Time to Make the Past History

When it was first announced that Springfield would be the subject of an Urban Land Institute (ULI) study, we expressed worry that the panel assigned the task might well come back with a report outlining basically what we already knew.

There was certainly some of that when the report’s highlights were unveiled late last month. We already knew, for instance, that:

  • Springfield has a great location — off the Interstate, near the Turnpike, by a river, etc.;
  • It has a great housing stock;
  • There is a problem with crime, or the perception of it;
  • Several neighborhoods need some immediate attention;
  • Downtown could use more retail;
  • The Connecticut River is very shallow here;
  • Mattoon Street is “drop dead [gorgeous];” the panelist making the comment omitted the adjective, but everyone knew what he meant;
  • The York Street Jail should be torn down; most people had come to that conclusion long ago; and
  • The Union Station project should be put on ice; referring to the time, energy, and money expended on the project to date, one panelist borrowed the famous line from Raiders of the Lost Arc: … they’re digging in the wrong place!’

But while there were no stunning revelations from at least the Readers Digest version of the report (the full document will be out in a month or so), there were some things we could take from this $120,000 exercise.

First, there are some recognized priority projects, including the need to preserve and revitalize the city’s South End, specifically the Gemini and Hollywood neighborhoods. Other initiatives in the ‘threshold project’ category are the old federal building downtown, and Court Square, where plans to create a boutique hotel have stalled. And there are some longer-term endeavors to work on, such as creating more vibrancy in the downtown, perhaps through retail or by a college locating or expanding there; promoting programs to yield more home ownership; and even addressing the Civic Center parking deck.

But there was more to the discussion that wrapped up the week’s work conducted by an eight-person panel. Indeed, there was strong sense of urging — specifically, to bury the past and get on with the future.

While moving through a PowerPoint presentation complete with photos of Springfield landmarks and maps of downtown, the panelists spoke early and often about a negativism in Springfield that they believe has taken on a life of its own, and is now a serious obstacle to achieving progress.

There were several references to that proverbial glass, and how we who work and live in Springfield prefer to see it as half-empty, at best, while these experienced planners and business people from Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and other urban areas that have seen some really dark times, can easily see it as half-full.

Most of the panelists took at least a minute or two to address the subject of attitude. They said that while stakeholders move on with the hard process of fixing neighborhoods, building access to the river, and creating a 24/7 city, we have to start by at least trying to stop beating ourselves up.

And you know what? They’re right.

Perhaps the best message left by the ULI panel was that Springfield’s past — especially its recent past dominated by a fiscal crisis, a corruption probe that won’t end, and mostly frustration when it comes to economic development — does not have to be its future. But it just might be, unless we can get beyond that past and the game of affixing blame for it.

Springfield is not going to bounce back simply by stressing whatever positives can be stressed and chilling those negative vibes. But that would certainly be a good place to start.

This was perhaps the best advice given by the ULI panel. And if we all knew that already, then we’d probably forgotten it.-