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Editorial: Vibrancy in downtown Northampton

  • A crew from A.J. Virgilio Construction Inc. works on extending the sidewalk across the entrance to Cracker Barrel Alley at Main Street in downtown Northampton on Tuesday. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Friday, July 13, 2018

We like two projects wrapping up soon in downtown Northampton — converting Cracker Barrel Alley into a walkway and space for bicyclists, and installing new stained glass windows in Thornes Marketplace. They will add to the vibrancy on Main Street.

The transformation of the alley off Main Street across from City Hall has been planned for two years and work began this week. When it is completed, likely next week, motor vehicles — except for those responding to emergencies — will be banned from taking that route to the Masonic Street parking lot.

In addition to being a more welcoming spot for people on foot and bicycles, the alley’s wheelchair ramp will be upgraded to meet requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Green space also will be added.

That will help reduce the amount of pavement, as suggested by the city’s open space plan, and make that section of Main Street safer. Motorists had to cross a busy sidewalk at a curve on Main Street to turn into the alley. Also, the crosswalk from City Hall will be realigned to meet the alley’s entrance.

The project’s details changed since a crowdfunding campaign was announced during the summer of 2016 that raised $10,150, primarily in small contributions, to help pay for the work. That was nearly matched by a $10,000 grant from MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development and finance agency. Originally, the city proposed a “parklet” with benches and chairs for the alley.

Meetings of city officials with people who had an interest in how the alley is used revealed differences of opinions about whether a parklet was the best option, said Wayne Feiden, the city’s planning and sustainability coordinator. Adding greenery and improving safety by banning traffic was a reasonable compromise, he said.

Still, not everyone is satisfied. Richard Abuza, an owner of Abuza Brothers Management on Main Street, contends that the alley’s use cannot be changed because it was part of the property taken by eminent domain in 1959 for use as a municipal parking lot. However, the city’s lawyer disputes Abuza’s interpretation of the law, pointing out that the alley still allows access to the parking lot by pedestrians and bicyclists.

We agree with the city that the transformation of Cracker Barrel Alley makes it a safer and more pleasant space.

Meanwhile, installation of new stained-glass windows are a nice finishing touch to renovations at Thornes Marketplace, the prominent downtown shopping center at 150 Main St.

Easthampton artist Heather McLean, who has a studio on Cottage Street, is custom-building the six windows that will be placed by early August near the staircase behind Share Coffee & Cafe. The oranges and blues in the windows are typical of the colors favored by McLean in her paintings. Their design is based on the style of architect and interior designer Frank Lloyd Wright.

McLean, who has worked with stained glass since 1995, has been studying the pattern of light in Thornes and believes there will be a time of day when all six panels will glow in the sunlight. “When they all go up together, I’m hoping it will be stunning,” she said.

Above the new stained-glass panels, other windows original to the building constructed in 1873 will be cleaned and reinstalled to refresh that entire area. Jonathan McGee, the facility manager at Thornes, described that “drippy, 19th-century glass” as unique.

Three original stained-glass windows, which were too damaged to be restored, will be cleaned and hung as an art installation on the top floor.

Other renovations gave a makeover to the front entrance of Thornes, with new tile floors and interior oak doors. McGee described the improvements as “more wood, more stone, more warm custom finishes.”

Thornes also continued its efforts to improve access for people with disabilities by installing power operators on the doors at the front entrance. “It’s satisfying to know that we’ve been able to meet those needs,” McGee said.

Though relatively modest projects, the improvements to Cracker Barrel Alley and Thornes Marketplace add to the inviting environment downtown.