. Instead, it aims to establish realistic short-term and long-term visions for the city’s future.
As the community came together and tornado recovery progressed, “people were talking about the entire city: ‘how can we build on this positiveness?’” he said, adding that it quickly became clear that this was an opportunity to stimulate the city’s rebirth, not just respond to a storm.
Bobbie Hill, a principal with Concordia LLC, a New Orleans-based consulting firm hired to work on the plan, agreed.
“The tornado-impacted areas were the impetus for the plan, and there’s a special focus on what we call the three districts” hardest-hit by the storm, Hill told those gathered at St. Anthony’s. “But we also have a plan that looks citywide because this is not just about the impacted areas, but about the whole city.”
The Rebuild Springfield Plan, in its final form, will be a “very, very large document,” Hill said, but the 12-page executive summary mailed to every address in Springfield gets to the heart of what the priorities are for each of those districts — the Metro Center and the South End; Maple High/Six Corners, Old Hill, Upper Hill, and the northern part of Forest Park; and East Forest Park and Sixteen Acres — as well as how the physical, cultural, social, organizational, economic, and educational assets of Springfield may be part of a holistic, citywide revitalization plan.
“This is a plan not just about physical projects,” she explained, “but about projects and people and places; we are using this framework to build recommendations across the city and across the different neighborhoods.”
According to the executive summary, “as the pre-eminent urban center of the Pioneer Valley with unique historic character, Springfield has the opportunity to create and sustain a desirable, walkable, urban environment for living, working, playing, and learning.” To that end, the plan builds on previous plans for the downtown and South End — what the plan calls District 1 — that were in place before the tornado. Some major points of emphasis include:
• Public safety. The city needs to strengthen partnerships among community stakeholders, police, and enforcement staff. Key initiatives should include replication of the C-3 policing model successfully implemented in the Brightwood section of the city and replicated in the South Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative.
Hill noted that the safety of a community and people’s perception thereof are often two different things, but for Springfield’s center to thrive, both must be addressed. “If you want a thriving downtown, people have to feel safe and want to go down there.”
• Housing. The plan calls for a variety of housing options appropriate to different locations in the Metro Center and South End that enhance downtown and neighborhood character, add market-rate housing, and raise the median household income.
• Commercial and retail strategy. The city should create centers of vitality and activity along Main Street by recruiting retail and restaurants to ground-floor spaces, office users to upper-story space, and neighborhood-serving retail, as well as assisting in the rebuilding of important sites. Key initiatives include rebuilding the Main and Union intersection to be a South End gateway and activity center, reinforcing the cluster of eateries in the South End to form a ‘restaurant row,’ and exploring options for a grocery store or pharmacy.
• Community institutions. The plan aims to enhance the anchor role of community institutions, especially by hekping to relocate those damaged by the tornado. Key initiatives include assisting the South End Community Center in relocating to the Gemini site and Square One in developing new space on Main Street.
• Urban character and historic preservation. The plan encourages the adaptive reuse of historic buildings and sites and establishes urban design guidelines and a regulatory framework to enhance walkability. Among the recommendations is connecting the district to the riverfront with public art, and special treatments for Union Street as a ‘festival street.’
Public spaces. The city should activate and program public spaces to create destinations, mobilize community partners for stewardship, and connect important public spaces. Key initiatives include programs and activities led by community arts and culture groups to attract people to Court Square and other locations; organizing temporary uses, programs, and events for empty storefronts; and focusing on maintenance and programming for existing parks and open spaces, including the newly redesigned Emerson Wight Park.
A Time to Heal
The neighborhoods of Maple High/Six Corners, Upper Hill, Old Hill, and some of Forest Park comprise District 2, making it a richly diverse section of Springfield, the plan notes.
“The dialogue in District 2 has been intense and complex, yet hopeful,” it goes on. “Many challenges faced District 2 neighborhoods even before the tornado struck: abandoned properties, substandard housing, low home-ownership rates, higher-than-average crime and poverty rates, and low high-school graduation rates.
