Easthampton gets grant for Union Street improvements
An aerial view of Easthampton looking down Union Street with the first Congregational church in the center.
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Renee Cote, left, and her daughter, Audrey Patterson, 3, of Easthampton stroll up Union Street in Easthampton last year with friends Andrea Allees and her daughter, Mia, 4, of Belchertown. The city hopes to use a $10,000 grant to study how to improve Union Street to make it more appealing to walkers, bikers, shoppers and businesses. Purchase photo reprints »
EASTHAMPTON — Since city resident Jessica Allan became the city planner just over a year ago, she said there is one question that people have asked her more than any other: “What are we going to do about Union Street?”
“There’s a clear understanding that it’s difficult for pedestrians and bikers to compete with traffic there,” she said Tuesday.
Allan and other city officials are hoping a $10,000 grant the city received to study the street’s design could be the first step in making it safer and a more appealing destination for walkers, bikers, shoppers and businesses.
The grant is from the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s Massachusetts Downtown Initiative program. It will allow the city to hire the Cecil Group of Boston to study the street, identify its shortcomings and suggest design changes to better it.
“This grant has been successful for us already on Cottage Street,” Allan said. The city received the same grant in 1999 to identify possible design improvements to Cottage Street and lower Union Street near Nashawannuck Pond. The consultant then suggested traffic-calming measures, better signs and lighting and crosswalk placement, among other changes, some of which were implemented after the city secured further grant funding.
Improvements to historic building facades on Cottage Street were also recommended, and grant funding paid for facade improvements to a few buildings, including the former Majestic Theater, which now houses KW Home and New England Felting Supply.
“I think those changes helped business investment on Cottage Street, which is now a cultural district,” Allan said. The street was named the Cottage Street Cultural District by the Massachusetts Cultural Council on March 29.
Allan said she hopes a similar transformation could be in Union Street’s future, and said this design study could be a first step.
“I think there are some design challenges on Union Street; mostly, it’s narrow,” she said. “And people might be walking there now, but they don’t have the same sense of safety that they do on other streets.”
Police Sgt. Bruce Nicol said in the last five years, there have been just over 300 accidents on Union Street, and he estimated about two each year involve a pedestrian or bicyclist.
Northampton resident Silas Kopf, whose woodworking studio is in the former fire station at 84 Union St., said he struggles to cross the street daily because motorists don’t see or stop for pedestrians waiting in crosswalks.
“I just stand there and I don’t cross until I know I have the driver’s eye,” he said in a phone interview from his studio Wednesday. “I’d love to see Easthampton more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.”
While Allan said she did not know what changes the consultant might recommend for Union Street, measures that were suggested to improve safety at crosswalks on Cottage Street included removing nearby parking spots to increase the visibility of pedestrians or adding “bump outs,” which extend the curb into the street to make the crosswalk more noticeable.
More pedestrian traffic could help attract new businesses to fill in several empty storefronts. Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Snyder, whose office is at 33 Union St., said the chamber is looking forward to hearing the consultant’s recommendations.
“I know this is just an initial study, but I think any improvements to Union Street would help the whole downtown,” Snyder said Wednesday. “It would be beneficial not just to the business community but to the general public as well.”
Bicycle safety is also important, Allan said, because cyclists often travel the street to access the Manhan Rail Trail, which crosses the street in an area already busy with crosswalks and intersections with other side streets.
Allan said she did not know when the study would begin or how long it would take.
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.