In short, Springfield exists as a city because the first National Arsenal was located here. When the Armory closed in 1968 it was eventually split into a National Park and the Springfield Technical Community College. As significant as its origins are to the city, and as important as it still is as a cultural and educational resource it should also be viewed as both the best and most underutilized public space in the downtown and perhaps in the entire city.
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Although the city of Springfield has one of the finest park systems of any city its size in the United States, the downtown is short of user friendly recreational space. Focusing first on the perimeter of the grounds let’s see what relatively small changes can be made which could create a beautiful space for active recreation in the heart of the city.
* Encompassing a block which has a circumference of almost a mile and a half, there are only three points at which automobile traffic intersects with the pathway which surrounds the space.
* The architecture and the streetscapes which surround the grounds are of the highest quality. They range from the stunning to the sublime.
* The fencing around the property is consistent and decorative, defining not just the interior space, but also the exterior. While defining a “line” with a linear park is desirable, to frame a mile and a half with such beautiful and costly material would be highly cost prohibitive…if it didn’t already exist.
*The grounds themselves are generally well-maintained and the change in elevation that its hilly terrain creates gives any user constantly changing vistas both in terms of the view looking into the property, and outward toward the city and even to the valley and the hills beyond.
*The multiplicity of users gives this space what Jane Jacobs (Author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”) would see as the necessary attributes to be an asset to the surrounding area: i.e. the constant coming and going of ever-fresh eyes would limit the amount of mischief performed in and around the park.
*Both the national park and the college are public entities, and therefore there are no private interests to overcome in increasing usership of a sort which is not of primary interest to the major stakeholders. In other words, the college and the national park might not want to see their perimeter become a major downtown recreation area: “Tough, you works for us!”
*There are areas around the perimeter where the paving is in disrepair. Some these spots, particularly almost the entire length of Byers Street, are so bad that they are almost impassible.
*There are places along Pearl Street where the fence is “missing teeth” and those need to be replaced.
*The width of the sidewalk makes shared usage by cyclists and strollers unfeasible.
*The historic brick sidewalks which make up at least 2/3 of the perimeter walkways would be uncomfortable and slick for bicycles.
*There are no benches along the mile and a half perimeter.
*The Byers Street length of the perimeter is not only “under maintained”, it is a street which has had a reputation in the past for being unsafe. While the presence of HAP on the street has stabilized it a great deal, it is clearly the weak link security wise of the circuit.
What to do?
This space should be designated and reconfigured (only slightly) to function as a linear park. The existing “sidewalk” should be reserved for walkers, runners, and “junior” cyclists. Painted lanes on the street should be used to make a bicycle lane running clockwise around the interior of the already existing pavements on State, Byers, Pearl, and Federal Streets with “hard barriers” separating bike traffic from automobile traffic, perhaps only, but at least at the intersection of State and Federal Streets.
Visual warnings can exist at both the Federal Street and Pearl Street locations where cyclists and automobiles would intersect to remind drivers and riders that they are entering a shared space. The most problematic place would be Pearl Street, as cyclists would be climbing a VERY steep hill and would not want to lose momentum. It should be made very clear to drivers that cyclists simply have the right of way at that location based on existing rules of the road.
The area between the pedestrian “inner circle” and the cyclist “outer circle” should have benches and, at intervals and in appropriate locations, children’s play equipment. Barriers can be placed between the play equipment and the ares of pedestrian/cycling activity to prevent accidental incursions.
Byers Street needs to either be given special attention or perhaps even bypassed for Spring Street as the street which “closes the loop” on the western end of the park. If enough people use the park, Byers Street will cease to seem unsafe, but people may not use the park in sufficient numbers if Byers Street seems unsafe: A classic catch-22. Making repairs to the sidewalk and the street can help, but only the type of consistent eyes on the street that the other three lengths of the loop provide can ensure a feeling of security. Again, Spring Street could provide both that AND a link to the spectacular Armory Commons park. Perhaps creating a shorter (Byers) and longer (Spring) loop would be the best solution, although it would double the number of crossings with automobiles for people using the outer loop. It would also, however, nearly connect to the next best and next largest candidate for a linear park in the downtown, the block made up of Saint Micheal’s Cathedral and its environs, and the Quadrangle museums.
Perhaps the single greatest missing element of the downtown in terms of its infrastructure (It’s people we need most!) is a major active public recreational area. The many small parks and plazas dotting the center of the city are great for passive recreation, for people watching, and for sitting and eating lunch. The riverfront could be great one day, and I think this STCC/Armory perimeter park plan could represent a great advance in helping the riverfront achieve its potential in that it could give downtown Springfield a reputation for being a place that people can live who want urban life with opportunities for active recreation. The riverfront as it now exists, however, is light-years from being what the perimeter of the old Armory grounds (almost) already is: A highly trafficked, (mostly)well maintained, linear path which can attract a variety of users at all times of the day, all while being under the constant vigilance of thousands of members of the general public.