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Land of Opportunity?

Business Owners Should Never Overlook Springfield’s Central Business District

Economic cycles come and go (at least so far). However, parking, safety, and competition from suburban properties are the three ever-present factors that impact the downtown Springfield Class A office market. And, as is so often the case with commercial real estate and urban central business districts, perception is not exactly reality.

Indeed, while these matters of parking and safety certainly constitute challenges, they are not as formidable as some make them out to be. Meanwhile, space in the suburbs does not come free of issues — or with free parking, either. In other words, there is some fiction that needs to be separated from fact on these matters.

Let’s start with parking. It was getting a bad rap long before I came to the area in 1985. And while enormous progress has been made with the addition of the I-91 North and South garages, companies still maintain that they have trouble attracting employees, especially females, due in part to the cost (which has remained nearly constant for the last 10 years) and safety issues related to parking.

Ironically, the cost of parking in downtown Springfield is a bargain when compared to other office markets in New England. Monthly parking in the City of Homes runs on average $80 per month in one of several covered garages or surface lots. Similar parking in Hartford is $200 or more per month, and in Boston it’s $400, or about as much as a car payment.

Meanwhile, Hartford’s downtown environment isn’t any safer than Springfield’s, and neither is Boston’s. The fact is that some people simply have a parking-garage phobia. It’s the earthbound version of a fear of flying.

One possible way to assuage this inherent aversion to parking garages might be to seek the help of the Springfield Business Improvement District. This seems like the logical organization to turn to, with such a perfect name for the job. The BID is supported by a special tax assessed on certain property owners in the designated district to improve the quality of the downtown business environment. For example, the Sovereign Bank Building makes an annual tax payment to the BID in excess of $50,000 a year. This is over and above the real property taxes it pays to the City of Springfield. All landlords, including the Class A and B office buildings, pay this tax in varying amounts.

Some of this revenue could be directed toward improving the collective sense of well-being as it pertains to parking. The BID has numerous uniformed officers, intended to be high-profile, who could, when requested, serve from time to time as escorts between the office buildings and garages. It seems like the most fundamental service for the BID to provide.

I don’t believe the primary objection to parking is really the cost. Parking translates into an additional cost of occupancy to a tenant of between $2 and $3 per square foot in rent if, in the extreme, the employer pays for 100% of every employee’s parking. Class A lease rates in the CBD top out at about $18 per square foot. With parking factored in, the rents are at $21 per square foot. In the prime suburban locations, the land of so-called ‘free’ parking, rents peak in the $25-per-square-foot range with parking.

Viewed in this light, ‘free’ seems to have lost some of its meaning.

Overall, the suburban office market has a significant impact on the downtown Springfield market. The suburban multi-tenant properties have been traditionally very close to capacity. When, on occasion, the suburban market experiences a sizeable vacancy, as was the case recently when ISO New England vacated 330 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke for newly built nearby quarters, a gold rush of sorts ensues. Two notable companies with downtown roots going back 20 years made commitments to the vacated space.

Monarch Life Insurance left, as did the Novak Insurance Agency leaving Tower Square. The combined square footage left behind in downtown amounts to more than 30,000 square feet. Fortunately, most of this has already been absorbed.

Liberty Mutual’s recent decision to locate at the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, as opposed to staking a downtown presence, plugs a 30,000-square-foot hole there that could have eventually lured away other CBD tenants. So, for the time being at least, the downtown area is the only game in the region for office users in need of large blocks of available space.

Time will tell, but there is some optimism that business owners can look past downtown’s challenges and the often-misleading perceptions about that area, and help generate some real momentum in the CBD.

Downtown Springfield is, has been, and always will be the center of culture, commerce, and government in the region. For many companies, it is the only place to be. The David L. Babson Company, Court Square Data, and Western Mass Legal Services have all re-upped their commitment to downtown. The Premier Education Group (Branford Hall) recently moved its executive offices from East Springfield to Monarch Place.

These companies don’t need to be downtown — technology enables businesses to locate virtually anywhere — but they saw some of the inherent advantages to being in that area, and found space that will enable their companies to grow.

Other business owners can do the same — if they can look past challenges and some lingering misperceptions, and see opportunity.

John Williamson is the president of Williamson Commercial Properties in downtown Springfield; (413) 736-9400.