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Painting the Town

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Britt Ruhe is a huge fan of public art, specifically mural art.

After attending what have come to be called ‘mural festivals’ in cities such as Worcester and Salem and seeing the many benefits they bring to those communities, she lobbied hard to bring a concept known as Fresh Paint to the City of Homes.

Wanting to find a way to give back to the community, Ruhe, a financial strategist for startups and small businesses by trade, began meeting with festival organizers in other parts of the state to gather input and essentially learn how it’s done.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this,’” said Ruhe, adding that, when she approached Springfield’s business, civic, and community leaders about staging a festival here, she encountered overwhelming support.

Indeed, not only did Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, agree to the festival concept, he pushed Ruhe to set the bar higher than her original proposal of five murals in order to achieve a greater impact.

Over six days earlier this month, 35 artists, with considerable help from the public during several ‘paint parties,’ transformed 10 walls throughout the city during Springfield’s first mural festival.

“It’s been a great success; when you do something in a city the size of Springfield, it has to have the correct impact,” said Kennedy. “I thought five was a little too small to be impactful. This was the first time we were going into multiple murals, and I thought 10 was more impactful than five.”

He said encouraging the arts and culture sector, currently a $50 million business in Springfield, is important for the continued revitalization of the city, especially in the realms of housing and entertainment.

The 28 total works of public art add up to 20,000 square feet of murals, and the larger works were approved by building owners who had no idea what the finished product would look like.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this.’”

“The building owners have the biggest lift; they donate their wall,” said Ruhe. “As part of a festival, the building owner doesn’t have to pay, but they don’t get to choose what goes on their wall, which is a big ask, especially this first year around.”

Overall, the festival was a community effort, with $150,000 raised for the event from donors and several sponsors, including MassMutual, MassDevelopment, Tower Square Hotel, and many others.

Dozens of volunteers took part, and 1,500 cans of spray paint and 500 gallons of liquid paint were used to change the face of many formerly drab buildings and pieces of infrastructure.

But the benefits far outweigh the costs, Ruhe told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot of data out there that shows that murals increase property value, foot traffic, and they’re good for residential and commercial businesses,” she explained, adding that, although the economic benefits are difficult to quantify, a study is being undertaken to examine the direct effects such a festival has on a city.

While little of the funds raised go to the artists themselves, Kim Carlino, artist of the mural at 8-12 Stearns Square, said there are many other types of rewards, especially the pursuit of such a daunting challenge.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

“I like the experience of having something that’s bigger than you and can really engulf you,” she said, while transforming that massive, highly visible wall in the heart of the entertainment district. “Everyone coming by is just so thankful; it’s the same experience I have every time I make a mural — everybody wants more color in their life, and we need more of that in our day-to-day.”

Springfield, as noted, is only the latest in a number of cities — in Massachusetts and across the country — to embrace murals and the concept of a mural festival.

Wane One, a muralist for 38 years, has taken part in many of these events. He said the only American art form started by young children has turned into a worldwide artistic movement.

“This artform has gone global,” he said after creating the mural on the East Columbus parking garage. “It doesn’t matter what part of the world you go to right now, it has pretty much taken over.”

In the city of Worcester, the arts and culture sector is a $127.5 million industry, filling 4,062 full-time jobs. And murals have become a distinctive part of the landscape there.

Che Anderson, project manager in the Worcester city manager’s office, said that community’s mural festival — called “Pow! Wow!” — has brought more people out and into the local community, providing a boost to small businesses.

“Overall, ‘Pow! Wow!’ has provided an international platform to know about Worcester and the things that are already existing,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the festival has improved the city’s walkability. “The festival also provided an outlet for many creatives in the city.”

As for Springfield, similar effects are already in evidence.

“It’s been a great success,” said Kennedy. “It has delivered everything I think the mayor and I hoped for on the cultural side, the economic side, and the reputational side.”

Ruhe said the local business community’s support has been extremely helpful through the course of the festival, and she sees her hopes for the event’s future materializing.

“It’s really bringing the community together. People from all walks of life are coming out for the events or standing on the sidewalks looking at the art, talking with each other, painting together,” she said. “What makes mural art so powerful is that is brings art out into the street and into people’s everyday lives.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Complex Equation

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Both the office/retail complex known as Tower Square and the hotel that sits on the property would be considered somewhat risky investments, given their recent history. But the investment group Springfield Hospitality believes otherwise — in both cases. The new ownership group has announced an ambitious plan to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, and it is confident about gaining a wide range of new tenants on the retail side of the equation.

