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Opinion: A New Era for Tower Square

When a property like Springfield’s Tower Square comes onto the market — as the property’s owner, MassMutual, announced Monday — the common reaction is to think that something is wrong, and that such a development is bad news.

Maybe that is the case here, but MassMutual is certainly spinning things a different way, and maybe the rest of us should be thinking in those terms as well.

In acknowledging that Tower Square, opened as Baystate West in 1971, was on the block, a MassMutual spokesperson said this action is being taken because of all the positive developments taking place in Springfield and the realization that commercial real estate downtown is ‘hot,’ or at least much hotter than it has been in some time. Selling now, he said, is a wise move from an investment perspective.

And it is hard to argue with that thinking. Indeed, it only makes sense that this iconic property is worth more now than it has been at perhaps any point in the past 30 years or so. And what’s that old adage about real estate, stocks, and just about everything else — ‘buy low, sell high.’

Thus, this news should be greeted enthusiastically on a number of levels. First, it should be taken as a sign that Springfield’s recovery, or renaissance, as some have called it, is real, and that, as MGM Springfield moves ever closer to opening its $950 million casino, even better times are coming for the City of Homes and its long-struggling downtown.

The news could also be taken as perhaps the start of a new era in the history of Tower Square, which has perhaps been the best mirror on the city’s health and well-being that we’ve had.

Indeed, when Springfield and its downtown were much healthier, Tower Square, or Baystate West, as it was called before 1996, was the unofficial symbol of success and vibrancy.

When it opened to considerable fanfare (it was Springfield’s first building of more than a dozen floors), it was the place to be. Its storefronts were full, and its ground floor and mezzanine were packed with people. Oldtimers (meaning people over the age of 50) can and often do tell stories about spending an entire Saturday in a two- or three-block area downtown, starting at Johnson’s Bookstore, moving on to Baystate West, then going to Steiger’s and Forbes & Wallace.

Almost all of those destinations are now gone — victims, some say, of the Holyoke Mall’s ascendance, but certainly victims of changing shopping habits and changing fortunes downtown.

By the mid-’90s, Tower Square had become, in essence, a symbol of Springfield’s decline. Most storefronts were empty, others were occupied by discount retailers, and the mall itself was eerily quiet and mostly devoid of people except for those lined up at Dunkin’ Donuts. When proponents of a downtown casino wanted to press their case for how the city needed a spark, they started by pointing to Tower Square and what wasn’t happening there.

So maybe Tower Square is once again becoming a symbol for Springfield, a symbol of its rebirth, of its soaring fortunes in the wake of the casino, Union Station, and a host of other developments.

Time will tell, obviously. No one really knows what kind of market will develop for this still-challenged property — many of its storefronts remain vacant, although occupancy remains solid.

Across this region and across the country, there are worries that traditional shopping malls will soon be obsolete, if they have not reached that state already. Whoever acquires the Tower Square property will have to be imaginative and diligent as they go about trying to build additional vibrancy and foot traffic.

For now, though, the sale of Tower Square should be taken as a positive development, and perhaps a sign that an exciting new era is set to begin for this landmark.

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