Opinion: Urban Land Institute’s 2006 report still makes sense

6/1/2017 | G. Michael Dobbs

Category: June 2017

In the fall of the 2006, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) came to Springfield and did a remarkable analysis of the city and what steps it should take for its renewal and future.

To give you a bit of context, Charlie Ryan was mayor and he was working with the Finance Control Board in governing Springfield, which was on the brink of finance ruin. By the way, thanks Charlie for bringing the City of Homes back from the near dead.

Now a little over a decade later, it’s interesting to see what recommendations have actually come about and which have languished. I thought about looking at the report again after Mayor Domenic Sarno sited the ULI report in his statement about the development of 31 Elm St.

Here are some passages from the report:

“Make downtown the urban center of the Pioneer Valley, a great place to live, work, and play. Reducing crime is a threshold issue. Encouraging market-rate housing, additional amenities, and ultimately more retail and entertainment will make Springfield what it can be, not a stepsister to other towns in the valley.”

Well, we’re still working on that, but considerable progress has been made thanks to investors such as Silverbrick Lofts, the efforts of the Business Improvement District, the Central Cultural District, Spirit of Springfield and CityStage/Symphony Hall. The renovation of Union Station will add a lot to downtown and of course MGM Springfield is the next part of the downtown puzzle.

Notice a key phrase, though: “market-rate.” Nothing is said about having more subsidized housing. In my humble opinion, I have to say having more subsidized housing as part of the proposed plan for 31 Elm St. is a mistake.

“Conserve Springfield’s neighborhoods. As the ‘City of Homes,’ the city should engage its many civic and neighborhood associations to support efforts to protect the architectural character of the city’s residential neighborhoods while also building a shared sense of community.”

Ironically, the tornado of 2011 led to opportunities for a number of improvements in several poor inner city neighborhoods that didn’t exist previously. Do you think my neighborhood would have ever been given a new school? Ah, no. There is still much work to be done in the city’s neighborhoods.  

“Demolish the York Street jail. The jail is a key downtown property that has languished for too long and stands as an extremely visible symbol of downtown stagnation. After the site is cleaned up and vacant, it will be available for the right development opportunity.”

It’s gone but not redeveloped.

“Develop a plan and implementation strategy for the Gemini-Hollywood area in the South End neighborhood. Redevelopment of this area can be a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization. This area can and should become a thriving community with a mix of incomes and housing choices. Necessary steps for the revitalization of the South End neighborhood include thinking of the area in its totality, not just as isolated projects; reducing crime; reducing density in the Hollywood project and providing off-street parking and play space; and encouraging a good mix of neighborhood-oriented retail on Main Street.”

The Hollywood area has been addressed with positive redevelopment and the Emerson Wight Park has also been improved with it as the location of a new South End Community Center. The Gemini factory site on Central Street remains undeveloped.

“Planning for the adaptive reuse of the Federal Building on Main Street. The city should gain control of the site and ensure that the site is used in a manner that will support downtown revitalization efforts. Optimal reuse of the building would be for classrooms or a student center for one of the locally based colleges, which would bring energy and activity to downtown.”

The city did not gain control of the building and is paying a lease to house the School Department there, a controversial decision in some quarters.

All in all I think in the last ten years there has been considerable improvement made, but we’re not done yet.

Here is what the report said of downtown housing, “A clear need exists for new market-rate and workforce housing to be brought into the down-town market. Many of the vacant or underused Class B and Class C office buildings are historic structures that offer substantial potential for adaptive use, particularly housing, within a short-to medium-term time frame. Because a significant amount of subsidized multifamily housing already exists downtown for households of low to moderate incomes, the panel recommends that any rehabilitation of these buildings for housing be for market-rate units. A healthy balance of various housing types should be available, and various housing options should be explored.”

Now I know the number of subsidized units proposed for 31 Elms St. is just a few of the total number of apartments and the project will remain largely market-rate. My concern is the addition of subsidized housing might diminish the appeal of the market-rate units.

The ULI report made a lot of sense years ago and it still does.

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