Proceed with Caution on the Riverfront

Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan was asked to gauge the still very preliminary plans for development of Springfield’s riverfront. He was cautious in his response, which is understandable given how little is actually known about the plans and the people behind them.

But he told BusinessWest that, at the very least, it’s good to have some actual competition — and from the private sector, no less — for sites such as the old Basketball Hall of Fame. And we couldn’t agree more.

Nearly everything that has been developed in Springfield over the past several years — including the new Hall, the MassMutual Center, and the new federal courthouse now under construction, have been built with mostly public dollars. What Springfield needs is private investment, and it’s finally starting to see the potential for some on its long underutilized riverfront.

At the moment, there are at least two proposals still under consideration for the old Hall of Fame. One is for a sports and fitness center, and the other for a mixed use concept that includes a public market and restaurant.

Meanwhile, two partners who are now part of the public market complex, and who together formed the Connecticut River Development Corp., are gauging the feasibility of locating a hotel on the Riverfront Park site just south of the Memorial Bridge.

These are positive developments for Springfield, but we urge caution as the city mulls its options for the riverfront. This is an important piece of the economic development puzzle in Springfield and everyone is anxious for something to happen. But we think it’s far more important for things to be done right than for them to be done quickly.

Take the proposed hotel, for example. CRDC’s principals say the hotel-building entity they’re working with fell in love with the Riverfront Park site and wants to develop there.

That’s fine, but there are a number of logistical hurdles to be cleared before a hotel can even be considered; the biggest of which would be the railroad tracks that sit between the site and West Columbus Avenue.

And even if that access problem can be solved, does the city want to put another hotel on the riverfront when all indications are that downtown, specifically the area near the recently opened MassMutual Center, would make far more sense?

As for the public market concept, we’ve said before that it looks good on paper, but we’re not convinced that it can draw the high volume of traffic needed to make such a venture viable. The Springfield Riverfront Development Corp. (SRDC), the real estate arm of the Hall of Fame, has been weighing the public market concept for more than a year now, carefully considering whether or not it will work.

We encourage more of this due diligence because the old Hall of Fame is an asset that shouldn’t be developed (or torn down, as is now likely) merely for the sake of development.

The same is true of the old York Street Jail, which has sat idle for many years now, making the imaginative ‘Jail for Sale’ sign on its east wing a seemingly permanent part of the downtown Springfield landscape.

Like the old Hall, the jail seems destined for the wrecker’s ball, because its quirky design does not lend itself to easy redevelopment.

Razing the structure should open the door to a number of opportunities, but the city must carefully weigh what the next use will be.

Indeed, if Springfield’s riverfront is to become the destination everyone hopes it will be, it must draw people from across Columbus Avenue — and across the region. Ideally, locations like Springfield’s riverfront work best when people can work, play, eat, shop, and live there — and we believe this is the multi-faceted course the city should pursue.

Above all, patience must dictate the overall development process. People in Springfield talk about how long the old Hall of Fame has been vacant — three years — and they express frustration. Then they consider how long the jail has been rotting (more than a decade) and they really get frustrated.

But the task at hand is not to merely develop the riverfront, but to develop it properly. Thus, the city must proceed with caution.?