Community Spotlight

West Side’s Story is About Maximizing its Assets

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says that West Springfield’s biggest challenge may be a lack of developable land, which places a priority on maximizing existing real estate.

Like just about everyone else in this region, Will Reichelt has circled August 24 on all his calendars.

That’s the day MGM Springfield opens, as most everyone knows, and it’s a day of high expectations and some anxiety. Especially in West Springfield, where Reichelt has served as mayor for nearly three years now.

West Side isn’t the host city for MGM, but it is certainly among those to be the most impacted by the $960 million development that has gone up just across the Connecticut River.

The Eastern States Exposition will handle MGM’s overflow parking on August 24, with a shuttle running between the two locations. And the annual 16-day Big E will begin only a few weeks after MGM opens, creating considerable talk — as well as that aforementioned anxiety — about just what traffic will be like on Memorial Avenue, I-91, the Turnpike’s exit 4, the Memorial Bridge, Route 5, the North End Bridge, and other arteries in and around the city.

“It’s certainly going to be an interesting weekend and couple of weeks, with the Big E opening three weeks later,” said Reichelt, in a classic bit of understatement. “It will be interesting to see how Big E traffic interacts with MGM traffic.”

He added, as others have, that traffic and parking issues in the wake of MGM Springfield fall into the category of good problems to have, at least from a vibrancy standpoint. And looking beyond August 24 and the days to follow, Reichelt is hoping, and perhaps also expecting, that MGM will generate, in addition to traffic issues, some additional development opportunities.

“It will be interesting to see what happens long term as a result of MGM, especially just over the Memorial Bridge, where there are certainly some development opportunities,” said the mayor, referring to some of the retail areas on the eastern end of Memorial Avenue. “People have talked about a hotel, restaurants, and maybe redevelopment of the whole Memorial Avenue/Main Street area.”

More specifically, he was referring to redevelopment of some vacant or underutilized properties there and in other areas within the community, which has been the basic M.O. for this city for quite some time.

Indeed, unlike neighboring Westfield and many other area communities, West Side is, as they say in development circles, ‘land poor,’ meaning that most all developable parcels have been developed. That goes for residential development — although a few new small projects seem to materialize each year — and especially commercial development.

Most of the projects in that latter category have involved reuse of vacant or underutilized property, and examples abound — from the conversion of the former Yale Genton property and some neighboring homes on Riverdale Street into the site of the massive Balise Honda, to the conversion of the former Boston Billiards site just north on Riverdale Street into a new Marriott Courtyard.

The most recent example is the stunning transformation of a former auto body shop just off Memorial Avenue into the home of Hot Brass, an indoor firearm and bow range that opened its doors in early August.

“It will be interesting to see what happens long term as a result of MGM, especially just over the Memorial Bridge, where there are certainly some development opportunities. People have talked about a hotel, restaurants, and maybe redevelopment of the whole Memorial Avenue/Main Street area.”

Reichelt said MGM could help trigger more developments of this kind on sites ranging from the old Medallion Motel property just over the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge linking the community to Agawam and across from The Big E, to the United Bank building on Elm Street street (the bank is moving across the street into space once occupied by Webster bank), to some properties north of I-91 on Riverdale Street, which are in less demand than those on the south side of the highway.

“South of I-91 is the real hot spot; whenever there’s a vacancy, it usually fills quickly,” said Reichelt, adding that the city’s board goal is to the make the area north of the interstate just as hot.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Reichelt about ongoing efforts to bring more economic development to West Side and make the very most of the property that can be developed.

Developing Story

The ambitious Hot Brass venture, which combines a retail sporting goods store with a 17-lane recreational archery and shooting range, is, indeed, only the latest example of how underutilized properties have found new lives in this community.

And, as the mayor noted, this is out of necessity, because there are very few, if any, developable spaces left in this city, for either residential or commercial development.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,391 (2014)
Area: 17.49 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.05 
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.90
Median Household Income: $54,434
<strong>Median Family Income: $63,940
Type of Government: Mayor, Town Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

“When I was on the Planning Board four years ago, we approved a subdivision, which I assumed would be the last one,” Reichelt recalled. “But then, when I was a lawyer for the city, they approved another one, and I said, ‘that must be the last subdivision in West Side.”

Developers keep finding ways to shoehorn in smaller residential projects, he went on, but on the commercial and industrial side, the city has essentially run out of real estate.

