Collaboration, Shared Goals Spur Redevelopment in Springfield
Springfield is undergoing a $2.7 billion transformation, and although that number — and the current spate of progress — is dominated by MGM’s $900 million casino, a plethora of other exciting projects are underway.
Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy said the city initiated a team effort four years ago with city officials and groups that include DevelopSpringfield, the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Business Improvement District (BID), and the Parking Authority, who convene on a regular basis to collaborate on projects and areas of focus that are proposed or underway.
Each group does its part, and an annual city report is designed to show the public the substantial investments being made.
They include the $88.5 million renovation of Union Station, which is 55% complete and slated to open at the end of the year.
“We all share the same vision,” said Jeffrery Ciuffreda, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, adding that the chamber wrote numerous letters of support to help secure the funding to revitalize Union Station.
DevelopSpringfield has a number of projects taking place (more about that later), and a groundbreaking ceremony will be staged in the upcoming weeks for the new Innovation Center, which will serve as the cornerstone for the city’s newly designated Innovation District.
DevelopSpringfield President and CEO Jay Minkarah told BusinessWest the center will comprise about 18,000 square feet of space in two formerly vacant adjacent buildings at 270 and 276 Bridge St. and will become the new home of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), which provides collaborative work space and services to help fledging businesses.
The center, which will be bordered downtown on the south by the MGM casino and on the north by Union Station, will include a café and rental space for young companies as they outgrow shared space at VVM.
The city partnered with DevelopSpringfield on the project, and the Commonwealth awarded a $2 million MassWorks grant to MassDevelopment to support development of the Innovation Center. The agency then sub-granted the funds to DevelopSpringfield. MassMutual also contributed $500,000 to the project, and generous contributions were received from the Beveridge Family Foundation and the Berkshire Bank Foundation.
In addition, the city will soon announce plans to redevelop and refurbish Stearns Square and Duryea Way, which connects to Union Station.
“We’ve developed a collective strategy and vision, and have had a great deal of good fortune,” Kennedy told BusinessWest, referring to winning the bid for the casino and securing funding for Union Station, which was accomplished with help from legislators. However, he and other key figures credit the city’s successful tornado recovery and rebuild efforts that began in the wake of the 2011 catastrophe with their recent success in obtaining funding for downtown projects.
And the plans continue to expand. “We would also like to create a dining district, and are actively working with the BID to create a loan program to encourage new restaurants,” Kennedy noted. “Our future revolves around culture, entertainment, innovation, and dining. MGM is an entertainment giant, and their offerings will be very attractive, but we need to couple them with innovation because that is where the economy is moving.”
Successfully revitalized downtowns feature housing options as well as retail establishments, said Ciuffreda, and the chamber is excited about SilverBrick Lofts, a 200-unit complex with one- and two-bedroom apartments that are slowly being converted from subsidized housing into market-rate rentals. Renovations have been going on for about 18 months as leases expire, and many of the revamped units are already rented and feature exposed brick, reclaimed wood beams, arched windows, and high ceilings.
“They’re in an old mill that is actually three buildings in one, and runs from Worthington Street to Taylor Street; SilverBrick sits behind the new Innovation Center and is right across from the open tunnel that leads into Union Station,” Ciuffreda noted, adding that, in addition to housing, there are also a dozen retail spaces in the complex, mostly along Worthington and Main streets. One of them has been rented, and a new chocolate and coffee shop is expected to open there soon.
In addition, MGM’s contract includes establishing 54 new units of market-rate housing within a mile of the casino, and the (now-vacant) former Springfield School Department building on 195 State St. has been identified as a potential site.
“We’re starting to see the rebirth of the downtown with the Innovation District, the new market-rate housing, and Union Station opening in the fall,” Ciuffreda said. “The combination is resulting in a big change while MGM is being built.”
In addition, the Mass. Convention Center Authority has been working closely with the Springfield Parking Authority, and the Convention Center Authority will soon be issuing requests for proposals for a feasibility study to determine the future of the Civic Center Garage.
The Parking Authority has undertaken about $900,000 in structural repair work to the facility, but that patch is expected to be effective for only five years, so the study will show whether the garage should undergo more repairs or be replaced, given that MGM will build a garage to house 3,300 vehicles a few blocks away.
The city, Parking Authority, and Springfield Technical Community College also plan to conduct a study of the upper State Street area to determine the need and feasibility for developing a parking structure there to serve the growing needs of the neighborhood.
In addition, the city recently finished a $6 million reconstruction of Boston Road and has undertaken major work along the State Street corridor that serves as a major east-west connector with the downtown area.
Ciuffreda said real opportunity exists at Eastfield Mall on Boston Road, which has lost its anchor tenants in recent years, but continues to be a popular destination for area residents.
