Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Sixteen Acres I Hate About You...

Welcome Back.

As orginally reported in Urban Compass, Colvest development group, had proposed a new retail structure at the corner of Parker St. and Wilbraham Rd some months ago. The plot of land, diagonally across from the Pride Gas Station, was slated for a bank and a Starbucks. However, there was some community opposition, mostly concerned with the nature of the proposal.

The initial sketches placed the building several yards from the street, separated by a parking lot. Sixteen Acres Residents were disappointed, however, that the development would not be pedestrian friendly. In other words, the main entrances did not front the sidewalk. Parking lots were necessary, but would be preferably placed either behind or to the side of the building.

Because the development required a permit for the drive-thru at the bank and possibly the Starbucks, the matter found its way the City Council. The Council responded 16 Acres residents' concerns and returned the request to Colvest, urging them to reconsider a more pedestrian friendly set-up.

Between then and now, the economy went belly-up, financing became scarce, and panic reigned in the street. Having heard no progress on the Colvest 16 Acres Project, one might have assumed that it had be cancelled or at least indefinitely tabled.

However, this is not the case. The Reminder reported recently that Colvest has returned to 16 Acres, this time with CVS as a primary tenant. Given Starbucks' financial difficulties and an already high concentration of banks in the entire Springfield area, the switch in tenants is not surprising.

What has not been made clear is whether the CVS building would have an entrance facing the street. Given CVS's typical desire to have a drive-thru for its pharmacies, this matter will inevitably find its way to the City Council, where if the final plans do not integrate into the community correctly, it could find its way to the drawing board.

Colvest and CVS have had their ups and downs with the city and its neighborhoods increasing desire to make more community-oriented, less car dependent environments. Frank Colaccino, President of Colvest, has received a lot of flack for replacing structures like St. Joseph's church with bland new buildings. However, he did not appear totally opposed to community concerns raised in 16 Acres, and the design of the Columbus Avenue Starbucks (also believed to be a Colvest development), laid out the building with its parking lot on the side with a door facing out to East Columbus.

CVS resisted a more community friendly design fronting State Street, when its newer store near Mason Square was built, much to the dismay of community leaders there. A parking lot separates sidewalk from entrance. It is important to note that WMassP&I does not know whether this opposition came from CVS or its developer, whom we cannot confirm was or was not Colvest. In the alternative, CVS appears to have acceded to some of the city's demands with regards to improvements at its Forest Park property.

Perhaps what may complicate matters is the overall desire to transform communities into less car dependent ones. In 16 Acres this is particularly problematic. Sixteen Acres as we know it today was almost entirely built in the post WWII auto-centric era. Its "neighborhood centers" at Parker and Wilbraham and at Five Town Plaza in the Outer Belt area, epitomize that period, with its parking plentiful retail and dining venues.

Still, the attempt to encourage people to walk to their neighborhood or town center reinforces a sense of community, and this is paramount to any municipality. In a city like Springfield, with many such "centers" reinforcing communities is part of the path to overall municipal health. Indeed, the existing building at Parker and Wilbraham has tenants whose doors open out onto Parker's sidewalks.

Outside of the inherently more suburban post-war neighborhoods in Springfield, a focus on such traditionally urban storefronts and developments, whether in downtown or elsewhere will necessary to revive and sustain other neighborhoods. The CVS near Mason Square is a perfect example of what not to do.

However, another problem may be inherent in places like Springfield or other cities like it. Lacking a rail based mass transit system or even transit centers other than the Bus and Rail stations, it is very difficult to encourage transit oriented development, which naturally does what many of today's neighborhood leaders desire. In other words, Transit Oriented Development is en vogue and Springfield, nor Hartford, really have it...yet. However all of that assumes that cities that do use it wisely.

Whatever the case, many older industrial cities in the Northeast that are tight and compacted, unlike their counterparts out west, have greater difficulties getting developers and neighborhood movers and shakers on the same side. Larger cities like Boston and New York have resources and greater car alternatives to maximize their space. Ultimately, any moves to reassess how we develop in Springfield and even its suburbs, must bring people together, favor the pedestrian, while accommodate the car.

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