Guest columnist Thomas Dourmashkin: Time to go big downtown with dynamic plan

  • Downtown Northampton on Main Street. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/24/2021 1:51:29 PM

The plans to alter downtown appear to have reached an impasse over parking versus foot traffic. A potential plan in which all parking could be eliminated from Main Street while increasing parking and making it more efficient is possible. Foot traffic would not be adversely affected. The plan will provide a more appealing space for dining and shopping or just enjoying our downtown. All of which would be good for business.

The opportunity to make Northampton more pedestrian friendly, relieve congestion and make the downtown an attractive and easy place to enjoy is long overdue. The city has had one similar substantial restructuring project in the past century — the current parking garage behind Thornes Marketplace. It has been a great success. This is a rare opportunity to implement a dynamic plan for the future and “go big.”

As much as some might wish to eliminate all motor traffic from Main Street, that probably cannot happen. Northampton is a crossroads for traffic in seven different directions. There is no easy solution to traffic passing through downtown but that does not mean it cannot be improved. The traffic in which Northampton is the destination can be removed from Main Street. The plan should not aim just to put a band-aid on problems that have been brewing for decades but it should be a plan for the future.

Northampton is fortunate to contain a gem of undeveloped space in the central downtown area: that is, the space between Masonic and Center streets and behind Main Street. Apart from current buildings on Main Street, there are six other buildings and private parking within this space. Most of this area is already parking but the space is very inefficiently used and there is only a relatively small number of parking spaces that are available for public parking.

With the current parking areas and some additional parking area from the Verizon building, there is adequate space for a substantial multilevel parking garage while reserving parking space in the new structure for the current private owners. The Verizon building is a special case. The wall mural is an iconic part of our city. I am assuming that there is nothing critical to Verizon about that location. I would suggest that the Verizon building be acquired by the city and converted into a museum to document the struggle for women’s rights with an open plaza next to the wall. An additional attractive reason for coming to Northampton.

With financial help from the state, the entire area could be acquired by eminent domain and turned into a “state of the art” project for the future. This space is a golden opportunity to develop Northampton for the 21st century. Such combined business/parking developments are not uncommon. The state has previously facilitated projects such as access to a gambling casino in Springfield, but I am not aware of projects to benefit Northampton or other rural parts of the state outside of community development funds.

The central area of the block would be dedicated to multilevel and underground parking. The perimeter of the space would be developed for new business space fronting on Masonic and possibly Center street. The access to Main Street could not be better. Cracker Barrel Alley would provide a direct access from the parking garage to Main Street that could easily be made into a level walkway. Other access from Center and Masonic streets would also be available.

With the amount of new parking in the garage, all parking on Main Street would be eliminated with the possible exception of “pick up” spots and possibly places for trucks to unload. Details need to be developed. That would leave plenty of space to rebuild walkways, bike lanes and provide for outdoor dining on Main Street. Foot traffic to businesses would, if anything, be improved by a more convenient access to downtown parking immediately adjacent to downtown businesses.

Through traffic would be limited to two lanes, plus one limited turn lane in the eastbound direction for access to Center, Gothic and King streets as the mayor has proposed. Turns from the westbound direction on Main onto Crafts Avenue would be eliminated. Along with the project, efforts would be made to find new traffic routes to bypass downtown.

Northampton, as one of the gems of Western Massachusetts, deserves the commitment of the state to help bring a worthy infrastructure project to life similar to the commitment they made to bring gambling to Springfield. It would be a drop in the bucket of the state budget and would be a major improvement to Northampton as well as an economic boost to the region.

Thomas Dourmashkin lives in Florence.

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