Group proposes alternative to Northampton mayor’s Main Street plan

  • Lilly Lombard, a community organizer, left, Aimee Francaes, co-owner of Belly of the Beast, second right, and Michael DiPasquale, a professor of urban planning at the University of Massachusetts, right, listen Wednesday as Joel Russell, an urban planner and attorney, talks about the redesign of Northampton’s Main Street and what they would like to see happen. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Michael DiPasquale, a professor of Urban Planning at UMass, Aimee Francaes, co owner of Belly of the Beast, Joel Russell, a Urban planner and Lilly Lombard, a community organizer, In front of the Academy of Music in Northampton where they would like to see more space for street trees and pedestrians added to the Downtown plan. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/2/2021 8:51:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A group of local residents, business owners and advocates are calling for changes to the city’s planned Main Street redesign, which they say needs to better accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and businesses in an ecologically friendly manner.

The local group, Main Street for Everyone, came together under the belief that the city can more effectively accommodate residents, visitors and businesses downtown, said Lilly Lombard, a steering committee member with the group.

The city’s current plan for the redesign seems “not far enough and not bold enough,” Lombard said, “and we’re never going to have an opportunity in our lifetime to redesign our downtown like we do now, so it feels to me like we cannot squander this opportunity.”

The city anticipates it will receive over $16 million toward the project in state and federal funding.

Late last month, Mayor David Narkewicz announced that the city would pursue a three-lane design for Main Street. In addition to three lanes for cars, the design would maintain angled parking, expand sidewalks and install separate bike lanes. Seventy percent of the 1,300 people who filled out an online survey for the redesign chose the city’s three-lane option, as did most attendees of a public forum, according to the mayor.

Aside from this design, the city also considered other possibilities calling for four lanes with narrower sidewalks or no bike lanes, or four lanes with parallel parking, some bike lanes and expanded sidewalks.

Main Street for Everyone was formed by a group of people who attended city forums on the redesign and began meeting independently. The group is having discussions with over 20 local businesses on the future of Main Street, according to Lombard.

Group members said the options presented at the forums were insufficient.

“None of us felt like any of the survey design options represented the vision that we believe is necessary to realize for downtown Northampton,” Lombard said.

Among its key issues, the group is calling for the city’s plan to include more emphasis on bike lanes, expanded pedestrian space, green infrastructure and “a contiguous canopy of shade trees,” Lombard said. The group also hopes to see more parallel parking and use of municipal parking lots, which they say would encourage foot traffic downtown. The group has kicked off a letter-writing campaign that can be accessed via its website, mainst4everyone.org.

Aimee Francaes, a member of the steering committee and owner of downtown restaurant Belly of the Beast, said that the redesign presents the opportunity “to shift our city to an environment that is incredibly hospitable to having a people-centered Main Street.”

Narkewicz said the city welcomes the input and will continue to consider public opinion.

“I think we’ve been pretty clear throughout the process that we’re trying to get as much input as we can,” he said, “and come up with a design that represents the viewpoints and goals for the city of what Main Street will look like in the future.”

Concept drawings for the planned redesign leave room to refine the project’s details, he added.

“We’re getting to that phase in the process where we’ll be able to talk about things like infrastructure and street space,” Narkewicz said, as well as parking, outdoor dining and accessibility.

Last summer, the city temporarily redesigned downtown to accommodate bike lanes, more space for pedestrians to walk and additional outdoor seating due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing regulations. After complaints from over 50 business owners, who had concerns with limited parking and limited communication from the city, officials returned the streets to their previous state.

This short-lived redesign has complicated the longer-term process, Lombard said, adding that a “poor rollout of that pop-out got conflated with the larger issue of how we design our downtown.”

Francaes also took issue with how the city handled communications with business owners, among other aspects of the temporary redesign. But she appreciated aspects such as bike lanes and extra space for pedestrians, and thought that the design was removed before the city had an opportunity to learn from it.

“I do understand why the city decided to revert back, given how strongly some of the people in the business community really were outspoken about it,” Francaes said. “But again, I think that, had there been better dialogue and communication, we could have kept that study through November 1 and had  a better idea of … more permanent changes.”

The city hopes to finalize redesign plans by the end of the year and carry out construction in fiscal 2024.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Aimee Francaes’ first name.Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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