Editorial: A merchant’s quest for Florence crossroads

Last modified: Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Of all the economic development projects popping up throughout Northampton — and there are a lot of them these days — few are as appropriate as one being proposed for the heart of Florence.

From his perch across the street at Bird’s Store, Florence businessman Gaurang Patel has watched the site at the corner of Main and Maple streets deteriorate into an eyesore. Like many others, Patel didn’t like to see such a prominent piece of real estate lying fallow in the center of the village.

So when an effort by Cumberland Farms to build a new gas station and convenience store there failed in early 2012, Patel saw an investment opportunity and a chance, as he recently told the Gazette, to “put a little life” back into the corner of the village he’s called home for years. A few months later, he bought the 100 Main St. property that once housed a Mobil Exxon gas station.

Since then, Patel has met with other Florence business leaders and with the Florence Civic and Business Association, of which he is a member, to gather input about his plans for the site. Those meetings led to the design of a Victorian-style brick office and retail building that will undoubtedly be a better match for the center of Florence, both in terms of use and aesthetics. Patel’s venture holds the potential to bring dozens of new employees to work and spend money in Florence.

The revival could begin soon, now that the Planning Board has signed off on Patel’s plans to construct the two-story, 6,000-square-foot brick building. Patel is searching for retail outlets and a take-out restaurant for the first floor and medical and other offices for the second floor.

The brick building would be constructed right up to the sidewalk along both Main and Maple streets and curve around the corner, with most of the parking in the back and on the Main Street side. It will look similar to the Bird’s block where Patel’s business is located.

While there might be room for improvement in the building’s design — entrances to each storefront business rather than a single door or beefed-up landscaping along the sidewalk or screening of the parking lot — planners made a wise decision last month not to pile on requirements putting the project’s cost out of reach.

As real estate expert Patrick Goggins noted at last month’s Planning Board meeting, the building will likely cost the same to construct in Florence as it would in downtown Northampton, but rental rates in Florence are significantly less than downtown. This prime site should languish no more.

It remains to be seen what businesses and offices will want to set up shop in the building. Odds are that Patel will be as thoughtful in selecting tenants as he has been in shaping consensus about the building’s design. Over the last several months, Patel asked business leaders for feedback. Many support Patel’s effort.

Getting this project going won’t be easy. As Goggins points out, the site poses challenges that have hindered its development for years. What Patel plans would benefit downtown Florence.