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A Planned City: Now Is When “After Union Station” Matters…

UPDATED 12/30/14 12:44 AM: For clarity as to the length of US Rep Richard Neal’s political career.

A Planned City is a new series on planning and development in Springfield and its impact on the fabric of and life in the city.

Rendering of Union Station after renovation (rtands.com via SRA)

Last weekend, The Republican featured Springfield’s City on the Rise document, prepared by the Economic Development department to feature some $2.7 billion in investment in the city. This report, essentially a political document ahead of 2015, cites countless projects currently underway in the city.

As such this document should be approached with caution. Some projects have been city radar for years and the size of any given expenditure does not infer broader improvement. Some are routine, if overdue projects like sidewalk and street repair, some of which is funded by regular appropriations from the state. MGM’s is impressive, but of limited value in measuring its impact after the facility opens.

One project, if executed properly, does stand out: Union Station.

Two weeks ago the clearest evidence yet that one of US Representative Richard Neal’s white whales had at last been caught was on display as demolition the baggage building adjoining the station began. Updates on the city’s website show interior progress, too, is very real.

Talk of reviving Union Station predates Neal’s political career start in the late 70’s. Ten to fifteen years ago, it seemed certain to happen, but the somewhat grandiose project got gummed up by mismanagement and perhaps malfeasance. Now, a more modest proposal has been advanced. Gov. Deval Patrick facilitated state funding. Very likely at Neal’s urging, the feds are playing ball again, although, city officials say Uncle Sam has put the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, the agency in charge, on a short leash.

However, the station is also proof positive that the amount of a project can belie its impact. The relatively paltry $80 million total cost is a fraction of MGM’s investment, but its potential multiplier effect is far greater. It seems quite clear Neal recognizes this too. His trip last week up Amtrak’s Springfield Line was meant to showcase—alongside his Connecticut colleagues at stops in New Haven & Hartford—the value rail already brings to those cities and can bring to Springfield.

Above, US Rep. Richard Neal with colleague Rep. Rosa DeLauro in New Haven.

With the commuter line between New Haven and Springfield (branded the Hartford line by Connecticut transportation officials) a certainty, making Union Station a true, premier gateway is essential. Even if Eric Lesser’s designs for a Boston connection are years away, this link to our south is crucial.

However, the ultimate success cannot be taken for granted. Between I-291 and Union Station, running along the railroad viaduct and the Main Street Arch, is perhaps the most important blank canvass in the City of Springfield and in downtown in particular. It is crucial that city planners and economic development officials not bollox it up by unnecessarily crowding out the potential.

The land between 291 and the viaduct is perhaps the city’s best example of failed urban renewal. Virtually all of this area’s pre-war buildings were cleared. Union Station is perhaps the last significant structure that does not play to that era when cars, parking lots and anti-urban ideology reigned supreme. Little built from that era is of architectural significance or above replacement with structures that both meld with modern urban concepts of walkability, livability and street life.

More to the point, there is little reason to think any of these new additions (or renovated existing structures) would or should be anything by private, tax-paying developments.

Build a new courthouse if necessary, but don’t take up potentially tax-producing property near Union Station to do it. (via hampdenda.com)

Still, there is reason for concern. Advocates of a new courthouse for Hampden County (we are agnostic on the issue of a new courthouse) have proposed either the current Peter Pan bus terminal or The Republican’s building as a site. This is a mistake. The likelihood of buying The Republican’s property seems low. The Court system would probably not meet Advance Publication’s price. However, it is equally foolish—for either the bus company or local officials—to consider the 1960’s era terminal.

Some believe that Peter Picknelly, the brother behind the bus company, may extract a price for moving his operations over to the renovated Union Station, something essential to the facility’s success. First of all, the city has leverage. If Boston could force Chinatown buses to not pick up passengers in Chinatown, Springfield can force Peter Pan to deliver passengers in Union Station (although ironically some suspect Boston moved the buses at Peter Pan’s behest).

Secondly, the idea of the state or city and Picknelly playing “let’s make a deal” over the bus terminal is ridiculous. Using or selling the terminal’s land for a transit oriented development would make Picknelly far richer than any government deal. Plus, were the state the buying party, the Boston media would hardly let sweetheart deals go by without scrutiny.

There is another, graver, threat to ensuring Union Station becomes a driver in Springfield’s economy and vitality: planning. While the zoning revisions of last year resulted in some modernization, there remains a culture of “You’re building? Sure, whatever you want!” around economic development. Core urban neighborhoods like Mason Square and Indian Orchard have seen street fronted properties accessible to pedestrians drawn back behind moats of parking lots. Sixteen Acres lost its only strip of such stores to a CVS guarded by the asphalt of its drive-through.

The area North of Union Station were almost completely demolished and rebuilt in the anti-urban model of the 1950s & 1960’s. Redevelopment spurred by Union Station could reverse that and return the feel of a city here…if policymakers have the intestinal fortitude to require it.

On the whole downtown—south of the Arch—has escaped this fate. Yes, parking lots have overtaken some plots of land, but no buildings of consequence in “Metro Center,” downtown’s official name, are inherently allergic to today’s urban planning policies. Indeed, while the jury is still out, one praiseworthy dimension of MGM is their promise to face outward and embrace the block and the street, rather than hunker down hundreds of yards from the sidewalk behind palatial driveways and parking structures.

North of the Arch, however, things are less certain. Guarding against the risk of backward planning and building ideas does not mean zero cars. Indeed, the tucking away of Union Station’s parking into the new bus bay’s upper levels, exemplifies the compromise that is needed. Many commuters, especially those many hope will live in Springfield to commute to Hartford (or Boston) will probably drive.

Others may choose to live nearby and new developments built north of the station must encourage walking, biking and street life. They must embrace the city. Parking may be a concern, but not one that dominates the look or feel of the building or the streetscape. In other words the city must be designed for residents, not just those who drive in and out, sheltered in their cars. Dependency on the car should be, at minimum, a choice, not a necessity. After all the project at hand is a rail terminal.

 

https://twitter.com/margie_lu/status/542052099463593984

Union Station’s tunnel, recently unearthed, extends into the background behind US Rep Richard Neal in his staffer’s tweet. Springfield can be so much more, but city officials have to set the right policy around the station.

One will be hard pressed to find people not running for office (and more than a few who are) who see gaming as the regional economic silver bullet. Union Station is, or rather can be, far different. Considering its price tag, it could punch above its weight in the battle to reinvigorate Springfield. The City can thank its advocates in Washington and Boston for finally getting it in gear.

Now municipal planners and policymakers must be sure to have their come to Jesus moment on modern urban development. They must be prepared to say “no” if a developer proposes another project laden with ideas that harken back to the era that saw Union Station close.