Community Spotlight: West Springfield
West Springfield Focuses on Memorial AvenueWest Springfield is a city on the move, Mayor Edward Sullivan says, and the Memorial Avenue corridor is exhibit A.
“We’re excited about the work that will be done and think there will be some great multi-purpose opportunities along the corridor,” he told BusinessWest. “It has needed work for years, and the redesign we’re planning will make it a pretty special place to own a business. It’s close to major highways, and the MGM casino in Springfield will increase traffic.”
Indeed, an increase in vehicular traffic is expected when the casino opens in Springfield’s South End, right across the Connecticut River, in 2017. While that’s not why the work is being undertaken, the casino has changed the scope of what will be needed, since pedestrian and bicycle travel are also expected to rise.
And one of the major projects is already underway. The rotary on the West Springfield side of Memorial Bridge, which contains two overpasses of Route 5 to the north and south, is being reconstructed by the state Department of Transportation under its Accelerated Bridge Program.
The rotary bridges were found to be structurally deficient several years ago (but still safe to drive on), and crews have been working since March to relocate major utility lines and perform other preliminary work. Phase 2 of the project will take place from May 29 to June 2, and officials anticipate the third phase will be completed over another long weekend, June 19-23.
“The bridges are being prefabricated offsite and will be handicapped-accessible. It’s important because some [pedestrians] have complained they can get on the bridge in Springfield but can’t get off it in West Springfield,” Sullivan said.
In fact, the project has been designed in accordance with the state’s Complete Streets program, with the goal of expanding mobility for all types of traffic, including pedestrians and bicyclists, while supporting a healthier environment and creating a stronger community.
Department of Public Works Director Robert Colson told BusinessWest that the state staged two public meetings in advance of the work, and its final design reflects concerns expressed by people who attended the sessions.
“MassDOT has taken the existing footprint of the rotary into account, and the new bridges will have protective curbing to delineate motorists from pedestrians and cyclists, very similar to what is on the Memorial Bridge,” said the mayor, adding that the sidewalks curving around the rotary will be eight to nine feet wide. “It’s important, especially during the Big E, because the fair generates a lot of foot traffic.”
The design includes flashing lights that pedestrians will be able to activate with the press of a button to alert motorists they will be crossing one of the junctions in the rotary that lead to Route 5, Memorial Drive, and Riverdale Street.
The rotary marks the gateway to the Memorial Avenue corridor from Springfield, while the gateway from Agawam lies at the other end of the roadway, and the entire 1.7-mile strip will be revamped. To meet that goal, the city signed a contract several weeks ago with Greenman-Pederson Inc. to create a design that will incorporate principles in the Complete Streets program. It will be paid for with $280,000 from the city’s capital-budget funding, which was set aside in previous years for the project, and $665,000 received from MGM as part of a compensation agreement to deal with the expected increase in traffic.
When the design for the corridor is finished, Sullivan said, the city will seek grant money from MassDOT and MassWorks to pay for work that will need to be done, which will include infrastructure improvements, such as new pavement and replacement of underground utility lines.
City officials hope they will be awarded funding for the project, but Sullivan said he met with the director and staff of MassWorks on April 15 and was told the grants are very competitive and they could not guarantee anything. However, Colson is cautiously optimistic that the project will be given a high-priority status.
“Normally, we would wait 10 years for a project of this magnitude to get on the list,” he said. “But we are very hopeful that the design by GPI will become a high priority because of the casino and the increase it will bring in traffic. We can’t just fix the pipes and pavement. We have to turn Memorial Avenue into a Complete Streets corridor; otherwise it could present a significant safety hazard.”
Sullivan explained that residents in the Merrick and Memorial neighborhoods in West Springfield will be closer to MGM than people in neighborhoods in Springfield, and those who get jobs at the gaming establishment may choose to walk to work, which would be an easy commute over the Memorial Bridge.
“Plus, the Big E is the number-one tourist attraction in New England, and the casino will be at the other end of the bridge,” he added. “There will be two main attractions at either end of Memorial Avenue, so we expect a real increase in pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular traffic.”
Although Memorial Avenue is built out, Sullivan said it’s possible to “take old space, rehab it, and make it new, and West Springfield will serve as an example of how it can be done.”
To that end, the city is working with the owner of Standard Plating to clean up the property that was demolished by the 2011 tornado, take ownership of it, then market and sell the site.
The city received $750,000 from the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery program to remove contamination at the brownfields site and raze the building, which sits on 964 Main St., within walking distance of the Memorial Avenue rotary.
“We’re in the process of studying the environmental hazards and coordinating efforts with the Department of Environmental Protection,” said Joe Laplante, director of Community Development. “We hope to have all of the work done by the end of the year and have a vacant lot available for development. It’s not only a good spot for a business, it’s an important part of the [Memorial Avenue] strip aesthetically as visitors come into West Springfield.”
