Courting Opportunity Downtown
Late last month, Gov. Maura Healey announced that that the state will commit an initial $106 million toward the replacement of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse in Springfield, known to many as the ‘sick courthouse,’ and for obvious reasons.
The funding, represented in the next four years of capital-improvement plans, embodies the state’s first real commitment to replacing the tired, unhealthy structure, and is the next big step in a project that might ultimately cost a half-billion dollars.
The announcement came a few weeks after the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) issued a report identifying 11 properties in Springfield, one in West Springfield, and one in East Longmeadow, as potential sites for a new courthouse.
One of those sites is 50 State St., the location of the 47-year-old courthouse, where many illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, have stricken an inordinate number of courthouse employees.
It’s unclear whether the inclusion of 50 State St. on the list means the state is leaning toward rehabilitating the current structure — a massive and expensive undertaking, to be sure — or simply tearing it down and building a new courthouse on that site.
Either way, we hope the state will ultimately look in a different direction for a solution, but not too far.
Indeed, the courthouse project, while defined by, and instigated by, tragedy in the form of the number of people who have become sick while working in it, represents a huge opportunity for the city of Springfield.
Actually, two of them.
The first would be building a new courthouse and thereby revitalizing some vacant or underutilized property, preferably in the city’s downtown (more on why in a minute), while the second would be to redevelop the site of the current courthouse, a property across State Street from MGM Springfield in the heart of downtown.
The huge site, just a few hundred feet from I-91, holds enormous promise, with potential uses ranging from housing, which the city still desperately needs, to office to retail and hospitality. The development community would have no trouble finding some creative and impactful uses for the property.
As for a new courthouse, while the proposed sites in West Springfield (Riverdale Street) and East Longmeadow (Shaker Road) and some of those in Springfield (Allen and Cooley streets and Hendee Street, for example) hold promise, this courthouse really needs to be in downtown Springfield, and for several reasons.
For starters, downtown would directly benefit from the still-considerable foot traffic to the courthouse every day, far more than those other locations. Also, where courthouses go, lawyers follow — it’s a simple matter of logistics; lawyers and law firms need to be close (as in walking distance, preferably) to the place where they still conduct large amounts of business.
Each of the large office buildings in downtown Springfield (and many of the smaller ones) are home to law firms and individual lawyers. If the courthouse were to move to West Springfield or East Longmeadow or even Allen and Cooley streets, some of these lawyers would go with it. We say some, because the need to be in close proximity to the courthouse is not as crucial as it once was.
But moving the courthouse more than a few blocks from downtown would be a blow to the central business district at a time when it has already been negatively impacted by the pandemic and the trend toward remote work and hybrid schedules.
A new courthouse is still several years away, and much has to happen before it becomes reality, including further commitments from the state. As the process unfolds, we hope the state realizes not only the need to replace the ‘sick courthouse,’ but the need for Springfield to make the very most of its opportunity — or opportunities.