I remember, or think I remember, a “design-a-thon” on WWLP with William L. Putnam (“WLP”) and Kitty Broman; people phoning in their ideas for Riverfront Revitalization. After that all of the usual economic development publications related to downtown always contained a Riverfront addendum. At first this all meant re-engaging people with the water in some kind of meaningful way: swimming or boating in the river, or hiking, biking, or even living along it.
The earliest designs included expanded marinas, recreational cut-outs, apartments, and restaurants right along the river’s edge. The eventual outcome was Riverfront Park and the second Basketball Hall of Fame.
The park’s design wasn’t bad per se, but it wasn’t up to the task of being enough of an attraction for people to make the Herculean effort required just to get to it. Add to that the odor problem from the sewage treatment plant on the other side of the river and you’ve got a dead park, which it remains, despite the resolution of the odor problem, even after decades.
The original riverfront Hall of Fame at the very least had the spirit of riverfront development at its core when it was built. Despite being separated from the river by the railroad its entrance faced west as did the enormous windows and the balconies on its upper floors.
Enter the current Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. What had seemed like such a giant leap forward for the shrine just two decades earlier, leaving the isolated cozy campus of Springfield College and the conservative stately building which housed its collection of memorabilia for a modern “basketball orange” and glass box just off the interstate, was not enough to make the trustees happy with the facility. Using a possible institutional exit for Orlando, the trustees were able to convince local authorities that a new structure was needed.
The newest Hall of Fame is not only larger and a bit more curvilinear in its outline, but, more importantly, contains loads of retail space that can provide a steady stream of income. It was also billed as a continuation of “riverfront development”, but by the time it was built the “river” portion of riverfront development was all but forgotten; the building faces the highway and shows only its service entrances, loading bays, and HVAC to the river.
By Springfield standards you’d have to say that it has been enormously successful. Apart from the restaurants, bars, and fast food joints located inside the HoF’s strip malls, the project has spawned a successful hotel, two separate restaurants, and an L.A. Fitness, with only the restaurant space of the “old hall” sitting vacant today. It doesn’t do a thing to connect the city to the river, it doesn’t add to the vitality of downtown, but it IS a place where people from all over the region come to eat and drink. (Whether or not it can survive and thrive with MGM on the other side of the highway is a question only time will answer.)
At the time the current Hall of Fame’s location and design were being debated I lobbied everyone I could think of for a Main Street hall. What was the point of having it if it didn’t engage with the larger community? I made the case that surrounding the museum with the amenities of a city could enhance both if done correctly. The leadership of the HoF at the time went so far as to tell me that they would go out of their way to recommend to special guests that they NOT visit anyplace else in the city and that, to have a decent meal, they recommended either Hartford or Northampton.
Wow. So moving to a place surrounded by Springfield on all sides was never going to happen.
Fast forward 15 years or so.
Somewhat lost now in the Springfield casino discussion is the fact that there were TWO other proposals, both of which steered a course aligning much more closely to the Hall of Fame model of establishing a pod as isolated as possible from the city and connected to the outside via interstate highway. In the early days the talk was that the Penn National plan, which initially included a “ring-road” (i.e. “Asphalt Moat”) around the entire facility, had both the political and design upper hand on MGM’s inside out program.
Here is an early sketch of the Penn National design, ring-road included:
Apart from the Monty Pythonesque rotating knives appearance of the casino and its outbuildings, notice how absolutely disconnected each element is from every other with separate parking for each venue and even airwalks to be sure the visitors never mix with the natives.
Perhaps the success of the new Hall of Fame has at some level helped people see that any element of the city whose success doesn’t integrate with the rest of the city isn’t nearly as valuable as one which does. Casinos may or may not be a good idea, but it would have been much less risky for the city and the casino operator alike to just plop a casino pod on a brownfield as far as possible from everywhere else and call it a win. Putting it in the middle of town complicates everything, but it means success could be a real game changer for more than just the resort itself.
Does it mean we’ve turned a corner, that we have in fact “learned a lesson”? I’m not really sure. I think we’re still in the “throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks” stage. Doing it the wrong way has been what has worked for quite a while if by “worked” what is meant is that individual projects have succeeded financially in the short term, while doing things the right way in a mid sized Rust Belt city has brought more often than not, at best, mixed results.
For most people “right way” and “wrong way” are defined exclusively by that short term success or failure. The Strong Towns notion of sustainability, incremental growth, and avoiding the Ponzi Scheme of horizontal development is still fighting for acceptance in development circles and unheard of by most of the public. As long as the consequences of doing things the wrong way are hidden through subterfuge, externalities, and debt, doing things the right way is going to have to compete on an uneven playing field. I’m hoping it can win a few here and there anyway.