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“Why are you doing this?”
That was the question posed by a pessimistic business owner in response to plans by the city to invest up to $12 million to redevelop the long-suffering South End community.
The South End of Springfield has been a sickly patient ever since Interstate 91 carved the neighborhood in half back in the 1960s. Entire blocks were tore down and families relocated. What little vibrancy remained in the community was further eroded by the flight of manufacturing from the city over the next forty years. Today, the South End is among the poorest communities in the city. Approximately 50% of the population lives at or below federal poverty levels, according to one recent study.
Now the city is thinking big as it forges ahead with what amounts to a huge redesign of much of the community. The entire project will come in ten phases over the next several years, beginning with the Main Street corridor this year. Planning and evaluation for Main Street is already underway, with work set to begin in the fall. Eleven graduate students from the UMass Amherst School of Landscape Architecture will also help out by evaluating the project and offering ideas and concepts with “fresh eyes,” said Scott Hanson, of the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development.
Improvements to the Main Street corridor will include work on streetlights, sidewalks, street curbs and crosswalks. At intersections that have crosswalks, for example, curbs will be expanded to allow for a shorter pedestrian trip across the street. Curbs along York and Elmwood streets will be expanded to improve “green space” there. Meanwhile, at the Locust Street-Main Street convergence, the island there will be expanded into a plaza area.
The total cost of the revitalization is estimated at $12 million. The city will provide about $7.3 million, with state funding estimated at about $2.6 million. Planners are hopeful the remaining $2.1 million gap can be covered as each phase of the project moves forward.
But at the February 10th meeting held to discuss the Main Street improvements, pessimism reigned. Residents and business owners had heard such promises before, only to see them evaporate in one failed initiative after another. Under the circumstances, their suspicions could be understandable. But as the criticism mounted with each question – Why is the city opening up Wendell Place? What is the city going to do about the snow banks along Main Street? Why is the city spending $12 million on infrastructure when layoffs are forthcoming? – Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno had finally had enough.
“I have to say,” said the Mayor as he stood before the attendees, “I am very surprised at the continued defeatist attitude down here in the South End.”
The $12 million in funds, said Sarno, are earmarked specifically for redevelopment. “This money is designated for certain activities in the city as far as projects that are ongoing. It cannot be distributed for labor or workforce.”
Sarno told the crowd that he has already been criticized by other neighborhoods for allotting so much funding to the South End. “But it seems to me that some of you are telling me you don’t want this money to come down to the South End area. Is that what I’m hearing?”
On the matter of snow banks along Main Street, Sarno said, “There were questions on sidewalks and snow. The responsibility of the sidewalk [belongs to] that business, and I would think if that business wants to be welcoming, they’re going to clear areas for their patrons to come in and out of the area.”
Sarno said that if word got out the community didn’t want the money, “other neighborhoods are ready to gobble it up.”
(To listen to Mayor Domenic Sarno’s comments, click here.)
“We want to see this move forward,” said South End Citizens Council president Leo Florian in support of the project. “We’re tired of things getting talked about, then dropped.”
Joan Kagan, of the community support group Square One, said the city is committing the resources needed to get the job done. “This is our window of opportunity to improve the South End,” she said.
The city is scheduling several public meetings to discuss each phase of the South End revitalization project. The next meeting is set for Thursday, March 19.