Guest columnist Raymond Fontaine: Proceed with caution in redesigning downtown

Published: 6/24/2021 2:13:44 PM

Over the last several months I’ve been reading about plans to “reimagine” Main Street in Northampton and I wonder where this is going. There seems to be a disconnect with reality.

It’s already been pointed out there is considerable traffic flow through Main Street, it being the junction of four state highways: routes 5, 9, 10 and 66, and the main road to Interstate 91, as well as the hub of multitude very busy side streets. Where’s this traffic to go? Over the last 40-plus years I’ve learned that navigating through the downtown at certain times a day can be challenging at best with traffic backed up through multiple lengthy cycles of a traffic signal. I cannot imagine how further constricting downtown traffic will improve the survival of downtown businesses.

One constant over time is that the parking spaces on Main Street have always been full — despite having to back out into a congested flow of traffic, people still insist on parking their cars near the businesses they frequent. Why? Apparently convenience is an important factor for these people (I have a hard time believing that store clerks and restaurant staff can afford Main Street parking costs).

Take away this convenience and will they go somewhere else where parking is more convenient? Moreover, none of these “reimaginings” actually addresses the complex issue and significant expense of building more accessible parking downtown prior to implementing these proposed “reimaginings.” Are they putting the cart before the horse?

I think what bothers me the most about most of these “reimaginings” is the core belief that if traffic is limited on Main Street people will immediately eschew their cars and flock to downtown Hamp on foot or bicycle. I am an avid bicyclist and hiker, but being 70 and living in Westhampton (where more than 30% of the population is 60 and older) riding down and back to Main Street is more than a casual jaunt. And I can’t imagine that it would be so even for younger people living in Florence or Leeds in winter when the temperatures are below freezing and it’s dark more than light.

People will not shun their cars. They’ll shun Northampton. As much as cars may have been one of the biggest mistakes of the 20th century, because of a lack of alternatives like public transportation, our dependence on them isn’t going away just yet because we want it to — at least not until we fix systemic issues with public transportation.

Perhaps I’m just some old guy that lacks imagination, but I can’t help but feel that there’s naive arrogance behind some of these “build it and they will come” proposals. As wonderful as these “reimaginings” of a downtown Hamp transformed into an idyllic bicycle and pedestrian mall are, they really can’t work unless they’re integrated into the real world. People will not come downtown if they get stuck in traffic and can’t easily find parking. They’ll go somewhere else.

I’ve loved the vibrancy downtown Hamp since the 1970s and certainly think that with careful planning it can be sustained and improved. But let’s work within realm of reality or Main Street could become a charming oasis surrounded by empty storefronts. Proceed with caution Northampton!

Raymond Fountaine of Westhampton has lived in and around Northampton for 45 years.

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