Community Spotlight: Westfield
In Westfield, Redevelopment Plan Becoming Reality
Mayor Daniel Knapik says Westfield is rife with activity that is leading to dramatic changes in the landscape, as projects that were years in the making come to fruition.
New buildings are under construction, while older ones that sat empty for as long as a decade are being transformed and repurposed. Phase I of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail is underway, work is being done in the so-called Gaslight District, and other initiatives are becoming a reality.
“Fourteen years ago, Mayor [Richard] Sullivan showed me his plan for the city, and I saw what the future could be,” said Knapik, adding that this action plan and its prospects for becoming reality led him to seek election to the City Council, where he held a seat from 2001 to 2009 before being elected to the corner office. “It’s astonishing what has happened since then. I supported the mayor’s vision that he created with City Engineer Mark Cressotti, and all of the projects have finally come over the finish line.”
Much of the work has taken place in the last year or two, and projects are in varying stages of development. Change is occurring downtown as well as on Route 20, where a new 99 Restaurant will be built on property that has stood vacant since a Pontiac/Oldsmobile dealership closed down more than 15 years ago.
“We have been talking with officials from 99 for six years to help them find the right spot; they were very selective and looked at other parcels, but finally settled on this one,” Knapik said, adding that ground was broken two weeks ago for the eatery, which is expected to open before Thanksgiving.
In addition, the end units of the former Kmart plaza will finally have tenants. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore opened in late April in the former Grossman’s Bargain Outlet building on East Main Street, and the space at the other end will soon be occupied by a business that will provide medical-related services. “The site they will move into had been vacant for six years,” Knapik noted.Another parcel, located at the gateway to Westfield on Route 20, is also flourishing. Nabil Hannoush, serial entrepreneur and vice president of the Hannoush Jewelers chain, purchased the former Balise Ford dealership on 99 Springfield St. and turned the 11-acre property into a center that houses Expert Fitness and other health-related businesses, along with the new Short Stop Bar and Grill and Batter’s Box. He and his wife want to build three additional standalone structures on the side of the building that would likely house a bank as well as retail and commercial office space.
“We are working with them and the Mass. Department of Transportation to enhance the traffic entrance,” said Knapik. “The hope is that the city can secure a grant to widen the road and add a traffic light and dedicated turn lane; we would like to begin work next fall.”
In addition, funding for the entire rail trail has been secured (more about that later), and nearby parks and other venues are planned or under construction.
Progress has also been made on a medical office built on 57 Union St. by Noble Hospital during the recession. Although New England Dermatology rented 20% of the space after it was completed, finding occupants for the remainder became problematic due to the economy. “But that changed in the past year. Noble brought in physicians who have offices there, and it has been nicely filled,” Knapik said.
Overall, the completed and in-progress projects have created a great deal of momentum in the city, said Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, adding that the positive vibes will undoubtedly spur additional growth.
“Since I’ve been in my position, it is very exciting to see these various projects completed, new businesses opening or expanding, and continued growth in our city,” she said. “This has a direct impact on jobs and population growth.”
The vision Knapik embraced and has worked toward with Cressotti’s help included a number of components: the Great River Bridge project, which was on the drawing board when the mayor took office; the rail trail; badly needed infrastructure improvements on Main and Broad streets; and development of the Gaslight District and an area of underutilized property on Elm Street that fronts it.
The $100 million Great River Bridge project was completed in 2012 after 30 years in the planning stage. The original bridge that crosses the Westfield River was rehabilitated, and a twin span was built directly opposite it. The construction required relocating three parks as well as overcoming other obstacles, but today the old bridge serves southbound traffic while the new one accommodates northbound vehicles.
Major improvements have also taken place at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport, including a $13.5 million runway reconstruction and two new hangars to be built in the future. In addition, a $2 million redesign and reconstruction of Airport Industrial Road is complete, providing better access to companies operating just outside Barnes as well as those who want to locate in the city’s new, 80-acre Air Industrial Park.
Knapik said there has been a tremendous amount of interest in industrial parcels on the north side of the city over the past six to eight months.
“It’s a sign that the economy is turning around, and we are anticipating an announcement of a big warehouse and distribution facility this month on more than 500,000 square feet of vacant land by the airport,” said the mayor. “Plus, a manufacturer is looking at a smaller parcel owned by the city. If we capture both of these, it will lead to about 400 new jobs.”
