Opportunity for UMass and Tower Square
On Nov. 26, UMass President Robert Caret and Gov. Deval Patrick made it official: the university will seek to create what’s being called a ‘satellite center’ in Tower Square in the heart of downtown.
Plans call for leasing 27,321 square feet of space on the second floor of the retail/office complex built in 1969 and known then as Baystate West, with the university also gaining rights to use 1,600 square feet on the first floor of the building. While the exact use of this space, from a programming perspective, is still to be finalized, the goal is to have this satellite facility in place for the start of the academic year next fall.
There were four proposals sent to the university for the center — the other three being space in 1350 Main St. (One Financial Plaza), square footage in Harrison Place (1391 Main St.), and space within the Peter Pan bus terminal. And while all of those locations might have worked, we believe the Tower Square site makes the most sense and offers the most potential for having real impact in the city’s central business district.
It offers the most visibility for the university, probably the most flexibility, and the best chance to spur economic-development activity. And it provides the best opportunity in many years to spark a rebirth at what was once a hub of activity and commerce in Springfield.
That was a long time ago, of course, a different era in many respects, but mostly those involving how people shop — and where. Those who have lived in this region for 40 years or more can certainly tell stories about how downtown Springfield was the place to be — especially on a Saturday morning — and Baystate West was the center of it all.
People could buy everything from clothes to books to sporting goods, and dine at one of several eateries in the complex.
Construction of first the Eastfield Mall and then the Holyoke Mall started to change the equation rapidly and profoundly, and by the late ’90s, most all of the retail space in what was by then Tower Square was vacant.
Some new signs of life have emerged in recent years. Several banks now have retail facilities in the complex, Cambridge College relocated into space on the first floor earlier this year, and there’s a successful restaurant operating in space along Main Street. Still, many of the shops are empty, their windows filled with artwork or promotional material for area arts organizations and nonprofits.
Bringing a UMass satellite office into this environment is not going to change things overnight. After all, there are already hundreds of people in the office tower and thousands working within a few blocks, and if this critical mass hasn’t changed the fortunes of Tower Square, how much can be expected from some students and perhaps a few dozen workers?
Well, more vibrancy can be expected, and perhaps more momentum for a landmark whose best days are clearly behind it, but that could — and hopefully will — play a prominent role in re-energizing Springfield’s downtown.
There’s no turning back the clock for Tower Square — it is very unlikely that it can ever again be what it was in the ’70s and early ’80s — but this planned UMass presence can help change the equation.
We don’t know what will develop at this satellite center, but for now, this looks like a smart choice for the university, the city, and its evolving downtown.