We’re running, quite by accident, a nearly perfect test of the philosophy that the small project focused on marginally increasing value in a relatively undervalued neighborhood is better than a mega project designed to transform a place. It would appear to be a totally unfair fight between a project in the North End which repairs sidewalks, improves lighting, plants trees, and re-paves the street, and a nearly billion dollar hotel, entertainment, retail, and housing project in the South End.
The South End would appear to have all the advantages: It is connected to the downtown, it has retained a healthy core of businesses from its Italian heritage, and it connects to a number of healthy, and relatively wealthy, historic neighborhoods. The North End is separated from the downtown by a Le Corbusier inspired urban removal district and a massive highway interchange, whatever the North End’s previous ethnic heritage (French Canadian? Polish?) it is such a distant memory that I can’t recall what it is, nor do I see any remnants thereof, and the one huge employer in the neighborhood((Baystate Medical Center) is so monolithic and self contained that there is no tradition of leaving the campus to purchase even lunch from one of the many Caribbean restaurants along Main Street.
The North End does have a much more visible and lively public park than the South End, and both connect at about the same distance to at least somewhat comparable larger parks in Forest Park from the South End and Van Horn Park in the North End. Both are poor even by Springfield standards, both have a majority of Hispanic residents with the North End being less heterogeneous. The North End also carries with it a heavier burden of being perceived as dangerous. From my own childhood the North End and what used to be called “Winchester Square” were understood to be two nearly “no-go” zones for the White middle class.
On its face the North End experiment has every disadvantage: no connection to the amenities of the downtown, ethnic isolation, physical isolation, endemic poverty, and is getting a relatively small investment. On the other hand there is very little to lose here. Property values are already low, there are some incredibly well maintained and well restored historic buildings, but there are also vacant and blighted buildings as well. At least one major employer in the neighborhood is moving operations to a different part of the city(PVTA), whether they will continue to own and maintain their property or retain it for some use I do not know. Near the southern terminus of the neighborhood there is already some investment going on, but there are also a half a dozen or more vacant lots along Main Street which haven’t been turned into parking lots.
The North End (aka Memorial Square)
Le Corbusier-ville and the viaduct:
Main Street in the North End:
If we see over the next 5-10 years further movement toward rehabilitating the vacant and blighted structures, and some infill development occupies the now vacant plots along Main Street then I think the city will have seen adequate return in terms of maintaining the infrastructure of this stretch of Main Street and its environs.
The South End is a much trickier proposition. Keep in mind that the South End got the new sidewalks, lighting, and amenities nearly 8 years ago, but a tornado ripped through it just a few weeks after the project’s completion and a number of highly productive commercial and residential buildings were destroyed. Apart from the MGM project I can only think of one building which was completely destroyed having been replaced; many severely damaged structures were repaired, but there are still a handful of vacant lots along Main Street which had contained significant buildings before June 1, 2011.
The South End:
One consequence of the combination of the damage from the tornado and the volatility created by the enormous MGM project is that a very high percentage of store fronts from Central Street to State Street remain vacant. It has been reported that landlords have raised rents in anticipation of an MGM boom, and it is clear that potential retailers and entrepreneurs have no desire to get out ahead of the curve. In this we can glimpse a very large potential downside to the project; instead of breathing life into the district, it could suck all the life out of it. The tens of thousands of square feet of retail contained within the project could soak up all the demand created by the project and then some, the developer’s desire to give the core of the development a local flavor could remove that same flavor from the surrounding streets.
On the other hand the potential upside is enormous. If the resort complex as a whole transforms the perception of the city and the massive investment in policing the Main Street corridor 24/7 induces people into engaging with the center city as a whole the benefits could be immeasurable. A 15-20 minute “walk shed” with museums, entertainment venues, restaurants, hotels, historic architecture, a major transportation hub, and a variety of residential options is not combination to be found just anywhere in North America.
Only time will tell. I hope that both projects will prove successful of course, and as with most “experiments” in the social sciences double blinding is really impossible so we’ll never truly know if the city might have been better off with one particular strategy or with no strategy at all.