Life in the Fast Lane
Memorial Drive Remains Poised for New Development Opportunities
Chicopee’s planners are learning some new verbiage as development continues on Memorial Drive, a.k.a Route 33, the city’s main retail corridor.
Terms like ‘linger zone,’ ‘redemising,’ and ‘alternative hospitality options’ are being tossed around more often as the thoroughfare evolves — proof of some new, innovative changes both in the works and on the horizon.
That said, change is not coming at an explosive pace along Memorial Drive: ‘gradual’ is a better description of the additions to its growing legion of businesses.
However, it’s an area that Mayor Mike Bissonnette said is currently garnering some real interest in Western Mass., and with that interest comes a new focus on further diversifying the roadway to include a greater mix of retail and restaurant establishments. The end goal, he said, is to make Memorial Drive a destination, and not a throughway.
“This is one of the hottest areas for commercial real estate in Western Mass. right now,” said Bissonette, who attributes that to a number of inherent traits that have existed in the area for some time, including the thousands of employees working out of Westover Air Reserve Base and the Chicopee Industrial Park, as well as Memorial Drive’s close proximity to the Mass Pike.
But there are new variables that are adding to the surge of activity on Route 33, including a $110 million construction project at Westover that will add new buildings and, subsequently, new jobs. The revival of some key parcels on Memorial Drive, such as the former Fairfield Mall site (now called Chicopee Marketplace) has also created new interest and confidence in the strip among developers.
“The Fairfield Mall project really seemed to spur what I call the second generation of Route 33,” said Bissonnette. “The first generation was the housing, commercial, and retail real estate boom we saw in the 1960s following the construction of Westover.
“I also think we have a quick permitting process,” he continued. “We can get things moving usually within two months, and overall, I think developers like working with us.”
Follow the Franchises
Today, the mix on Memorial Drive is primarily casual dining franchises like Applebee’s and the 99 Restaurant; fast-food chain locations such as Arby’s, Subway, Quiznos, KFC, and McDonald’s; discount retail stores including Marshall’s and Payless Shoes; a smattering of auto dealers and local businesses including the landmark Hu Ke Lau; and big boxes like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Two hotels — a Days Inn and Hampton Inn — round out the mix.
Moving forward, Bissonnette said he’d like to see a greater mix of retail and restaurant choices, and a greater percentage of higher-end establishments, those he says carry “a little cache.”
Some success has already been observed in the higher-end stratum, including the addition of a Starbucks across from Chicopee Marketplace. In addition, the McDonald’s on the roadway was recently one of 30,000 franchises across the country to get a facelift and image redesign, now including wi-fi access, premium coffee, and that aforementioned ‘linger zone,’ complete with plasma televisions and sofas, designed to keep people in the restaurant longer.
Bissonnette said he’ll keep a close watch for any other opportunities to make Memorial Drive more diverse, especially within the retail and hospitality sectors. “We’re still getting a lot of inquiries from chains, which is fine, but there is a need, for instance, for an additional hotel,” he said.
Still, while new opportunities are being mulled constantly for Memorial Drive, Bissonnette said he doesn’t discount the importance current retailers, franchises, and other businesses have had on the street’s overall health.
“It’s important to point out the jobs these places create,” he said. “They aren’t the kinds of jobs that you can necessarily build a future on, but they fill a vacuum in this area’s economy, and also keep dollars in Chicopee.”
Bissonnette cited one example as proof of the need for such jobs in retail and the food and hospitality sectors. When one of Memorial Drive’s more popular spots, Applebee’s, opened in 2006, the mayor said 1,200 applications were received for employment.
“We tend to talk about ‘meds and eds’ a lot,” he added, “but 1,200 applications — 600 of them completed online — shows that people are looking for these jobs, and moreover that they’re very important.”
On the Drawing Board
Kate Brown, Chicopee’s city planner, agreed, noting that there is already some interest among developers that suggests a new hotel might not be far off for Route 33.
“There’s been some interest from various types of outfits,” she said. “We’re still in the early days of that, but I think people are recognizing that this is a great location for spill-over from the Springfield market, for Six Flags visitors, or for travelers going east or west to other destinations.”
Brown said that while she, too, worried at one time that Memorial Drive would become a sea of fast-food restaurants, bank branches, and discount retailers, that trend is slowly changing. Further, she said existing businesses on the roadway have created a base from which to grow that, before 1996, was non-existent.
“Today, it’s very competitive,” she said. “The boom started in 1996, with an auto parts store and a Taco Bell, and it mushroomed from there. For a while all I saw were auto parts stores and banks, and I started to bite my fingernails a little.
“We’d still like to be able to orchestrate things a little better,” she added, “but I’m seeing a move toward businesses that better fill the needs of the community.”
Brown also agreed that the redevelopment of the former Fairfield Mall parcel that created what is now the Chicopee Marketplace has been one of the driving forces for growth on Memorial Drive, and that trend continues.
“Wal-Mart will soon be expanding, and the Ocean State Job Lot property is redemising, which is a new word I’ve been introduced to of late.”
In short, this is a 50-cent term for restructuring; the site will soon be home to seven different stores of varying sizes, creating what Brown calls a ‘plaza environment’ with the possibility of outdoor dining space.
“Buildout of the Chicopee Marketplace has made other undeveloped properties along Route 33 more attractive,” said Brown, noting that in particular, activity directly surrounding the parcel, which is also near the on-ramp to the Mass Pike, has been brisk. “Everyone wants to be near the Pike, which actually creates an interesting problem — there’s limited land available in that particular area of Memorial Drive, and it will be interesting to see who wins that race.”
Adding to that area’s draw is a $750,000 renovation of the Days Inn at 450 Memorial Drive now underway, spearheaded by the property’s owner, Dinesh Patel, who also owns the Hampton Inn on the other side of the Turnpike off-ramp.
To capitalize further on those positive developments, Brown said she’d like to see the area augmented by stores that could elevate the city’s shifting retail identity.
“Chicopee has never really been on the front line in terms of retailer choice,” she said. “I think that has a lot to do with base income in the city, and I think that has shaped what Memorial Drive looks like.
“But with the existing mix of discounters on the drive, having upper-scale goods at lower prices would be a great addition; I also wouldn’t mind seeing a bookstore,” she said.
Outlet for Greatness?
Bissonnette offered another option for growth, proposing that the area could be suitable for outlet shopping.
The model has already seen success in Lee and in the eastern part of the state in Wrentham; however, Bissonnette concedes that making it work in Chicopee may be problematic. Most retailers require that their discounted stores be placed a certain geographical distance away from existing stores, and with the Holyoke and Eastfield malls bookending Chicopee, that’s a high hurdle to clear. But Bissonnette said with existing discount clothing stores such as Marshall’s, Fashion Bug, and Payless Shoes already in operation, as well as a strong mix of casual dining establishments, the infrastructure is there for further development of destination shopping, rather than the ‘passing-through’ variety that is now more common to Route 33.
And Brown said that, while large parcels of land are becoming more scarce on the strip, there are many smaller development opportunities remaining, as well as a few sites that city officials are keeping a close eye on.
One such parcel is about 60 acres owned by the Springfield Diocese, located across the street from the Arbors assisted living facility at 929 Memorial Drive. The plot of land has yet to go up for sale, but Brown said it’s being watched closely.
“That’s the last big piece of real estate left on Memorial Drive,” she said.
Whether it will be redemised for an alternative hospitality venue or a hip, new eatery outfitted with a linger zone remains to be seen. Those are, after all, just some of the trends on a street that is definitely in the fast lane of progress.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]