“In District 2, perhaps more than anywhere else in the city, there is an opportunity for the rebuilding process to have a transformative effect,” it adds. “The scar of the tornado’s path in this part of town revealed the challenges and allowed them to air. What came from these dialogue sessions was a strong commitment to rebuild stronger than before, an engaged community newly energized to improve their community.”
The plan identifies six guiding principles that support and elaborate on this vision:
• Build on the strong commitment and pride in the neighborhoods to support communities and organizations that are connected, engaged, and working together;
• Improve quality of life and provide new opportunities for residents by enhancing the health, safety, and vitality of the community;
• Preserve and promote the history and character of the neighborhoods as an amenity that enriches quality of life and attracts new residents and businesses;
• Achieve a sustainable and equitable balance of owners and renters, incomes, housing types, land uses, employment opportunities, and services that meets the needs of residents while positioning the community to thrive and flourish in the future;
• Value the diversity of people, cultures, and activities and recognize this diversity as a source of resilience, creativity, learning, empowerment, and collaboration that strengthens the neighborhoods; and
• Demonstrate public and personal commitment, improve perceptions, and attract new energy and investment through neighborhoods that are attractive and well-maintained.
Among the specific goals to meet those objectives are a coordinated housing strategy with new infill housing, job training and small-business support, enhanced neighborhood businesses, reuse of vacant lots, access to safe public transit, improved schools, healthier lifestyles, and coordination of community services, among others.
Better Than Before
District 3, which includes the East Forest Park and Sixteen Acres neighborhoods, is relatively stable with a strong sense of neighborhood pride, the report notes.
“While home rebuilding has long since begun in this district, it will take generations for newly planted trees to replace what was lost,” it continues. “There is a strong interest in rebuilding better than before in this community.
Some broad goals for the district include:
• Restore and enhance the neighborhoods’ natural resources, including trees, water bodies, open spaces, and wildlife, and recognize these resources as amenities that enhance value, improve health, and provide recreational opportunities;
• Promote the family-friendly character of the community through safe, attractive neighborhoods, strong community organizations, quality schools, social gathering spaces, and activities for all ages;
• Focus on schools, parks, and public facilities as community anchors that are integrated into the neighborhood and coordinated to provide efficient, effective services;
• Improve mobility within and between neighborhoods through efforts to reduce congestion, calm traffic, provide enhanced bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, explore trail opportunities, and enhance streetscapes to support local businesses; and
• Strengthen neighborhoods by rebuilding, repairing, and maintaining well-designed homes that are efficient, durable, and comfortable.
Residents, the report states, are ready to turn the devastation of the tornado into an opportunity to enhance their neighborhoods by way of better homes, parks, greenways, trails, and other community assets. The plan calls for a branch library at Dryden Memorial School, greater access to youth and senior activities, and aggressive maintenance and repair assistance, among other things.
Sarno said the entire city should think along the lines of creating a better Springfield than before, and also took a moment to be grateful for how much worse the twister could have been.
“This tornado hit at 4:37 p.m. Think about it: if this tornado hit at 2:37 p.m., all our children would have been in school. Imagine if it had hit at 4:37 a.m.; we would all have been asleep,” the mayor said. “And as Gov. Patrick indicated when he came out here, there’s a silver lining to these storm clouds that we’ve already seen: the resiliency of Springfield’s people.”
Hill agreed. “There are great success stories in this city, and one for sure is how far you’ve come in eight months after the disaster. These great stories will attract people to this area.”
But first, the plan must be implemented, Fyntrilakis said, and that will begin by forming committees of volunteers to focus on specific domains and districts, each co-chaired by a public employee and someone from the private sector.
“The task for the leaders,” he said, “is to convene all the stakeholders, all those who want to participate and all those already participating, and to convene a working group as set forth by recommendations in the plan.”
“I need you to stay engaged; that is the key,” Sarno told residents. “It’s not over … but the framework is there. The guidance is there. The road map is there.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]