Guest columnist Carson Poe: Dismayed Northampton reversed its downtown pilot project

  • Volunteers paint a mural onto the pavement on the eastbound side of upper Main Street in Northampton in August. Gazette file photo

Published: 9/14/2020 9:24:20 PM

Sixteen days ago, I started a petition in support of Northampton’s temporary Main Street makeover, or “road diet,” pilot project, the result of a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

I did this out of my dismay to learn that select business owners had started their own petition — on the first day of the pilot, no less — asking that the city “immediately reverse” the changes, citing myriad misinformed consequences. I could not grasp how so many individuals could so swiftly foist their business problems on something intended to help them most.

Today, I sit here, again bewildered, minutes after the city announced that it would indeed revert to the pre-COVID Main Street alignment, apparently caving to pressure from these constituents.

In my view, “business owner” does not automatically bestow upon a person some sort of public policy expertise, especially to a degree that should scuttle a project of this magnitude. The term, at least for a large majority of those who were vocally against the Main Street project, means a person who signed a lease to open their doors to all prospective patrons, not just those who arrive by car and magically find a parking space directly in front of their destination.

Ironically, several of the opposition businesses are located on the second floor of already inaccessible buildings! Another proudly displays in its front door a sign reminding customers that it will not provide change for parking.

Fun fact: at Center Street, Northampton’s Main Street is one of the widest Main Streets one can find. (Keene, New Hampshire’s may be wider, but it also features a tree-lined median). In other words, there is a surplus of space to accommodate all road users while allowing for social distance.

There is also ample parking. More than 1,000 off-street parking spaces are spread across numerous public lots within a block of Main Street and, thus, nearby to many of the opposition businesses. This includes time-unlimited spaces in a five-story deck where the first hour is free and businesses can choose to validate additional hours for their customers.

Some of the opposition businesses are also citing problems with the “process” and the way this project was rolled out. In fact, the city has been trying to engage with a variety of stakeholders for years, and specifically since November 2019, on adjustments to Main Street. It seems remarkably short-sighted to not give the updates a chance because there wasn’t adequate communication or organizing. Note, too, that all of the communities that received this MassDOT funding had to act quickly to implement these business-friendly changes.

Nevertheless, do the opposition businesses support the “process” for how the decision was abruptly reversed? Did they reach out to their city councilor with their concerns?

As someone who has lived in The Netherlands, widely seen as one of world’s mobility and livability leaders, I viewed the pilot as a good first step — a showcase feature in a city that hails itself as a vibrant, progressive and charming New England town center.

As someone who has spent nearly 20 years working in the transportation policy and planning field, I appreciated the forward-thinking, bold effort the city was attempting to make. As someone who prefers streets oriented for people, and not just personal vehicles, the changes were fantastic and will surely be a loss.

Carson Poe lives in Northampton.

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