City officials also secured the $18.5 million needed to complete the rail trail. They are working on Phase I, which covers two miles from the Southwick line to the Stop & Shop in the city’s downtown. During Phase II next summer, the old railroad bridge that crosses the Westfield River will receive new decking and a new surface; work on the last leg of the project will take place in 2017 when the middle section will be completed. It’s no easy feat because the elevated, 3.5-mile trail crosses nine bridges.
“But the economic impact will be significant,” said Phelon, noting that it will connect with a larger rail trail that covers 65 miles. “We expect tens of thousands of travelers to use it, including cyclists on multi-day trips and organizations that plan bicycling vacations. Retail stores and eateries will benefit, and the area will become a perfect spot for bed-and-breakfast operations.” She added that the chamber and Friends of the Columbia Green Railway hope to partner with local businesses to help them become more bicycle-friendly and draw rail-trail users into their stores.
Travelers and locals will also be able to enjoy amenities on the Westfield River Esplanade, which runs along the levee between the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail and Great River Bridge.
“We plan to construct overlooks with natural-gas fireplaces on it and bocce courts where families can gather; we broke ground six weeks ago and expect to be done by midsummer. The most livable cities encourage people to get out of their automobiles,” said the mayor, who was recently feted with the 2015 Bicycle Advocate of the Year Award by the Alliance for Biking and Walking.
Another major capital project is underway in the Gaslight District. The streetscapes are being rebuilt, and utilities are being modernized and moved underground.
“The design was completed last year,” Knapik said, adding that the $6.5 million cost is being paid for with local money. “The city engineer wants to make this a neighborhood of distinction, and the six streets in the district will be outfitted with gaslights to create an old-fashioned, colonial-style feeling. It’s appropriate because the gas and electric companies got their start there in the 1870s.”
There will also be a new park in the district that will feature a fountain from the Thayer House that was demolished decades ago. “It was saved and unearthed by the Parks Department and hasn’t been used for about 80 years,” Knapik said.
Once improvements are complete in the Gaslight District, the city will finally be able to redevelop Elm Street. “The infrastructure was 100 years old and failing, so we couldn’t put anything there, but three buildings have been knocked down, and two more will be demolished,” Knapik said. “We have remediated the brownfield sites, and when the project is finished in the fall of 2016, the city will have four acres of unpolluted land ready for redevelopment.”
Efforts to modernize Westfield include green initiatives that were finished last year. “Sustainability is important, and adopting single-stream recycling has reduced the amount of tonnage that leaves the city by 30%. We also spent $30 million to make city buildings energy-efficient, which included new rooftops, boilers, and windows,” Knapik said, noting that the heating systems in 14 structures were converted from steam to hot water, which lowered the consumption of gas.
Another green project proposed six years ago came to fruition in January when a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for a 2-megawatt solar farm on the former Twiss Street landfill, which closed about 20 years ago and was a topic of discussion for many years.
“Citizens Energy is leasing the property from the city and will care for the 10 acres in lieu of a tax payment,” the mayor explained, adding it guaranteed the city’s price for electricity for the next 20 years, and cost savings of about $100,000 a year are expected.
When Knapik first learned about Sullivan’s vision for the city, he had no idea how long it would take to accomplish. The work on Main and Broad streets has been completed thanks to stimulus funds, which reaped the city $14 million for shovel-ready projects.
“We’ve spent $130 million on utilities, bridges, roads, and street lamps in the last decade, and all of the projects we envisioned have come to a collision point,” Knapik said. “We have had a lot of support from the governor, and good things have come to Westfield.”
Phelon agreed. “With all that has happened and will continue to happen in our great city,” she said, “the chamber is even more excited about connecting its business members and leaders to further promote economic development and entrepreneurism, and to keep the momentum moving forward that makes Westfield a great place to work, live, and play.”
Westfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1669
(town); 1920 (city)
Population: 41,094 (2010)
Area: 47.3 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $18.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.69
Median Household Income: $55,327 (2010)
Family Household Income: $57,018 (2010)
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Noble Hospital; Westfield State University; Airtherm; Berkshire Industries Inc.
* Latest information available