To serve their needs, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority has a bus service that runs along the corridor. A recent study identified it as a prime route to introduce Bus Rapid Transit to the region, which would originate at Union Station and run to Eastfield Mall — a 7.1-mile corridor that’s one of the most heavily traveled bus routes in the PVTA system, with more than 5,000 riders a day.
Over the coming months, PVTA will host neighborhood and public forums to share information on the system and get input about the service, which would include faster service and fare collection, exclusive bus lanes, and stations as opposed to bus stops.
Work is also going on in other parts of the city. The intersection at Sumner and Harkness avenues was completely reconfigured within the last year, and reconstruction of North Main Street to the Chicopee line has taken place.
A ribbon cutting will be staged next month in Forest Park for the new Eco Center, which is part of the tornado rebuild; construction on the senior center at Blunt Park is about to begin; and work to rebuild the South End Community Center will commence this summer.
Kennedy added that financing is being lined up to redevelop the Indian Motorcycle building in Mason Square, which is partially occupied, and construction should start by the end of the year. In addition, the North End Citizens Council also received a $50,000 state grant to create a master plan for the area.
Minkarah said one of DevelopSpringfield’s exciting projects is the creation of the $1.8 million Lower Maple Business Park, which includes the renovation of the historic Ansel Phelps-Solymon Merrick House and the former Female Seminary on adjoining parcels along Maple Street.
The site also includes six commercial garages and a two-story carriage house with a double-bay garage that is ideal for a contractor or other business that needs attached indoor parking. In addition, there is plenty of space for parking on the grounds.
The $1.8 million renovation of the property is almost complete, and is within walking distance of downtown Main Street. A number of offices and suites have been thoughtfully designed, while other space will be outfitted to suit tenants’ needs, and space in the Merrick House at 83 Maple St. will become DevelopSpringfield’s permanent home.
The majority of funding for the project has been provided by the organization, which was founded in 2008 and initially composed of volunteers in the wake of the State Street redevelopment program. Its focus is extremely challenging projects — restoring blighted but highly visible buildings with cultural and historic value that have deteriorated to the point where it is cost-prohibitive for the city or developers to rehabilitate them.
“We’re seeking to meet multiple goals, which include stimulating revitalization and economic development by saving buildings that show decay, decline, and disinvestment,” Minkarah said. “They give the wrong message when people drive by, but if they are restored, it has the opposite effect and helps to bring up property values, which contributes to the economy. We see ourselves as the city’s private, nonprofit development partner.”
He added that the Innovation Center was conceptualized at the end of 2014 when it became apparent that a new vision was needed for the city’s entertainment district.
“We’re hoping not only to create an exciting center for entrepreneurship and innovation, but a place where jobs are created,” Minkarah said, referring to VVM’s programs for startup businesses. “It’s always exciting when new businesses come to a city, but our core strategy needs to be growing new companies here to fulfill dreams and create jobs. We want to stimulate innovation, which needs to be one of the pillars of our economy.
“This project is also about revitalizing buildings that really need renovation and making a very visible investment in an area suffering from a high vacancy rate,” he continued, noting that the total cost, including acquisition and rehabilitation of the buildings, will total $3.5 million.
Other DevelopSpringfield projects include a historic renovation of the Gunn Block on the corner of State and Walnut streets. The organization is also working to bring a full-line grocery store to Mason Square, where it owns about 4.5 acres and is willing to develop the site.
Last August, it purchased a vacant church on the corner of Carew and Dwight streets in the North End and is in the process of acquiring six vacant lots from the city for parking.
Along the Central Street corridor, which was heavily impacted by the 2011 tornado, DevelopSpringfield acquired several vacant lots for redevelopment. New homes have been built on three of them by Viva Development for qualifying, working low-income families, and additional homes are planned.
“Sometimes we are the developer, sometimes we take a lead role in planning issues, and other times we provide support to the city and other nonprofits by serving as part of a project team or by writing grants to secure funding that can lead to revitalization,” Minkarah said.
A city’s reputation centers around its central business district, said Kennedy, noting that, while Springfield has had some problems in recent years, work by multiple stakeholders who share a vision is aimed at changing that perception.
“Our future is much brighter than it was five years ago, and there is a lot of activity going on downtown, coupled with increased lighting and a new police program,” he said. “All of the projects fit together, and we have the highest bond rating in our history, which really adds confidence to everything as we move forward.”
In short, the city is seeing considerable movement, he said in conclusion, noting that, through a concerted team effort, Springfield is enjoying real progress in its efforts to grow, thrive, and attract entrepreneurs, new residents, and visitors in the years to come.
Springfield at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1852
Area: 33.2 square miles
Tax Rate: Residential: $19.66; Commercial: $38.60
Median Household Income: $50,916 (2014)
Family Household Income: $64,576 (2014)
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health; MassMutual Financial Group; Big Y; Sisters of Providence Health System; Smith & Wesson; Center for Human Development
* Latest information available