As they talked about their plans for Tower Square, the downtown Springfield landmark they acquired last year, and the hotel that is a prominent part of the complex, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel had to be careful, even cryptic, with some of their comments.

Especially when it came to the long-rumored signing of the YMCA of Greater Springfield as a major new tenant. That deal has not been finalized, said the partners as they talked with BusinessWest following a press conference late last month on their plans for the complex. And when it is, that news will be announced by the Y.

But also when it came to the small park across Main Street from Tower Square. They hinted quietly that this acreage — dubbed the ‘Little Park for a Little While’ after the Steiger’s department store that sat on the site was torn down (yes, that was 24 years ago now) — will likely become the site of another “hospitality-related business,” probably a boutique hotel.

“We really can’t say anything about that at this time; that’s for … later; that will be phase two,” said Mitta, president and CEO of Mitta’s Group and a partner with Patel and also Rohit Patel and Kamlesh Patel of Maine in the Tower Square project.

As for what’s happening now, Mitta and Patel were not at all cryptic or even careful as they talked about Tower Square, the hotel, their plans for both, and their optimism when it comes to achieving progress and profitability at the office/retail complex that has certainly seen better days.

Peter Marks

Peter Marks says a long list of renovations and upgrades must be undertaken to get the Marriott flag back over the hotel, and the new ownership group is committed to making them.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t,” said Patel, owner of the Hampton Inn on Columbus Avenue in Springfield, a Quality Inn in Chicopee, and other hotels across the region, adding that, while there is a good deal of vacant space in the complex, especially on the retail side, there is a solid foundation on which to build, with two colleges, UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, assuming large footprints in the building.

And there are already some new building blocks in place, including White Lion Brewing, which is constructing a brewery and tasting area in the long-vacant Spaghetti Freddy’s space along Bridge Street.

As for the hotel, the press conference was called to announce that the ownership group is on schedule and on target to get the ‘Marriott’ name back on the façade. It was removed and replaced with ‘Tower Square Hotel’ in the summer of 2017 as the complex’s former owner, MassMutual, was putting the property on the market.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t.”

To get that brand name back, the owners must complete a comprehensive renovation and upgrade, said Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, adding that plans have been blueprinted, considerable infrastructure work has already been completed, and the owners are committed to spending “tens of millions of dollars” to return the hotel to prominence and make it a vital cog in the ongoing resurgence in downtown Springfield.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Marks and members of the ownership team about Tower Square and its future (or at least the subjects they could talk about at this time) and why they believe this was a solid investment for them, and the city.

New Lease on Life

Mitta acknowledged that, to the casual observer, anyway, the glass at Tower Square probably looks more half-empty (at least) than half-full.

But the total amount of vacant space (perhaps 20% of the complex) is less than most would think, and there has been, as noted, some progress made toward bringing that number down further.

White Lion will make Tower Square its mailing — and brewing — address, he said, adding quickly that a staffing company and AT&T have come on as tenants recently.

And there is that solid foundation of education facilities on which to build, he said, adding that there are a number of different ways the space may be repurposed in the future.

This is what the new ownership group — operating under name Springfield Hospitality Group — saw when it began looking at Tower Square as a potential investment in 2018. The group paid $7 million for the 25-story office tower and attached retail space, parking garages, and the Steiger’s parcel. The hotel, a separate purchase, was acquired for $10.5 million.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location,” he told BusinessWest. “We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

As an example, he said the complex could become an ‘educational hub,’ or a bigger one, given that there are already two institutions with classrooms and other facilities there.

“We’re working with two other local colleges,” he said, adding that he could not disclose their names because the talks were very preliminary. “Meanwhile, we want to bring in some basic amenities such as a nail salon or a massage parlor or banking. Overall, there are many ways we can fill the available spaces, and we have already started implementing them.”

By that, he meant the AT&T store, the new staffing agency, and the fitness center and daycare components of the YMCA’s operation, which, as noted, have not been finalized.

