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What’s Next for Springfield’s Riverfront?
Springfield Technical Community College

Evan Dobelle, left, seen here with Springfield Technical Community College President Ira Rubenzahl, says “eds and meds” are the future of the New England economy.

While the process of selecting a developer for the old Basketball Hall of Fame continues, a development team has forwarded what it calls a “bridge-to-bridge” plan for the riverfront that includes several challenged properties, including the old Hall, the long-idle York Street Jail, and the underutilized Riverfront Park site. Just what will develop, however, and when, are still very big questions.

Tim Mulcahey says it all started with idle talk about building a facility for a CYO basketball program on a parcel near the former York Street jail.

That is how the ball started rolling toward formulation of an ambitious, still-evolving venture for Springfield’s riverfront. For now, it’s being called the “bridge-to-bridge” plan, said Mulcahey, a Longmeadow real estate developer, who has partnered with Dennis Serna, a Connecticut-based developer, and created an entity called the Connecticut Riverfront Development Corp.

The CRDC is currently looking at several pieces of property along a roughly mile-and-a-half long stretch between the South End and Memorial Bridges. These include the long-vacant prison, the former Basketball Hall of Fame, and a little-used recreational area called Riverfront Park.

The proposed CYO basketball facility was long ago put on the shelf, said Mulcahey, the long-time director of that youth program. But he, Serna, and some other players have moved on to bigger and hopefully better ventures.

They have joined forces with the Springfield Business Development Corp. (SBDC) in a proposal for the old Basketball Hall of Fame site that combines several elements, including a public market, a restaurant and some retail. That plan is one of two considered finalists for re-use of the old Hall, which has been closed and unused for three years.

Meanwhile, the CRDC is in the exploratory stage of a project to locate a hotel on the Riverfront Park site. The partners have signed a letter of intent with the city that gives them, in essence, an exclusive window of opportunity for that parcel.

They’ll have roughly the next three months to finalize plans for what Mulcahey describes as a “destination hotel.” Should a concrete proposal come forward, the city would then have 45 days to look it over and decide whether it earns a thumbs-up.

As for the old jail, Serna said several possible uses have been considered, and more are being formulated. For now, though, the jail is at least third on the to-do list for the real estate between the two bridges.

“We started with the jail, and will probably still do something with that site,” he explained, “but as it worked out, the focus went north of the jail, because opportunities presented themselves there first.”

Both Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan and David Panagore, deputy executive director of the Springfield Finance Control Board, welcomed the CRDC’s initial plans for the riverfront, but cautioned that they have been ‘ and will continue to be ‘ closely scrutinized to ensure that they are both feasible and compatible with other economic development initiatives.

“We’re not going to hand over development rates on a speculative basis,” said Panagore, who is now leading the city’s economic development efforts. “We’re not going to give someone those rights for two years and say, ‘go come up with a plan.’ We’ll hand over development rights when there are viable projects.”

Ryan concurred, but said the level of interest in various riverfront parcels, especially the old Hall site, is cause for optimism. “It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen actual competition for development of that area,” he said. “Lately, most all of the development has come from the public sector; this a welcome turn-about.”

Mulcaheny and Serna acknowledged that they are not big players when it comes to real state development. Their goals ‘ much easier to enunciate than their plans ‘ are merely to develop (or redevelop, as the case may be) an untapped asset in the riverfront, and give a beleagured city a boost.

“We want to do something that will hope move Springfield forward,” said Mulcahey. “We’re part of this community, we’re involved in it, and we want to see it prosper.”

BusinessWest looks this issue at how this unique partnership plans to go about that assignment.

Money in the Bank

As they talked about CRDC’s preliminary plans for the riverfront, Serna and Mulcahey were long on optimism but short on specifics, especially with regard to potential pricetags.

“The riverfront should be a crown jewel, it should be a real destination,” said Mulcahey, noting quickly that details of many components of the bridge-to-bridge project cannot be revealed due to various confidentiality agreements ‘ and also because some of the plans are still quite vague.

What is known is that CRDC is moving forward on at least two of the three (or more) phases of its broad riverfront development initiative. More will certainly be known by the end of this year or early next, said Mulcahey, noting that a developer should be chosen by then for the old Hall, and he and Serna will know if they can clear the many hurdles standing in the way of the hotel project (more on that later).

As for how the bridge-to-bridge concept ‘ and its first phase, the hotel ‘ came together, said Serna, it was a case of getting some unique perspective on the riverfront; in other words, a look from someone who doesn’t see it every day.

“They walked that entire length of riverfront, from the jail to the bridge, and simply fell in love with that park site,” he explained, referring to a hotel-building entity he chose not to name.“They said, ‘this is where we’d like to be.’”

Getting them there will be the mission for some unlikely partners who have some experience in construction and real estate development, but certainly nothing on the scale of Springfield’s riverfront.

