For years, Northampton has been a shopping and cultural destination, pulling people from far and wide.
The downtown that residents and visitors know is poised for change, in a dramatic, $19.1 million plan recently unveiled by the state Department of Transportation.
So why mess with success?
To strengthen what makes this small city special, improve its safety and shape an even more appealing environment for a new generation of residents and visitors.
That’s the value we see in the DOT’s massive redesign for streets and sidewalks in downtown Northampton. In doing all that, though, the DOT must let Northampton remain Northampton. The agency’s plans, recently outlined, suggest that this is indeed what’s in store. It’s an exciting new chapter for a city with a proud history and a promising future.
The seat of Hampshire County is unique in many ways. It is a city with many appealing characteristics of a town.
Northampton is a center of education and upscale business, yet reminders of its past as a mill town have not vanished. It is a gateway to scenic farm country, and the only Western Massachusetts county with borders to the region’s other three counties — mostly rural Berkshire to the west and Franklin to the north, and more densely urban and populated Hampden to the south.
The project will add trees, bike lanes in both directions and expanded sidewalks downtown. The work is not scheduled to begin until 2025 and is only one quarter is mapped out. Changes would remove more than a third of the current on-street parking. Studies by the DOT indicate parking can be decreased without losing accessibility, while increasing traffic safety.
Northampton has undergone transitions before, and done it well. Once an old-style mill town whose charter for township dates back to the 1650s, it emerged in the late 1970s as a modern destination, its economy bolstered by its location amid several major colleges and universities. Smith College’s campus stands at the western edge of downtown.
The DOT’s overhaul will run from that junction of Elm and West streets east to Market and Hawley streets — covering virtually all of Route 9′s run through downtown.
The project has been years in the making. The DOT design is 25% complete, so the transformation has a significant road to travel. As is proper, members of the public will have opportunities to comment as plans advance.
Every downtown has stakeholders, all of whom deserve to be heard. The city’s mayor, Gina-Louise Sciarra, put this well: “This space and all of us who occupy it have an interwoven connection. We cannot succeed as a community without the businesses that are part of this safe, shared community space, and the businesses cannot succeed without our residents and visitors bringing their interest and their energy.”
Downtown safety is and should be a priority. Wider sidewalks — up to 35 feet in places — will create greater room for both socializing and social distance. Businesses get more space on their doorsteps as well, including for outdoor dining.
As Main Street operates today, it isn’t the safest place for bicyclists. Northampton’s downtown saw 35 bike-related accidents (and 30 pedestrian accidents) from 2011 to 2020 — making it one of the most hazardous in the state, according to state figures.
New 5½-foot bike lanes will be placed on both sides, with 3-foot buffers between those lanes and vehicle traffic. Current angled parking will be replaced on one side of Main Street with parallel parking.
For a city often viewed as modern, parts of Northampton’s infrastructure are old. One cast iron water main below the street was installed in 1914. Another dates back to 1871. The city has been fortunate so far, but addressing this infrastructure is overdue.
Northampton has been a thriving cultural and entertainment center, but was jarred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its downtown has fallen well short of bouncing entirely back.
Property owned by businessman Eric Suher has come under particular scrutiny for locations that, in many cases, are inactive or vacant. Suher has not responded to requests for information about his plans. Any downtown redevelopment of this magnitude must combine infrastructure, business and cultural visions to produce a workable whole.
Working with the DOT, whose involvement with local and municipal projects has grown in recent years — to the benefit of affected communities — Northampton is aiming to create a downtown that Carolyn Misch, its director of planning and sustainability, says will serve the city for the next 100 years.
The time is now, as the estimated cost has already risen more than $2 million since initial estimates. It is worth the investment, keeping in mind that Northampton must also retain its distinctive flavor.
People behind this big project are calling it “Picture Main Street.” We like the image that comes to mind and look forward to following its progress.