Public workshops will help guide downtown Easthampton makeover

  • Pepin School, at 4 Park St., in Easthampton, is one of three schools downtown that will be available for re-use when a new pre-K through eighth-grade school is ready. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/18/2019 4:50:37 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Residents and community members are invited to take part in the planning process for coming changes to the city’s downtown area as part of a city project called PlanDowntown.

The project aims to develop a vision for improvements to the Cottage, Union and Main Street corridors and to explore redevelopment opportunities for Center, Pepin and Maple schools once they close for the new prekindergarten through eighth-grade school, which will partially open in January 2022.

The first of three public workshops will take place Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the second floor of Pepin School. The second will take place Saturday, July 13, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at Easthampton High School, and the third will take place Oct. 9, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Pepin.

“This is an opportunity for people to be part of what downtown will look like in the future,” City Planner Jeffrey Bagg said Tuesday. “And there is a real objective, which is to find the highest and best use for the school properties. It’s a real opportunity to participate in the process to figure that out.”

Among the options for the elementary schools are turning the schools into housing, razing the buildings for more parking, keeping the buildings under city ownership and making the parking lots public, or developing commercial buildings with private parking.

“It’s a prime opportunity to look at these schools where you could have additional housing,” Bagg said.

The redesign of Union Street, slated for 2022 and 2023, will also incorporate information gathered at the PlanDowntown public meeting sessions.

In November 2018, the city received a $50,000 state grant to develop a strategic plan for downtown and potential re-uses for the three schools, as well as a needs assessment of Cottage, Union, and Main streets. Combined with the grant, the city spent $15,000 to hire consultants to hold public meetings, conduct interviews with neighborhood groups and businesses, and prepare a plan based on on needs assessments and input.

There is also a 10-person ad hoc committee— made up of three city officials, the director of the chamber of commerce, property owners from the three streets, and other city residents — that will be a “sounding board,” Bagg said, for the consultants.

Harriman, an architecture, engineering and planning firm, along with RKG Associates, which specializes in market studies, and Tighe & Bond, an engineering company, were hired as consultants.

The firms will take the public input gathered at the initial sessions throughout the summer, and in the fall, present drafts and maps for the types of uses and scenarios for the schools.

The project will also take a look at current parking options, ways to make the downtown area more walkable, and possibly changing downtown’s zoning districting to help promote more business investments.

All three schools are in the city’s 40R district, or smart growth district, which is intended to create more affordable housing in Easthampton. It’s a zoning tool that allows developers to build additional units with a waiver for parking requirements as long as 20 percent of the project are affordable housing units, according to Bagg. 

Affordable housing in Easthampton is available to those who earn up to 80 percent of the city’s mean income. 

Since the city implemented the 40R district in 2009, one housing project has been completed at 15 Cottage St. and a housing project for 49 Cottage St., the location of Jim’s Package Store, has been approved. At 15 Cottage St., all 48 units are affordable housing. For the 49 Cottage St.project, 18 total units, four of which will be affordable units, have been approved by the city. 

“We’re going to take a look (at the 40R district) and make sure it functions in a way we want to, and that there are no barriers preventing more residential development downtown,” Bagg said.

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