And, as has been the case for some time now, most development — or redevelopment — efforts have been focused on the two main retail thoroughfares, Riverdale Street, home to countless auto dealerships, the massive Riverdale Shops, a cinema complex, several hotels and motels, and more, and Memorial Avenue, home to more auto dealerships, more retail plazas, and, of course, the Big E.

Both are doing very well, and are in seemingly constant motion, development-wise, said Reichelt, adding that over the past few years, Memorial Avenue had added new Fathers & Sons Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, a Chipotle, a new Florence Bank branch, and, most recently, Hot Brass, and a Sketchers outlet store.

Meanwhile, on Riverdale Street, additions to the landscape include the Marriott Courtyard, a new Pride store (the first one with a full-service kitchen), and a Balise carwash, among others.

But there are opportunities on both main drags for additional development, said the mayor.

On Riverdale, these include the site of the closed Bertucci’s restaurant, just south of the new Marriott Courtyard, and some vacant or underutilized property on the north side of the highway.

As for Memorial Avenue, there’s the former Medallion Motel site, but also the closed Hofbrauhaus restaurant, the site of the closed Debbie Wong restaurant (across the street from the Big E), and others.

The United Bank building on Elm Street

The United Bank building on Elm Street, soon to be vacated by the bank, is one of the keys to bringing more vibrancy to the downtown area.

The Medallion Motel site, at the corner of Memorial Avenue and River Street, is intriguing because of its size and proximity to the Big E, although its location, just over the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, a site of persistent traffic congestion, is seen by some as a drawback, said the mayor, adding quickly that reconstruction of the bridge and a broad plan to redo all of Memorial Avenue from the Morgan Sullivan Bridge to the Memorial Bridge may change that outlook.

Work is slated to begin in 2021, said Reichelt, with plans calling for maintaining four lanes between the Memorial Bridge and Union Street, with some turning lanes carved out in the center (lack of such lanes leads to considerable congestion), with three lanes between the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge and Gate 9 of the Big E, with turning lanes added on that stretch as well. Meanwhile, there will be a bike path constructed on the Big E side between the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge and Union Street, with bike lines on both sides between Union Street and the Memorial Bridge.

As for the much-anticipated reconstruction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge itself, that work is expected to commence after this year’s Big E concludes, said the mayor.

Back on Riverdale Street, one of the main goals at present is to stimulate more interest in the section north of the highway. And for many retailers, it remains a much tougher sell.

“We need to help more people understand that north of I-91 is still Riverdale Road and it’s still a high-traffic area,” he explained. “There are many businesses that have been there forever and they’ve done extremely well.”

But while Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue get most of the attention, community leaders are also focusing efforts on an often-overlooked asset — what’s considered the downtown area, the stretch of Elm Street beginning at Park Street.

That section boasts the Majestic Theater, a few restaurants, including B-Napoli, the town library, a few banks, and some retail, and has considerable potential as a destination, said the mayor.

“Every mayor says they want to have a Northampton-like downtown,” he told BusinessWest. “And in a way, our downtown suits itself to that, because we have a huge common on Park Street and a smaller common on Elm Street.”

The downtown section is hampered by a lack of parking, as many downtowns are, he noted, adding that a recent renovation of the municipal lot by City Hall to add more than 100 spaces will help.

One key moving forward is the United Bank building, which sits adjacent to the Majestic Theater and is around the corner from the city’s offices.

Years ago, the space occupied by the bank was home to a number of small retail shops, said the mayor, adding that a similar mixed-use role — with residential as possibly part of the mix — could help bring more people, and more vibrancy, to that section of the city.

Meanwhile, there are a number of municipal projects ongoing, everything from construction of a new elementary school, to infrastructure work including water and sewer projects, to ongoing improvements to Mittineague Park, all aimed at making the city a better place to live and work.

Some Solid Bets

Projecting ahead to August 24 and the days to follow, Reichelt said West Springfield residents, those who commute through the city, and even retailers on Memorial Avenue should be ready for what’s to come because they’ve dealt with Big E traffic for years.

“They know what to expect,” he said, adding that long-term, it’s a little harder to predict just what will transpire.

Overall, for the city across the river from the casino, the changing landscape presents many new opportunities to put some older properties to new and exciting uses.

There’s been a lot of that in West Springfield over the past several years and there are very good odds (yes, that’s a gaming industry term) that there will be much more in the years to come.

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

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