Guest columnist Kit Sang Boos: Status quo downtown will not serve in the future

  • Northampton’s Main Street in June. Gazette file photo

Published: 10/11/2021 4:52:08 PM

The Gazette opinion pages have recently had some pertinent and poignant reflections on our vulnerabilities in this chaotic climate crisis. Columnist Chelsea Kline enriched the conversation earlier this month with her timely and deeply personal enjoinder to shop local, which “keeps our area distinctive and helps the planet too.”

Not only is online shopping wasteful, with packaging and emissions costs, and sending dollars outside of our community, it also precludes important personal engagement with downtown businesses and venues. With the isolation experienced during the pandemic, encouraging community downtown needs to be a top priority.

The goals of Main Street For Everyone — a grassroots group which formed to engage with the game-changing Northampton Downtown Redesign — are completely congruent with those expressed by Ms. Kline. We care very much for the success of downtown businesses and for the different kinds of people who must make the choices to sustain them.

The fact is that Northampton’s downtown was already dotted with closed storefronts even before the added stress of the pandemic. There were signs of competition with online shopping and strip malls. These days the street looks a bit forlorn, like a poorly regulated and dangerous parking lot. Our wide and unwieldy Main Street is known to be one of the most dangerous in Massachusetts for car and pedestrian and bike collisions.

Sincere thanks must go to Mayor David Narkewicz and Planning Director Wayne Feiden for initiating this redesign project, which MassDOT funded foremost for safety reasons. And much thanks for all the groundwork that they have done to put Northampton on a sustainable path to meet the future.

In order to draw shoppers downtown, we need to make it safer, more accessible and beautiful for people. Narrowing the street to one lane in each direction, with a center emergency lane, is a great start to create those conditions by giving more space for sidewalks. has thoughtful, well-researched, evidence-based proposals to improve Design 3, which was the best of the designs that were offered to voting stakeholders, and not the result of thorough vetting of public ideas and input.

When safety is at stake, removing dangerous angled parking would seem to be a clear solution. But the ease of pulling into such spots make people forget the dangers of backing out. I have had some scary encounters on my bike with the back ends of those cars. There is a strong emotional attachment and nostalgia that make some people conflate angled parking with business success. We need to remember that people can arrive at Main Street in multiple ways and that there will never be enough parking to satisfy those who simply must park in front of a store they want to go to for “convenience” and are willing to keep circling around until they find that spot.

In fact, our infrastructure, for the reason of helping the planet, needs to decrease the footprint of cars, and to ensure the safety of other modes of transportation. Accessibility is about more than how you get to downtown and park, but even more about your experiences once you get there.

If angled parking is changed to parallel parking, the additional space gained for people, trees and outdoor dining is astounding! Main Street would look like a safe, spacious and inviting place instead of a dangerous parking lot. We already have plenty of angled parking in our convenient garage and area lots close to downtown, for those who are so inclined.

Main Street parking can be mostly 15- to 30-minute spots and accessible parking, for those who need to pick up quickly from businesses. The rest of us who are able will be all the healthier for walking a few extra blocks.

I know that it can be hard to picture what that reclaimed space could mean and could look like. Here is just one example: At present, the intersection of Old South and Main streets occurs at the cusp of a fairly steep incline. Cars must straddle the crosswalk in order to see how to turn safely. A left turn is even more dicey in our wide Main Street. If angled parking was eliminated, the intersection would be moved up to more level ground and cars would no longer encroach on a crosswalk.

Can you picture the beauty of trees on Main Street? A recent assessment found that less than half of the trees are in good health due to encroachment on their roots. More space would ensure the health and longevity of trees providing cooling shade and shelter, and easing storm runoff, reducing known flooding at the low point of the street under the railroad bridge.

The status quo downtown will not serve us in our future, and has not served us well for quite a while. Instead of focusing on the loss of what we are used to, let’s focus on what we gain. Safety is just an important beginning. Our personal investment in Main Street is what will bring people downtown to shop local, and help the planet too.

Kit Sang Boos lives in Northampton.

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