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Transformation of Cracker Barrel Alley in Northampton begins

  • A crew from A.J. Virgilio Construction Inc. works on renovating Cracker Barrel Alley near its intersection with Main Street in Northampton on Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A crew from A.J. Virgilio Construction, Inc. works on extending the sidewalk across the entrance to Crackerbarrel Alley at Main Street in Northampton on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A temporary sidewalk detour is set up on Main Street at Crackerbarrel Alley in Northampton while renovations are being made to transform the alley from a byway for cars to a space for pedestrians and cyclists. Photo taken on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Crackerbarrel Alley as seen from the Masonic Street parking lot in Northampton on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



@BeraDunau
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — A downtown roadway across from City Hall with a catchy name — Cracker Barrel Alley — is being transformed from a byway for cars to a space for pedestrians and bikers.

City officials say the changes are being made with safety in mind, though not everyone is happy about it.

“I am very much concerned,” said business owner Richard Abuza, who asserts that the city’s proposed changes are subverting the rule of law.

Northampton Planning and Sustainability Coordinator Wayne Feiden said that a number of different studies have reached the conclusion that the alley should be closed to motor vehicles for safety reasons — an idea Abuza disagrees with.

“Cracker Barrel Alley’s right after a pretty blind curve,” Feiden said.

The alley currently connects Main Street with the Masonic Street Parking Lot.

“I know it’s dangerous (Cracker Barrel Alley),” said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who said he’s almost been hit by cars in and around the alley.

In addition to closing the alley to vehicles, the project, which began Monday and is expected to wrap up next week, will upgrade the wheelchair ramp to meet Americans with Disabilities Act specifications, relieve pressure on a nearby tree by increasing green space around it and change the location of the crosswalk across Main Street to align with the alley entrance.

“To me it’s making it safer,” Narkewicz said.

The renovations would continue to allow for emergency vehicle access. “There still would be a way for them to get there,” said Narkewicz.

The cost of the project is $32,000, plus a portion of $5,900 of design work. Much of this is being paid for by a crowdfunding campaign that highlighted the possibility of turning Cracker Barrel Alley into a parklet. That idea was floated in the 2016 campaign that ended up raising $10,150, $10,000 of which was matched by the state.

“It was a fun fundraising,” said Feiden, who noted the large number of small contributions it elicited.

The parklet was met with supporters and detractors at “stakeholder” meetings in 2016 and 2018. Feiden characterized cutting off traffic but not creating a parklet as a compromise between the pro- and anti-parklet factions.

Those who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign were later sent an email with the plans for the alley. Of those who donated, Feiden said that only one person, acupuncturist Jen Nery, objected to the alley not being transformed into a parklet and asked for her money back.

Feiden said that the city refunded Nery’s $50 donation, and that this would have been done with any person who donated.

Nery did not return requests for comment.

Abuza: Use can’t change

Abuza is an owner of Abuza Brothers Management, a property management company that abuts the Masonic Street public parking lot.

Abuza asserts that because the city took the area including Cracker Barrel Alley by eminent domain for use as a parking lot decades ago, its use can’t be changed without City Council approval, and he cites Massachusetts General Law Chapter 40 Section 15.

The city disputes Abuza’s interpretation of the law, with Narkewicz noting that the original 1959 taking doesn’t mention Cracker Barrel Alley or vehicle access.

“Nothing in the eminent domain documents said that forevermore this shall be for (vehicular) access,” said Narkewicz.

Abuza said that cutting off the alley also carries safety issues because the entrance on Masonic Street to the Masonic Street parking lot is already overburdened.

“I guess that remains to be seen,” said Abuza, on whether he would be pursuing legal action against the city on the issue.

In May of this year, attorneys for Abuza Brothers sent a letter to the city asserting that the plans to turn the alley into a parklet represented a change in use for the alley, that would not be allowed because of the eminent domain taking. The letter, citing state law, also asserted that the City Council couldn’t change the existing use either, as there was still a demonstrated need for the alley.

In response, City Solicitor Alan Seewald said that the state law cited by Abuza Brothers does not apply because the alley isn’t being converted into a parklet. Additionally, blocking vehicle access is not a change in the alley’s purpose as the parking lot can still be accessed by bikers and pedestrians, he wrote.

Abuza argues that the change still represents a change in use.

Not everyone is upset about cutting off vehicular traffic from Cracker Barrel Alley, however.

“I am a big supporter of closing Cracker Barrel Alley to vehicular traffic,” said Tess Poe, whose condo is located on Masonic Street near the alley.

She also said that she’s not concerned with any loitering or noise that might come with such a development.

That said, Poe did express concern with the improvements not matching details presented in the crowdfunding campaign, which she participated in. Although she has no plans to ask for her money back, Poe did say that this could be a learning experience for the city to not ask for donations for a project before it is fully designed.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.