Mulcahey’s resume includes a variety of work in property development. He worked for Ohio-based Dairy Mart as a project supervisor and manager, and helped select and develop many sites in the Northeast and Midwest. Later, he worked as a project manager for a New York-based businessman, Andrew Stone, who developed a number of office buildings, industrial parks, and other ventures in Connecticut. From there, Mulcahey developed a project in Boston called First Atheneum Street, a large office project, before joining a Hartford-based real estate development firm.

Serna, meanwhile, also has a background in commercial real estate development. He started in Stamford, Conn., and later relocated to Manhattan, where he worked on several projects, before joining Starwood Capital Group. Based in Greenwich, Conn., SCG is a multi-faceted real estate group that specializes in hotels, among other things.

While the two partners would not identify the hotel-building entity they are currently working with, they have been linked in some published reports with Atlantabased Nylo LLC, a company launching a chain of small hotels with loft-style rooms.

Mulcahey would say only that what is being considered for the riverfront site is a new concept, especially in this market, and would be classified as a destination hotel.

While the Riverfront Park location offers sweeping views of the river and the historic Memorial Bridge, it is challenged in many ways. For starters, it is separated from West Columbus Avenue by a wide set of railroad tracks, used primarily by Amtrak for commuter runs.

This logistical concern has limited use of the park, said Ryan, noting that while the property is used as a park, it is not designated as ‘park land,’ an important distinction because the latter would pose a much larger obstacle to development. Creating access to the proposed hotel ‘ either over or under the railroad tracks ‘ will be one of the main questions to be answered during CRDC’s 135-day window for devising plans for the site, said Serna, noting that the partners have become convinced that there is a need for additional hotel rooms in the city.

A market demand study for Springfield, conducted by the Boston-based Pinnacle Advisory Group, revealed as much. It said that a growing inventory of tourist attractions and completion of the MassMutual Center should increase demand to the point where greater supply is necessary.

However, the report’s authors concluded that downtown, rather than the riverfront, would be the better location for such a hotel.

“Although both areas are viable options for new hotel development, the benefits of a downtown hotel outweigh the riverfront,” the report stated. “Furthermore, a downtown location would provide more benefit to the MassMutual Center, which is strategically important to future growth in Springfield.”

Mulcahey acknowledged the report’s findings, but told BusinessWest that the Riverfront Park hotel, as currently conceptualized, could become an effective link between downtown and the riverfront and accentuate current efforts to enhance the State Street corridor. “It could become a great asset for Springfield.”

Going Through Hoops

As could a new development on the old Basketball Hall of Fame site, which became the “second race,” as Mulcahey called it, that the CRDC found itself in.

Indeed, as they were conceptualizing the hotel project, the two partners also became involved in the ongoing effort to develop the old Hall, a project being overseen by the Springfield Riverfront Development Corp. (SRDC), the real estate arm of the Hall of Fame.

The SRDC has spent the past year or so hearing and weighing proposals on the old Hall. Among them is a plan conceptualized by the Springfield Business Development Corp. that centers around a public market, similar in many ways to the Portland (Me.)Public Market, which opened in 1998 and has had a strong impact on that region’s economy.

Other proposals have included a fitness and sports complex, proposed by East Longmeadow developer Peter Pappas and a restaurant/retail mix forwarded by CRDC. That latter proposal has now been merged with the public market concept, said Mulcahey, noting that it and the Pappas complex are under what is considered final review by the SRDC.

“We took the public market project and we enhanced it,” said Mulcahey, adding that as it sits now (and few details were revealed) the plan calls for demolishing the old Hall and constructing a new building that would house the market, a restaurant, and several retail components in a facility to be built through a mix of public and private funds.

SBDC Director Michael Graney would say only that the development of the old Hall is a “process,” one that is ongoing, and with no firm timetable, although he expects a developer will be named soon.

Regardless of who that is, the CRDC will press ahead with other components of its ‘bridge-to-bridge’ proposal, said Mulcahey, noting that there are other parcels, including the jail, to be considered.

Like others, he said the jail site offers promise, but its design limits what can be done with it. “That’s a challenging building, but there are opportunities for things to happen there.”

Panagore agreed, and said there is a strong possibility that all or major portions of the building will have to be razed if development is going to occur on that site. When asked if the city, and specifically the Economic Development Department would prefer one developer for the riverfront or a group of different teams, Panagore said the most important element is the quality of the proposals, not who is making them.

“We’re looking for viable projects, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We’ve seen enough master plans on the riverfront, we don’t need to see any more. What we need are sound, doable projects that make sense for the city.”

Channeling Resources

Whether the CRDC’s concepts fall into that category remains to be seen.

For now, the partners have a window in which to work on phase one of their initiative, while also focusing on other parcels to the south.

If their ‘bridge-to-bridge’ vision can be realized, then the days of talking about the riverfront’s great potential will finally be in the past.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]