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It Takes a Village

‘Hospital Hill’ Starts a New Life With a New Name
The coach house

The coach house on the Northampton State Hospital campus.

It’s a site with an intriguing and, in some ways, unfortunate past. But developers have reached a turning point at the former Northampton State Hospital, at which work can begin to create a new future for the sprawling campus — one centered on community and commercial growth.

Hospital Hill, the name given to development on the site of the former Northampton State Hospital on Route 66 in Northampton, can still send shivers up the spine.

It harkens back to a time when the sprawling campus served as a state-run, residential facility for the mentally ill, in its early years referred to as the lunatic asylum.

Hospital Hill’ also lends some intrigue to the original buildings that still stand on the site, resplendent in brick, but strangled by vines and overgrowth.

But now, the property’s developers want to do away with that reputation with a new name that illustrates a vision for the future, not a vestige of the past.

“It’s a new day on the site,” said Richard Henderson, executive vice president for Real Estate with Mass-Development, the state’s finance and development authority, charged with developing most of the state hospital project. “We respect its history, but we certainly don’t want people shuddering.”

The transfer of ownership of the campus and buildings from the state Division of Capital Asset Management to Hospital Hill Development, a partnership of Mass-Development and The Community Builders, was finalized in 2002. The 126-acre site is in now the midst of a multi-tiered redevelopment project that includes 207 residential units, many of them affordable, including 26 single-family homes and 33 units at the newly built Hilltop Apartments, which are fully leased. 476,000 square feet of commercial space is also being developed for retail, light manufacturing, and office use.

But while the development arm of the project bears the common, locally recognized moniker of Hospital Hill, Henderson said otherwise the term is being consciously phased out. “Hospital Hill is not formal. We’ve settled on ‘Village Hill,’ because we’re trying to create a real village feel that is very much a part of Northampton.”

Tear Down the Walls

Part of that rebirth on the site has included the removal of many of its existing buildings, including the largest and most famous landmark, the primary hospital building on the north campus known as ‘Old Main.’

“This is a complex site that was encumbered by a lot of old buildings that were not suitable for new uses,” said Henderson. “We have saved some of them, but most had to come down at great expense, and that certainly is a unique aspect to this project as opposed to many others.”

In fact, he said, demolition of the original buildings was the biggest challenge developers have had to overcome to date.

“The age made them challenging,” he said. “The oldest parts were in poor condition and had started to collapse, and there were asbestos issues in some areas.”

The original buildings that still stand on the site could also pose problems at a later date, he said, but at this time four are slated to remain, including a building that once housed employees, and the south campus portion of the hospital, which, with its wide hallways and small, cell-like rooms, won’t lend itself easily to modern use.

“Certainly, people are attached to the old buildings,” said Henderson. “Some folks in the community wanted to see Old Main stay, and anyone who walks on the campus now sees these beautiful old buildings and would like to believe they could be saved.

“What people need to understand, though, is that they’re extremely difficult to reuse, if at all. Any reuse will depend on market demands, and the ultimate cost of renovations.”

Empty Spaces

Henderson said now, in the wake of several costly demolition projects, it’s not so much what still stands on the site, but rather what isn’t there, that is most notable.

The removal of Old Main, for instance, opened up one of the largest areas on the campus to redevelopment.

“Development on the north campus is the next thing that will be happening,” said Henderson. “And on the south campus, structures have been taken down to construct a road and commercial space.”

He added that the entire site is at a key turning point, at which reuse of the property can begin. It’s an exciting time, he said, but not one without its challenges.

“It’s a complex plan, trying to create a true village where people both live and work,” he said. “Therefore, it’s unlike most developments that are usually residential or commercial. We’re trying to mix the two — some in newly built buildings, and some in old buildings. That said, the site has numerous infrastructure needs on the campus and on the roads surrounding it. But the work that must be done is finally becoming a reality.”

He said the development partners are currently waiting for subdivision approval on the north campus, which is expected later this summer. Once approved, construction will begin on a new road to serve the site’s residential parcels, both those currently completed and those still on the drawing board. Nearby Earle Street will also be rehabbed as part of the project.

As for the residential construction, Henderson said building will be focused first on market-rate housing, including apartments, single-family homes, and townhouses, and as the projects continue to move forward, a mix of market-rate and affordable housing will follow.

To develop a new look and feel on the site, Henderson noted that examples of several architectural styles seen throughout Northampton have been collected, and will be incorporated in varying degrees at Village Hill.

“There are four predominant styles — Colonial, Greek Revival, Victorian, and Craftsman,” he said. “Those styles will be updated for today, but we’re definitely cueing off of and learning from them, and we think incorporating the looks of the town in the project will further strengthen its ties to the community.”

Another Brick

In another effort to strengthen those bonds with the town, Henderson said MassDevelopment and The Community Builders are working closely with Northampton officials and residents to accommodate growth of existing businesses at Village Hill, and also to attract new businesses.

“There is appropriate space for light manufacturing uses on Earle Street,” he said, “and we’d also like to see a variety of commercial uses, including a small amount of retail.”

Teri Anderson, economic development coordinator for Northampton, expounded on the town’s hopes for commercial development at Village Hill, citing a number of industry clusters it will target, including medical devices and instrumentation, technology manufacturing, printing and publishing, and software development.

“Up to 5% of the square footage can be general professional office or retail space,” she said. “This is intended to encourage offices and retail uses that will support the residential and industrial development on the site, rather than compete with other commercial centers in Northampton.”

Further, Anderson said those sectors represent salary ranges and career path benchmarks that are appropriate for the region and its projected growth, and will create an anticipated 400 to 800 new jobs.

The commercial portion of the project is slated to begin this year and, like the residential side of the venture, will continue for several years.

“The anticipated final build-out is about 337,000 square feet of commercial and industrial space,” Anderson said. “The redevelopment of the former state hospital is the largest economic development project in the city at this time. It’s expected to generate almost $500,000 per year in tax revenues for the city annually.”

Henderson added that, despite the long construction schedule, the newly cleared open space and more concrete plans for specific projects have paved the way for a more quickly moving construction phase.

“We’re really poised for the next move,” he said. “We’re waiting for a few things to fall into place on the south campus, but otherwise, this is it — we’re ready to go, and we’re excited.”

The Show Must Go On

In the coming years, some of the challenges developers must face will center on infrastructure concerns, such as roadway construction — six are planned — and the installation of new utilities.

“Marketing is another challenge,” said Henderson, returning to some of the old perceptions of the site and the work underway to change them.

“We’re gearing up now for a marketing and branding strategy for the site that speaks to some of the more exciting aspects of the project. This is a great conceptual plan on a beautiful site — it has breathtaking views, it’s well-located, within walking distance of downtown — and it’s part of a great community.”

And years from now, perhaps, people will say that’s how Village Hill was born.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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