Guest columnist Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra: ‘Human-centered’ Main St. will ensure downtown thrives
|Published: 11-14-2023 5:00 PM
‘Picture Main Street” is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redesign downtown Northampton with $19 million in state and federal funds. We will address the critical needs of safety, accessibility, vibrancy, and climate resiliency. We will help our beloved local businesses survive the existential threat of online retail. We will preserve what we all love about small-city life — the kind of life that drew so many of us to Northampton or convinced us to never move away.
And when I say “we,” I mean it literally. Northampton residents on volunteer committees led the development of the city’s Transportation, Streetscape, and Sustainable Northampton plans. With dozens of public meetings and forums over two decades and City Council approvals, the policies and plans they developed laid the foundation for Picture Main Street.
Over the last six years, the Main Street redesign has been on at least 63 public meeting agendas. Officials conducted three community surveys, convened nine public forums, and held dedicated business and stakeholder meetings.
In 2021, four design options — developed in collaboration with Toole Design, a woman-owned engineering, planning and design firm with 20 years of experience — were presented to the public. After incorporating community input, city and state officials finalized the plan. (One of my first mayoral acts was preserving a section of angled parking in response to feedback from the disability and business communities.) Construction is slated to begin in 2025.
The complementary components of the redesign work together to address a wide range of urgent needs.
As the Gazette reported, according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation data, “Main Street made the top 5% of crash clusters in the state for pedestrian and bicycle accidents.” This is dangerous for Northampton residents and our many visitors, which is why Picture Main Street is a high priority for local, state and federal officials.
Main Street’s confusing layout contributes to crashes. This will be fixed with one consistent travel lane on each side through the length of Main Street. A middle third lane for turning will be added. The number of vehicles on upper Main Street is less than on lower Main Street, where there are already two lanes, and is well under the 20,000 vehicles-per-day threshold for three-lane roads.
Additionally, all nine crosswalks across Main Street will be narrowed. For example, the rainbow crosswalk will be reduced from 90 to 41 feet. This will decrease traffic exposure and increase safety for pedestrians, rollers, and bikers.
We will improve bicycle safety with physically separated bicycle travel ways, which was a community priority expressed in public forums and surveys. However, bike policy is not only a matter of opinion, but of science and law. The crash rate of separated bike lanes is about half of that of conventional lanes.
Furthermore, under the Massachusetts Vulnerable Road Users law, operators of motor vehicles must pass “vulnerable users” — walkers, bikers, and rollers — at a distance of not less than 4 feet. Separated lanes ensure drivers provide bikers this required space, which could not be created if Main Street had four lanes.
Picture Main Street will produce the most accessible and equitable downtown in Northampton’s history.
Today’s steep grades and narrow sidewalks pose significant issues for those with mobility challenges. In our redesign, widened sidewalks will allow groups of people to walk or roll side by side. A separate “furnishing zone” will contain benches, trash receptacles and light poles, removing obstacles for wheelchair users.
Crosswalks will be relocated to the top of the slope, meeting Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and creating safer crossings at Crafts Avenue and Old South Street. Where possible, changes will allow some business entryways to become ADA-compliant, reducing the number of businesses that are not accessible from the sidewalk.
Picture Main Street includes additional accessible parking spaces with buffer space to allow for safe side and rear embarking. We have heard that some people prefer parallel parking and others angled spaces, depending on their vehicle and mobility device. To meet everyone’s needs, we’ll have four angled accessible spaces on the south side of upper Main, an increase from two, and two parallel accessible spaces on the north side where now there is one.
This human-centered redesign will make visiting downtown Northampton a vibrant experience for residents and visitors, helping our brick-and-mortar businesses compete with online retail, food delivery, and streaming services.
More sidewalk space means more space for entertainment, dining, art, gathering, and fostering an overall sense of community that cannot be achieved while doom-scrolling social media sites in bed.
Lastly, we must build climate resiliency. Adding 36 trees — more than doubling the existing number — will create a canopy offsetting the heat typically elevated in downtowns. With wider sidewalks and the separate furnishing zone, we can plant trees in healthy locations instead of leftover spaces lacking room for growth.
To cut carbon emissions, we must minimize our reliance on motorized vehicles for trips that can be completed by other means. Some people need to roll, walk or bike. Some people need to drive. But reallocating excessive vehicle lane space provides safer options for individuals with the ability to choose.
Aging infrastructure is no match for extreme weather caused by climate change. We must replace more than a century old and failing underground water, sewer, and drainage utilities. We need redesigned surface level and underground stormwater systems that can handle increasing levels of stormwater. Performing this necessary work during a construction project already financed by state and federal dollars will save Northampton taxpayers millions of dollars.
Main Street’s redesign has been approved by MassDOT in what is called the “25% submission.” Next is the “75% and 100% submission,” which involves final cost estimates, minor design refinements, and developing plans to mitigate temporary impacts from construction. Toole Design, as our construction liaison with MassDOT, will ensure that our mitigation interests are implemented.
The design is approved and not up for reconsideration, so our community conversation should move forward along with the state process. The city is partnering with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Northampton Association, and other organizations on plans to support our downtown businesses and the broader city community during the construction period.
If you still have questions, please read the city’s FAQ document, which you can access at www.northamptonma.gov. If you need assistance accessing the information, please contact the mayor’s office.
Thanks to all who throughout this years-long process have taken the time to research these issues, ask tough questions, and share their insights. This is what democracy looks like.
Gina-Louise Sciarra is the mayor of Northampton.