Although the Memorial redesign has not begun, change is already occurring, and Sullivan believes infrastructure and aesthetic improvements will spur growth in the future. Footit Health Care Store is getting a facelift, and Fathers and Sons plans to demolish a number of its buildings and construct a new $3 million Audi showroom and service center along the thoroughfare.
Plans are also in place for the former St. Ann’s Church site that Colvest-West Springfield LLC purchased from the Diocese of Springfield. Sullivan said the developer hopes to build two retail storefronts and a bank with an ATM on the property, and its proposal has advanced through the site-planning review process and will be voted on during the second City Council meeting in May.
Special efforts are also being made to help new Americans in the Memorial-Merrick neighborhoods who want to start businesses, and SCORE of Western Massachusetts, which provides free services to entrepreneurs, has been working in conjunction with Tara Gehring, the city’s economic development coordinator and assistant planner, to facilitate their needs.
In addition, a collaborative effort is taking place between SCORE, the city, and Ascentria Care Alliance, which also provides services to help people who own or want to start small businesses. “We are working together to host a seminar on what it takes to open a business in West Springfield,” Sullivan explained. “We will guide participants through the permitting process required by the Health Department, Building Department, Planning Department, and License Commission so they know the steps they will need to take to obtain a certificate of occupancy and open the doors to a business. It will be an amazing event, and we will have interpreters to bridge language barriers.”
Meanwhile, the Community Development office and police substation recently moved into a 3,000-square-foot building at 389 Front St. that was purchased last year with $775,000 in Community Block Grant funds. The offices had been housed in rented space on Front Street, and the new location will double their space. “We are thrilled about our new home. It’s right next door to Alice Corson Playground, which is the only full-fledged playground in the neighborhood, and since it’s twice the size of our old facility, it’s a perfect place to share with the community,” Laplante said.
The building, which most recently served as a daycare facility for Sunshine Village, had been vacant for several years, and the owner approached the city when he was ready to sell it. “We thought it was a really good match for what we needed,” Laplante added.
The Parks and Recreation Department will have a satellite office and community room in the back of the building, and the community policing station will face the playground. The mayor said the interior has been completely renovated, thanks in part to in-kind donations from Home Depot. The city also plans to install new sidewalks and conduct targeted rehabilitation work on lower-income housing in the neighborhood.
Other renewal ideas will come to fruition in the second phase of the Merrick-Memorial Avenue Study, completed last year by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and reviewed by the Redevelopment Authority. It will serve as the master plan for Memorial Avenue, with suggestions including the enhancement of the River Street area by redeveloping the empty lot that formerly housed the Medallion Motel.
“The idea is to build a professional building there,” the mayor said, noting that the study proposes construction of a mixed-used structure with retail shops on the first floor and office space or apartments on the second floor that could help fill the need for multi-family housing in the city.
The MGM casino will not be completed for several years, but officials believe it will benefit businesses on Memorial Avenue. However, the city is determined to maintain the quality of life in neighborhoods that will be in close proximity to the gaming establishment. To that end, an overlay district was approved last July that prohibits the establishment of a wide range of businesses, including adult book stores, adult clubs that display live nudity, adult motion-picture theaters, check-cashing and pawn shops, hourly-rental hotels, and similar operations.
“It’s important to maintain and improve the quality of life for our residents and keep unwanted businesses out,” Sullivan said, noting that the district is bordered by the Westfield River to the west and south, the Agawam town line to the southeast, the Connecticut River to the east, and Park Street and Park Avenue to the north.
Plans are also being made to improve other areas of the city, and the state Interagency Permitting Board recently voted to accept portions of Front Street as a “priority development site,” including the former Southworth Paper Co. mill. Consultants have suggested using the main building, which contains most of the available space, for mixed-use development, and officials say having that area of Front Street designated as a priority development site will increase the likelihood of obtaining grant money and guarantee local permitting within 180 days, along with help from the state in marketing the site.
Sullivan said efforts are also being made to streamline the city’s permitting process via software that will allow people to do business online. “It will be in place by the end of the year, and we plan to open a kiosk in Town Hall where people can fill out applications for large projects and pay with a credit card.”
In addition, the Morgan Sullivan Bridge, which spans the Westfield River and leads from West Springfield into Agawam, is slated for reconstruction in 2017 and will also be redesigned according to the Complete Streets program.
“The projects we have planned are big and will take a few years to finish, but we are anticipating change,” the mayor said. “The potential is unlimited, and as we move forward into the 21st century, we believe Memorial Avenue will become even more vibrant than it is today.”
West Springfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1774
Area: 17.5 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.19
Median Household Income: $54,434
Family Household Income: $63,940
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
largest employers: Home Depot; Interim Health Care; Mercy Home Care; Northeast Utilities
* Latest information available