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The Road to Progress

$13 Million Facelift Will Change the Look — and Character — of State

The $13 million improvement project for State Street is being touted as an effective way to leverage the $67 million federal courthouse now under construction.

Kevin Kennedy calls State Street in Springfield an ‘educational corridor’ — there are three high schools with that mailing address and two colleges, AIC and STCC, border it.

But it’s also a religious corridor, said Kennedy, senior aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, noting that several churches and the headquarters for the Archdiocese of Greater Springfield are on or just off the road. And it’s a business corridor — MassMutual’s sprawling headquarters lie near its east end — as well as an historical corridor; Shays’ Rebellion was waged near the Springfield Armory, now home to the STCC campus, and the street is considered part of the famous Boston Post Road.

“It’s a very important road that thousands of people use every day; it winds its way through several neighborhoods in this city,” said Kennedy, noting that for these reasons and more — specifically, a $67 million federal courthouse now taking shape near the former Technical High School — State Street is getting a facelift.
It’s a $13 million set of upgrades, to be more specific, with work slated to begin early next year and end, hopefully, around the time the new courthouse opens its doors in late 2007.

Kennedy, who is coordinating many aspects of the project for Neal, who helped to secure $11 million in federal transportation funds for it (the state is providing the rest), told BusinessWest that the improvement initiative is one effective way to leverage the courthouse project, seize the momentum generated by it, and broaden its overall impact.

Elaborating, he said that while the work will make the road more attractive, safer, and easier to navigate — plans call for 600 new trees, 250 new street lights, 125,000 square yards of asphalt, 44,000 linear feet of curbing, sidewalks, crosswalks, and some reconfigured intersections — it will also spur economic development.

“It is everyone’s hope that this project will encourage people to invest in their own property,” he said, adding that there is a mix of privately and publicly owned property in need of re-investment. He listed the remaining portion of the former Tech High School (most of the structure was demolished to make way for the courthouse), the old fire station at Mason Square, and some shuttered businesses, such as the former Byron Funeral Home, as landmarks that may see new life from the improvement project.

David Panagore, the city’s economic development director, agreed.

He told BusinessWest that investments in such things as lighting, sidewalks, and intersections do, indeed, spur private investment. He’s seen it happen locally, in Turners Falls, and in Boston, where improvements made to Washington to Shawmut Streets generated increases in property values and investments to protect those assets.

“If you look at downtown Turners Falls, the investments in the streetscape have had a big impact,” he explained. “Projects like that raise the level of expectation in the public space.

“With State Street, the outcome is going to be tremendous in terms of changing the character and tenor of that area and bringing it out,” he continued. “Our goal is not to create a greater sense of place.”

BusinessWest looks this issue at how the ambitious project — a blend of engineering and economic development — will do just that.

Concrete Examples

As John Bechard worked his way through a PowerPoint program outlining specific aspects of the State Street project, he stopped at slides 18 and 19.

The former is a photograph of a stretch of the road near the west end of the STCC campus, while the latter is a computer-generated rendering of what that same block will look like after a median, complete with new trees, is added to State Street between Spring Street and Federal Street.

The median and its trees will make the road more aesthetically pleasing, said Bechard, managing director of Transportation Engineering for Watertown-based Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB), the firm hired to design the State Street improvments. He noted that specific species of trees have yet to be chosen, but they will provide several months of color. But the median will also make the road safer and improve traffic flow, he continued, adding that it will prohibit motorists traveling west from making turns onto Byers Street, thus preventing tie-ups.

There are similar dual benefits to many of the other specific aspects of the so-called State Street Corridor Improvement Project. Bechard said other initiatives, including new entrance patterns for Wilbraham Road and steps aimed at improving the tangled intersection of State Street, Magazine Street, and St. James Avenue, will blend aesthetics with traffic and safety enhancements.

“Our basic goal is to improve travel for pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles alike,” said Bechard. “We’ve received a lot of feedback from people, and while not everyone is happy with all the changes, we feel we have a plan that will make the road safer and provide better traffic flow.

Bechard told BusinessWest that the project has been in the planning stages for more than two years. The process of finalizing specific improvements and the designs for each has involved everything from pedestrian and traffic counts (roughly 17,000 to 25,000 cars per day) to a series of neighborhood meetings, at which project coordinators have sought to identify both “opportunities and constraints.”

While the city does not have a financial commitment for the project, said Bechard, it will have the responsibility of making sure the improvements are implemented as designed, and that public input is gathered and weighed before those designs are finalized. These tasks require a high level of organization and the cooperation of departments ranging from the DPW to the Historical Commission; parks to housing.

What has emerged to date is a multi-faceted plan, to be administered by the Mass. Highway Dept., that involves roughly four miles of road between East Columbus Avenue and Berkshire Avenue. This stretch passes through several neighborhoods, including McKnight, Six Corners, Old Hill, Upper Hill, and Pine Point.

Nine intersections will be modified, improved, and beautified, said Bechard, adding that traffic signals will be upgraded to improve synchronicity. Sidewalks will also be reconstructed, with many sections to feature brick inlays. Work will also include the removal of cobblestones and decaying trolley tracks that lie under many sections of the street.

The project will unfold in three phases,said Bechard; the first will be stretch from East Columbus Avenue to Federal Street, while the second will wind from there to Roosevelt Avenue, and the third, including the section by MassMutual, ending at Berkshire Avenue. There is no set timetable for the order in which the work will be undertaken.

Main elements to the plan include the median, the intersection at Magazine Street and St. James Avenue, and a new entrance for Wilbraham Road and enlarging the park at that intersection near Mason Square.

Motorists traveling east on State Street have simply veered right onto Wilbraham Road, he explained. When the intersection is redesigned, they will continue on State Street to Catherine Street and take a right-hand turn there. The adjacent park will be lengthened and widened, with additional trees planted.

Beyond the engineering elements to the plan, however, there is an economic development component to the project, said Kennedy. He told BusinessWest that the enhancements could and should prompt additional investments (MassMutual has already put $45 million into renovations at its building) and help move some stalled projects forward.

Panagore agreed, and said the state is currently studying the Tech High School site as the possible location of a data center, similar to the one the Commonwealth built in Chelsea (another fiscally challenged city) several years ago.

Meanwhile, the city is looking at undertaking work to make the old fire station more ready for development, he said. The long-shuttered landmark, challenged by a lack of parking, is in an advanced state of disrepair, Panagore said, adding that with some investment in the property the city could generate some interest in a request for proposals.

As for private investment, Panagore said city officials will seek to assemble financing vehicles to help property owners with façade work and other improvements. Officials will make use of federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money, while also trying to create a loan, or mortgage, pool.

“We’ll look to focus the resources we do have on buildings that are outdated or vacant, and work with owners on bringing them back on line,” he said, adding that discussions are taking place on a loan pool. “We want to work with business owners to help them build on the momentum that will be created by the project.”

Exit Strategy

By doing so, city will indeed, be changing State Street’s look and character, said Panagore, noting that many neighborhoods will be touched by what he calls an ‘impact project.’

“We don’t consider this to be $13 million worth of macadam and work to tear up old cobblestones,” he explained. “This is $13 million worth of important investments in many sections of this city.

“We’re not just putting in pavement,” he continued. “We’re making a capital investment that will spur private investment.”

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