Chestnut Street Junior High School Site Creates Opportunity in the North End
Part and Parcel
Recent calamities in Springfield, including the tornado of 2011 and the natural-gas explosion of 2012, created hardship — but also intriguing development opportunities. The same can be said of the 2013 fire that leveled the historic Chestnut Street Junior High School. It eventually resulted in four shovel-ready acres in the heart of what has come to be called the Medical District.
Kevin Kennedy says that, before Chestnut Junior High School was essentially destroyed by fire in 2013, Springfield had what amounted to a development opportunity in the city’s North End.
It just wasn’t a very solid opportunity, Kennedy, the city’s chief development officer, went on, as evidenced by the fact that at least three requests for proposals (RFPs) involving that property over the past decade or so — he admits to actually losing count — failed to yield a workable project.
The reason was simple: the cost of repurposing the school or demolishing the structure, built in 1901 and vacant since 2004, and then remediating the four acres it sat on, made redeveloping the site financially prohibitive.
And there were other issues as well, said Kennedy, adding that the building was listed on the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places, thus limiting what could be done with the building and even making demolition a stern, time-consuming hurdle to overcome.
But the fire changed the dynamic in many ways by essentially removing all those obstacles.
Amid safety concerns, the city demolished the four-story structure, and, to apply a lesson it learned from what it did (or, more to the point, didn’t do) following a fire at the former Gemini manufacturing complex in the South End, it remediated the site, including removal of the foundations, said Kennedy.
“This site is now highly developable,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the price tag for razing and cleaning the site exceeded $1.5 million, the city may well come to consider that bill a sound investment rather than an aggravating expense.
Thus, like other recent calamities in Springfield — most notably the 2011 tornado and 2012 natural-gas blast — the suspicious fire at the Chestnut Street school has created an intriguing development opportunity.
But, as with those other opportunities spawned from disaster, this one comes wrapped in challenges, the biggest being the fact that those four acres lie in what is statistically one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Commonwealth, a possible stumbling block when it comes to some of the possible strategies for redevelopment, including retail.
But that area is rich in other ways, said Kennedy, adding that it lies in the heart of what city economic-development officials have come to call the Medical District.
Indeed, Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, and Shriners Hospital for Children are all within only a few hundred yards of the school site, he explained, adding that a number of other medical facilities, many under the Baystate umbrella, are now located just off Main Street in the so-called Wason section of the North End.
More than 10,000 people, many of them in well-paying positions, work at facilities considered part of the Medical District, said Kennedy, adding that the numbers add up to some compelling opportunities, ranging from the broad spectrum of retail to the creation of market-rate housing for some of those workers, including the hundreds of young doctors in residence at Baystate.
For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, Kennedy laid out some of the possibilities for this potential-laden blank canvas in the North End’s Memorial Square neighborhood.
Out of the Ashes
The deadline for responding to the RFP for the Chestnut Street site was Sept. 14, said Kennedy, adding that it will be extended to Oct. 5 (with questions due by Sept. 25) to give the development community more time to consider options.
“We’ve had a number of calls, and for that reason we think there’s a bit of interest,” he noted. “And that’s why we’re going to extend it and give people a few more weeks.”
At the very least, he is expecting a far more energetic response than when the 82,000-square-foot school was still standing, with its hundreds of windows boarded up, a state it had been in for several years.
“We had some proposals,” he said, referring to those RFPs issued while the imposing school was still standing. “But when the developer actually got down to brass tacks and put pencil to paper, it didn’t pencil, and all those RFPs went for naught.”
The shovel-ready nature of the property distinguishes it from most not only in Springfield, but also neighboring communities, he went on, as does its close proximity to so many prominent healthcare facilities.
Indeed, the North End has been the site of a number of new developments in recent years, topped by Baystate’s massive $270 million expansion formerly known as the Hospital of the Future. But it has also been a source of speculation about what could — and should — happen next.
So much so that the city commissioned the UMass Amherst Center for Economic Development to undertake a study of the area. That document, “The Springfield Medical District: An Analysis of the Medical Industry and Its Workers,” was completed in 2012.
The report’s authors identified opportunities and challenges in equal abundance.
“The concentration of the medical industry in the district offers many opportunities for commercial and residential development,” they wrote. “However, the city must overcome considerable barriers if it wishes to realize this potential; there is a large potential market for additional shopping, eateries, and other services that cater to medical workers and clients — although few such opportunities currently exist.”
Expanding on those challenges, the report’s authors list everything from I-91, which slices through the North End and creates what they call a “spatial barrier to pedestrian circulation within the district,” to the low-income nature of the residential neighborhood, which is currently home to a very small percentage of the medical personnel working in the district.
The report implies that, if the city could create more attractive housing in the area and, overall, make it a more sought-after place to live, it could capture a large amount of purchasing power it is currently losing to surrounding communities.
“There is a fairly consistent trend — the more one earns, the further away they live from the district, with the highly paid physicians and administrators living the furthest away,” the authors note. “We estimate roughly $400 million in aggregate purchasing power of employees who live outside the city. This means that Springfield fails to capture the indirect economic benefits of its medical industry — the jobs and businesses that are supported by the spending of households.”
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The Chestnut School site won’t change this dynamic on its own, certainly, said Kennedy, noting quickly that market-rate housing on the site could keep some employees not only in Springfield, but in the North End.
“We’ve had conservations with both hospitals,” he said, referring to Baystate and Mercy. “And they both have a need for housing for both employees and trainees. Baystate, for example, is a teaching hospital, and you have residents who aren’t looking for permanent housing, but may need something.”
But there are several options for the property, which is currently zoned residential, he went on, adding that there are several potential opportunities within the broad realm of retail.
The Memorial Square area lacks a major supermarket and other types of shopping, he noted, adding that the parcel is large enough for a supermarket or a chain pharmacy such as CVS. Inquiries to date have reflected an interest in both commercial and residential developments, he went on, adding that the city doesn’t really have a preference.
“We don’t want to presuppose anything,” he told BusinessWest. “We want to see what we think the best deal is and talk with the residents of the neighborhood to see what they want, and then balance the economics with those preferences.”
Looking at the Chestnut Street opportunity and the circumstances that created it, Kennedy mixed optimism with some philosophy.
“Oftentimes, as we’ve seen several times in Springfield in recent history, when something bad happens, something good can come of it,” he said, adding that the tornado’s path of destruction certainly contributed to MGM’s choice of the South End for its $800 million casino project.
Whether a similar, smaller-scale success story can be written a few miles to the north in another challenged neighborhood remains to be seen.
But Kennedy believes that fateful fire may have set the stage for another landscape-altering development.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]