Overall, flexibility will be the watchword moving forward, he said, and while there are certain visions that have developed for what might the Tower Square complex might look like in a year, or five years, the shape it takes will ultimately be determined by the marketplace and the types of opportunities that present themselves.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location. We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

“We didn’t have a full plan for Tower Square, because as a businessman, you have to take what is available and turn it into opportunity,” Mitta noted, adding that the business plan calls for being profitable “from day one,” and more so with each passing quarter and year.

As for the hotel, it was “unflagged” — yes, that’s the industry term — when Marriott presented a long list of needed renovations and upgrades to the previous owner, MassMutual, which decided those expenditures were not worth making.

As with Tower Square itself, the Springfield Hospitality Group saw things differently, said Patel, adding that he and his partners believe the sizable investment — whatever it will be — will ultimately translate into enough room bookings, weddings, meetings, and other events to justify the expense of getting the Marriott name back over the front desk.

Mitta agreed. He said new construction of a Marriott would require an investment of between $200,000 and $300,000 per room, based on where this building project was taking place. Between the acquisition price of the hotel and the cost of the planned renovations and upgrades, the Springfield Hospitality Group is in that ballpark and probably just below.

“And if those new construction projects are going to work, why not renovations at this prestigious landmark?” he asked, before answering that question himself, in the affirmative.

Plans call for what Marks called an ‘inside-out’ concept, where elements of the city are incorporated into the design and décor of the renovated hotel. Specific improvements call for renovations to each room and the addition of one room, a suite, bringing the total to 266, said Marks. Also, the sixth floor, familiar to most area business owners and managers because it’s home to the banquet space and conference rooms, will get a makeover that includes a new fitness center with glass walls overlooking the rooftop garden.

A new, much larger bridal suite will be added, he went on, noting that the lobby will be given a new look as well.

“There are a lot of exciting changes,” he said, adding that the hotel will become part of what’s called the ‘Reimagined Marriott World,’ a comprehensive survey of customers and potential customers to determine what they want in a hotel — and a Marriott.

“The feedback was, ‘we want more than a place to sleep,’” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘we want a place where we can connect, relax, entertain, and do all the things we want to do.’”

And this led to the conceptualization of what he called a ‘great room’ in the lobby.

“The entire great room is the one place to be,” he said. “There’s a bar there, you can eat anywhere in that whole great-room area, and technology will allow our staff to deliver unsurpassed hospitality in the market by going out and greeting the customer with tablet in hand and checking them in the lobby.”

Model rooms will be available for viewing this spring, he went on, adding that construction, already underway on infrastructure systems, will move to more visible areas in the coming weeks.

Staying Power

“We’re going to be the number-one, most prestigious hotel in Western Mass.,” said Mitta, adding that the planned renovations and improvements should position the hotel to fully capitalize on the momentum being seen in downtown Springfield.

He noted that the arrival of MGM Springfield, as well as the performances and events it will bring, add up to considerable opportunity for a name-brand hotel located in the heart of downtown.

“Usually, a casino like this has 1,000 rooms, and some have 1,800 or 2,000 rooms,” Mitta explained. “This one has 250 rooms. That’s not enough when you bring events like Stevie Wonder and Cher to your city. This creates opportunities. If we make this hotel business-friendly with a lot of amenities, people will stay downtown.”

That was the thinking behind this large investment, and the partners who made it are confident their investment will soon start paying real dividends.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Lots of Potential

 

Evan Plotkin, left, with parking attendants Joe Martin, middle, and Damien Denesha

Evan Plotkin, left, with parking attendants Joe Martin, middle, and Damien Denesha at the new service just outside 1350 Main St.

Valet parking isn’t exactly a novel concept; banquet halls, restaurants, and hospitals have been offering that service for years, if not decades. But it is when it comes to downtown Springfield’s office towers. One Financial Plaza recently introduced the concept, and in a few weeks, it is living up the promise first foreseen a decade ago.

Evan Plotkin says he first conceived of the idea of instituting valet parking at 1350 Main St. in downtown Springfield — the office tower he co-owns — almost 10 years ago.

Then, as now, he thought the service would bring a needed, higher level of convenience to people visiting professionals and other tenants in the tower, take some off the rough edge off Springfield when it comes to the issues of parking and enforcement of same — matters that can keep some from even venturing into the city to do business — and be another selling point when it comes to attracting new tenants and prompting existing tenants to re-up.

