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Northampton’s King Street making a comeback

  • View of King Street in Northampton from the roof of the Hotel Northampton.<br/><br/>
  • Do you recognize this Valley location? If so, enter our mystery photo contest.<br/>FILE PHOTO
  • Hill and Dale mall on King Street in Northampton.<br/><br/>
  • Bank of America on King Street in Northampton.<br/><br/>
  • Tearing down of Kollmorgen on King Street in Northampton.<br/><br/>
  • Tearing down of Kollmorgen on King Street in Northampton.<br/><br/>
  • Tearing down of Kollmorgen on King Street in Northampton.<br/>

For the last year, the city’s largest commercial strip has been a hub of hard hats, hammers and backhoes, as construction projects hum from one end of the street to the other.

“The level of activity on King Street is very significant, particularly when you look at the lack of activity over the last five to 10 years,” real estate expert Patrick Goggins said, later adding, “it’s really a significant complexion change from one end of the street to the other.”

City and business leaders are encouraged by the uptick in development.

“Driving down King Street today versus a year ago tells a very different story,” said Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Area Chamber of Commerce. “People are looking at King Street very positively right now.”

The commercial strip’s vitality — or lack thereof — was the subject of a lengthy Chamber study unveiled last year that zeroed in on zone changes as a way to spur development and improve the look and accessibility of the street. The City Council approved the zone changes a year ago.

Look into future

While it’s too early to say those changes led to the recent activity on King Street, officials say some of the projects under construction now should give residents a glimpse of what King Street might look like years from now.

“I’m very encouraged,” Beck said. “There may be a lot of factors behind these decisions (to build), but certainly the zoning is one of them.”

Planning Director Wayne Feiden said King Street has always drawn steady interest from developers, but a combination of factors are likely leading to the flurry of activity.

Not only is the economy overall turning around, but many believe an on-again, off-again attempt to redevelop the former Hill & Dale Mall site — one of two longtime “stuck” King Street projects — has helped kick-start commercial activity on the busy street.

Colvest project

Colvest/Northampton LLC is converting the 62,000-square-foot former supermarket at 327 King St. into office space, one-third of which will be occupied by Pioneer Valley Family Medicine, a Baystate Health affiliate that intends to move from its Conz Street location. The redevelopment also includes a new free-standing Greenfield Savings Bank.

“Mostly this activity is recovery-related, but the Hill & Dale project” is one significant trigger, Feiden said.

Beck believes that would-be investors are drawn toward activity, which makes King Street attractive right now. “That’s an indicator that something must be going right,” she said.

Feiden adds that some of the activity on King Street boils down to the coincidence of sites becoming available at the same time that companies are looking to expand or move into the market.

Since Colvest broke ground at the Hill & Dale site, several other projects in the pipeline have moved ahead, including a new PeoplesBank branch at the corner of King and Barrett streets and a new Lia Kia car dealership at 263 King St., in the parking lot of Lia Honda.

More coming

More King Street activity is on the horizon, including a project Goggins is pitching to redevelop a 1-acre site close to downtown that houses a Bank of America branch. Farther up the street, a regional car dealer plans to demolish the old Kollmorgen Electro-Optical building and replace it with a pair of dealerships.

The Planning Board will hear about both projects at its meeting Thursday.

Goggins’ project calls for demolishing the current Bank of America branch at 79 King St. and constructing a new branch closer to the street and an apartment building with space for first-floor offices at the rear of the property.

Goggins said Bank of America’s lease expires next year. He declined to say what bank would occupy the new building.

The new 3,700-square-foot bank building would be closer to the street, with parking and a drive-through in the back of the building. The bank’s current branch is separated from King Street by a parking lot in front of the structure, with more parking behind the building. A drive-through is located to the north side of the branch.

The four-floor, 14,000-square-foot apartment building at the back of the site, close to the Manhan Rail Trail, would include eight apartments and first-floor offices.

A 28-space parking lot would separate the two structures.

In a deal with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish next door, Goggins proposes to connect both properties to the rail trail and extend the connection along his property to King Street. Plans also call for reducing the number of entrances and exits from two to one.

The church, meanwhile, is in the middle of a project to build a new, larger parish hall and expanded parking lot to accommodate the city’s consolidated Catholic parishes.

Dealerships ahead

The Planning Board will also hear plans from Cosenzi Automotive Realty group, which wants to demolish the 90,000-square-foot Kollmorgen Electro-Optical building at 347 King St. and construct a pair of auto dealerships in its place. The 5-acre site is located next to Colvest’s redevelopment.

Carla J. Cosenzi, president of a chain of regional car dealerships under the name TommyCar Auto Group, announced plans earlier this year to move its nearby Northampton Volkswagon business into one of the new showrooms and repair facilities from Damon Road. Since then, the company has expanded its plans to include a second showroom for Country Hyundai, according to documents filed with the Planning Department.

The showrooms will have about 18,400 and 17,800 square feet of space respectively and a combined 500 parking spaces. Project planners say the site will have more green space and less area taken up by pavement than had existed.

There is one major piece of King Street land that remains undeveloped: a former Honda site closer to downtown at the intersection of King and Finn streets. The site faces some environmental issues but is in a key location within a new entrance-way business district from North Street to the rail trail crossing.

The role of zoning

Feiden and Goggins both said the activity on King is likely not the result of recent zone changes.

“The fact that the street is starting to show some improvement makes people feel better, but it would be inaccurate to suggest the zoning revisions are the reason,” Goggins said.

He said the zoning does make it easier for some of the projects to move forward, but most of the work was going to happen anyway.

That said, some of the projects up for review contain several elements the zoning is intended to promote. The Cosenzi project, for example, calls for wider sidewalks with tree belts separating it from both the street and the business, while Goggins’ project improves traffic flow, provides a connection to the bike trail and utilizes the rear of the property.

Feiden said these and future projects should give residents a glimpse of what King Street might look like years from now if the zoning proves successful, with prettier and easier-to-use streetscapes and a mix of uses that go beyond retail to include offices, medical and more.

“It won’t be dramatic right away, but it’s a healthy change,” Feiden said.

The new rules impose wider sidewalks and more landscaping, but relax requirements on parking, setbacks and how buildings must be positioned on lots in a highway business district running from the rail trail crossing near McDonald’s north to the River Valley Market. The district also encourages a greater mix of uses “by right,” including medical offices.

The zoning also established specific rules for a new “entrance-way business district” covering a stretch south from the rail trail crossing to North Street. Here, closer to downtown, the goal remains to move parking away from the fronts of businesses, to pay attention to the use of signs and landscaping.

Goggins said it will take some time to get a good handle on how the zone changes will affect King Street, but he is confident the changes are for the best.

“I think the improvements we’ll see in terms of the whole corridor will not be obvious for 10 years or so,” he said.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.

Just what we need, more car dealerships and banks....I guess I will continue to spend my money in other towns. What a waste of land.

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