Safer Main Street redesign still on track in Northampton

  • A bicyclist rides in the bicycle lane on Aug. 24 beside a completed mural by Eben Kling, part of the Shared Streets and Spaces program modifications in downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2020 12:34:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The temporary redesign of upper Main Street has been dismantled early, but long-term design changes are still planned for downtown in the coming years.

Last year, the city started a process to redesign Main Street to make it safer, more accessible for those with disabilities, and better for pedestrians, bikers, drivers and those taking public transit, among other goals. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2025 or 2026.

This summer, a project funded by the state’s Shared Streets and Spaces program narrowed upper Main Street to one traffic lane in each direction to make way for protected bike lanes as well as expanded open space to bring more people downtown safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. But after 50 businesses signed a petition to reverse the changes, citing problems such as less available parking and a lack of communication from the city, Mayor David Narkewicz announced the street would revert to its original setup.

The city implemented temporary, expanded open street space on lower Main Street first, and those changes still remain intact.

“Obviously, there were lessons learned for the bigger project, but really they are totally separate,” said Wayne Feiden, the city’s director of planning and sustainability.

What are those lessons, exactly? “I think we’re still going to assess that,” Feiden said. “I’m not sure I know at this point. Clearly, parking was a flashpoint for merchants.”

Visitors to downtown can now see new signs with the number of spots available in the parking garage. “We know a significant amount of traffic and congestion is people looking for parking,” Feiden said.

Still, after this summer, “I worry do we have a more polarized community,” Feiden said, adding, “that will all be part of the public conversation.”

Of the nearly $200,000 in grant funding, about $10,700 went to the art installation, $30,000 for engineering and design, $33,800 for planters, and $4,000 for art supplies, according to the budget. All funding has been used, according to Feiden.

There were people on both sides of the temporary redesign debate, and Narkewicz said he has heard from some who were disappointed the redesign was taken down and now worried Main Street will never have bike lanes. A chalkboard sign on top of a car parked on Main Street earlier this week, for example, read: “I miss the bike lane. You too? Tell the mayor.”

When it comes to the permanent redesign, the focus is different and not on COVID-19 relief, Narkewicz said. “I guess what I wanted to emphasize is these are two discrete and separate projects. Really, with the Safe Streets and Spaces grant, the thrust of our grant was on economic recovery and supporting our local businesses — that was the goal of the grant,” he said.

He decided to reverse the new changes after it became clear “a pretty strong majority” of businesses did not find it helpful, Narkewicz said. 

The city will be getting public input on the long-term design, Narkewicz said. ​​​“As I’ve tried to remind people through this process, this is ultimately public space. It doesn’t belong to any one constituency,” he said. “We want the entire community to have a voice in what Main Street should look like going forward — and what’s the best way to accomplish all of our goals of having a vibrant downtown, having a vibrant local economy, but also moving people safely through this important corridor.”

Safety is a major concern — between 2004 to 2013, a cluster of streets and intersections downtown had the sixth highest number of bike crashes in the state, according to a 2017 report from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. In that time period, there were 28 bicycle crashes, the vast majority of which caused injuries and one of which in 2012 was fatal, according to the report. 

The project’s plan includes community forums, public outreach and a public hearing. The city put out a survey about it early this year, and it plans to hold community meetings about the project this fall, Feiden said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@ gazettenet.com.


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