So why did it take a decade for the concept to become reality and, according to early projections, fulfill all that promise?

“I couldn’t really afford it back then,” said Plotkin, who laughed as he said that but was nonetheless quite serious with his tone. But there were other reasons as well, ranging from the economy — that was the height of the recession — to some logistics (getting all the needed approvals from the city), to a vibrancy level that needed to still come up a notch for this to really work. Or two notches. Or three.

All of those issues, including the notches of vibrancy, are now being referred to with the past tense, or certainly will be when MGM Springfield opens its doors in a month. So Plotkin and the other owners of 1350 Main have made that dream from a decade ago a reality, and they’re off to a fast start, by Plotkin’s estimates, with this valet parking venture, which also serves visitors of neighboring City Hall, the county courthouse a block or so away, and other nearby facilities, at the start of this month.

That was the Fourth of July week, as you’ll recall, so the numbers have to be kept in perspective, said Plotkin, adding that those first few days, the attendants were parking 25 to 30 cars a day. By early the next week, the numbers had doubled, and on July 12, a Thursday, they parked 73 cars.

“And I think those numbers will just continue to grow as more people become aware of the service,” said Plotkin, adding that roughly half of the customers thus far have been visitors to City Hall, more than a third have ventured to 1350 Main, and the rest have had other destinations in mind.

The service, managed by Valet Park of America, is roughly as expensive as traditional parking, said Plotkin, noting that the cost is $2 for 20 minutes or less (enough time for a quick visit to tenants at 1350 Main or offices in City Hall), $4 for visits ranging from 20 minutes to two hours (enough time to go the gym on the building’s ninth floor), and $2 for each additional hour after that. Several tenants at 1350 Main already provide vouchers to visitors to cover the cost of the service, just as they would with normal parking.

The service, operated on what’s known as City Hall Place, has a few spaces right outside City Hall, roughly two dozen more in the Civic Center Parking Garage, and more in the lots under I-91, said Plotkin, adding that, with the way the concept is catching on, more may be needed.

This isn’t exactly a novel idea — valet parking has been used by banquet facilities, restaurants, and hospitals for years now. But it is for an office tower, at least in this market, said Plotkin, adding that, as he surveyed a changing landscape downtown and pending changes, especially MGM, he decided it was time to execute that plan he first conceived all those years ago.

“We looked at what was happening downtown, and the construction for MGM and the [I-91] viaduct creates a lot of conversation about parking, and it’s always pretty negative,” he explained. “I really wanted to get ahead of all that with our building.”

Elaborating, he said 1350 Main St. doesn’t have any structured parking (an attached garage or lot) and has historically been challenged by having to rely on nearly facilities. And with MGM set to open, that challenge, and the perception of parking issues, would only grow.

“Visitors there will utilize that garage, but they’ll also be looking for other places to park,” he noted. “And what happens is that regular people who just want to do business downtown will have this fear that it’s going to be challenging to find a space. People will say, ‘it’s a hassle; I don’t want to feed a meter all day.’”

Thus far, the service is doing just what he thought it would. It’s providing that layer of convenience for visitors, his tenants seem to like the service and consider it added value, and, in Plotkin’s mind, it’s helping to put a friendlier face on downtown Springfield.

Or at least a strong counter to the parking patrol that polices the central business district. Those individuals are just doing their jobs, he said, but they put visitors to the downtown area and his building on edge — and sometimes dent their wallet.

Valet service is “putting a positive face on parking in Springfield,” said Plotkin, who has been a tireless promoter and supporter of Springfield and especially and its downtown, and was recognized by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2018 for those efforts. “There’s a negative connotation with those meter maids. People don’t like to get $50 tickets; they see those people coming, and they run out of the middle of a meeting or a lunch to put quarters in the meter.”

He said the arrival of MGM Springfield will certainly drive the numbers at the valet service higher and bring the business venture closer to and eventually past the break-even point he knew he couldn’t reach a decade ago.

Damien Denesha, recently named manager of this site by his employer, Valley Park of America, agreed.

“Once MGM opens, there will be a lot more people downtown, and parking will become more difficult,” he told BusinessWest. “Demand for this service will certainly grow.”

It took a decade for the concept Plotkin first put on paper to become reality. But thus far, the service seems to have, well, lots of potential, in every sense of that phrase.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]