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As part of a series of community meetings being setup up to help keep residents and business owners up-to-date on the ongoing and proposed plans for the redevelopment of the South End neighborhood, city officials hosted a gathering at the Mount Carmel Academy on Margaret Street on Thursday, May 21.
Officials from the city’s Planning Department and Parks Department were joined by representatives from various supporting agencies, including Joan Kagan, President and CEO of Square One, Jerry Hayes from Hayes Development, and John Bechard from Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., to help give the audience an overview of progress being made to transform the South End from a rundown, blighted community into a more attractive and successful southern gateway to the City of Springfield.
Samalid Hogan of the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development first gave a brief update on the South End’s Main Street redevelopment project. Hogan said that Main Street construction should begin by this summer and be completed by June, 2010. In addition to that project, she said another $500,000 worth of sidewalk improvements were in the works for side streets along the Main Street corridor there.
Jerry Hayes provided an update on the overall progress of redevelopment plans for the South End. His company, Hayes Development, was engaged by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority to help devise a redevelopment plan for that part of the city. Hayes explained that the original plan to acquire property and move forward with redevelopment in deliberate stages was slightly altered in favor of a more economically realistic proposal. Rather than bundle eminent domain issues together with the entire redevelopment project as a whole, Hayes said that for now South End redevelopment should concentrate on expanding the Emerson Wight Park playground and reducing blight in the neighborhood from Central Street to Marble Street. Later on, as funds are secured, the city can move ahead with acquiring properties for the more expensive and ambitious plan of creating connections from Ashmun to Marble and Dwight Street Extension to Rutledge Street (see map – .pdf). A preliminary plan detailing the revised approach should be ready by this June, followed by a review of the final plan by the city’s Planning Board in August. The plan should then be brought before the City Council for approval by September. (The plan does not include Main Street’s redevelopment, which, as mentioned above, is scheduled to begin by this summer.)
Dan Nietsche, from the city’s Office of Capital Asset Management, then gave attendees an overview of developments at the long-vacant Gemini site located between Morris and Central Streets. A proposal was made by the city to create an interim park on the property for up to 3 to 5 years, or until after the redevelopment of the South End is complete. Officials are putting off bids for the Gemini property until that time in the hopes that the millions of dollars in improvements to the community will attract higher quality bids, explained Samalid Hogan. The city has about $250,000 reserved for park use that could be used for the park project, which could be completed by this fall.
Many members of the audience, however, roundly criticized the idea of a temporary park at the Gemini site. State Representative Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, who was in the audience for the presentation, was among the most skeptical, asking why so much money should be spent on a park that – in addition to being only temporary – may end up being more of a headache than the vacant lot it would replace. “Who’s going to police and maintain this park?” she asked Nietsche as dollar amounts were being tossed around. Rivera added that people living at Northern Heights, which looks out onto the Gemini site, would probably love to have a park there, “but what are they going to see?” She said it was likely they would have to endure a park that attracts drug dealers and prostitutes as much as anyone else.
By the end of the debate it appeared the temporary park idea for the Gemini site was going to be tabled in favor of simply having a “green space” – or field of grass – on the property instead. Other options brought forward by the audience included building a senior center on the site or asking WinnCompanies, the owner of the Northern Heights complex, if they would maintain the Gemini site as part of a “good neighbor” policy.
Finally, some details on the Main Street improvement project were brought to light with John Bechard’s presentation. Bechard explained to the audience that an original plan to redesign selected intersections that included reducing on-street parking significantly was later shelved in favor of a revised plan that would retain such parking. Balancing the needs of automobile traffic with the needs of pedestrian traffic, Bechard showed a design plan that featured the use of sidewalk “bulb-outs” – extensions that shorten the crosswalk distance between curbs – at intersections with traffic lights. Meanwhile, to help vehicle traffic, pavement-embedded sensors would measure stopped traffic travelling in opposing directions. The sensors would help to alleviate both backed-up traffic and traffic clogged by cars waiting to turn left by giving “head start” green lights accordingly (delaying the green light to opposing traffic). Traffic studies done earlier have given planners an idea of which traffic-lighted intersections and directions of travel have the most frequent left-turn issues.
Also, Bechard noted that due to community input at earlier meetings, plans were being considered to extend the Main Street improvement project to include Main Street up to Mill Street, rather than ending it at Locust Street. The improvement project begins at Howard Street to the north.
Bids are set to go out for the Main Street project on June 10, 2009, with construction is set to begin by July.
For more information on the South End Revitalization Project, visit the City webpage, here.