Almost 15 years ago I found myself at a city council meeting of some sort and spoke in favor of a plan to turn a vacant building into a boutique hotel, but against the idea of tearing down some adjacent buildings to provide parking and “provide a better view”. The proposal was being made by one of the city’s most prominent residents and business owners. I thanked him for his commitment to the city but went on to state emphatically that his proposal demonstrated his utter cluelessness regarding what it was that might attract people to a boutique hotel in an urban environment. He was not accustomed to having anyone gainsay anything he said, it was clear from the look on his face.
I doubled down on my invective. While I knew that it would be impossible to convince this businessman of the ridiculousness of surrounding an historic downtown hotel with a moat of parking I knew that I might shake a city council member or two into looking into the idea if my vituperative verbosity was sufficiently vivid. Within a few weeks the local businessman was dead; I’m fairly sure my verbal tirade was only partly to blame. (Make sure to read the next to last paragraph of the New York Times obit)
I remembered at the time a similar speech I had given at a Historical Commission meeting in which the head of the Museums Association was seeking support for razing an apartment building adjoining his property; people in the building would hang out laundry to dry on the rear fire escape! Who could possibly enjoy Monet, Millet, or any 19th century French masterpieces after seeing that! I observed that the Louvre had been captivating visitors for years with its ample adjacent free parking. The Prado as well. Who doesn’t associate fine art with a Home Depot style parking lagoon?!
One of the buildings in question related to the development of the Court Square Hotel was a building I later learned was called the Shean Block. With the death of the developer the property and the plan to demolish the rest of the block died as well and it wasn’t until I was in attendance as a member of the board of the Springfield Preservation Trust that I found out that the same Shean Block was now at risk as part of a plan to build a new parking garage for the nearby sports arena the Mass Mutual Center. The idea was to demolish two buildings at or near the corner of State and Main streets and build a parking garage to replace the aging structure located on the north side of the arena. But hey, the Main Street frontage might have some retail on the first floor and maybe even Windows on the second floor to make it look less like…A PARKING GARAGE ON THE CORNER OF STATE AND MAIN!
After my let’s call it “passionate” response I was told how badly this downtown “needed parking”.
Even the historic preservationists were like: “Yup, parking. I’d let a pair of oxen have their way with my mother for parking…so…parking.” Luckily a lack of funds made the acquisition of the buildings and the construction of a new garage impossible so, somehow, the original garage was “brought back from the brink” by a few hundred thousand dollars of bonds. (Future plans to replace the garage now center on a surface lot nearby; putting a garage there with ground floor retail or office space and redeveloping the old garage site would actually constitute an improvement to each site and so, if it were to ever happen, it would not be the worst thing to have ever happened.)
I was unaware at the time that, with the idea of the Main Street garage for the Mass Mutual Center falling by the wayside, the new preferred developer of the Court Square building included the son of the now deceased former developer and he had the same view of surface parking as his father. Apparently, in the years before I was appointed to the Historical Commission these new developers had requested the support of that body for their bid to obtain historic preservation tax credits. The commission did so.
While very little progress was being made on actually redeveloping the property apparently plans were being drawn up which once again included the demolition of the Shean Block. At this point MGM’s plans for Springfield were just being presented and, given the process which was laid out, it seemed a long shot that it would ever come to fruition. As it did, MGM had planned to locate its market rate housing within the footprint of the casino and so the local plan for Court Square was not at all connected.
Around this time I was appointed to the Historical Commission and was in attendance at a meeting where a representative of the local developer was going through the formality of requesting that we once again write a letter of support for their historic tax credits for the Court Square proposal. As I had been aware of the earlier plans which involved the demolition of nearby historically significant structures I decided to ask the representative if the current plans included the acquisition and demolition of those buildings. To everyone’s surprise he not only responded in the affirmative, but he acknowledged in response to the query of yet another commissioner that this fact was not revealed in the formal application for historic tax credits.
The representative didn’t realize it at the time but this was a:
“Did you order the Code Red?”
“You’re goddam right I did!”
Part of getting tax credits, apparently, for historic preservation, is that your plan for preserving some historic stuff not involve destroying other historic stuff. Weird. Who knew?
We voted NOT to support the tax credits.
All hell broke loose. Commissioners got unpleasant phone calls from powerful people. The mayor wrote us a letter for being bad boys and girls and engaging in conjecture; like the conjecture that what a developer told us in an open meeting about his plans was accurate:
The city attorney visited us and instructed us on how we were not allowed to connect a vote on one development to another totally unrelated development. Yup. Being told by the developer that “Development A” is connected to “Development B” in a public hearing does not justify connecting them even when the whole point was that not revealing that connection impacted directly on the commission’s one and only mandate: to preserve the city’s historic resources.
The chairman of the commission was pressured to write a letter of support for the project, which he did, and the commission was asked to reconsider its position. I was not present at the meeting but those who were voted in favor. A number of commissioners did mention in remarks, which are in the official minutes, that they felt that the process involved undue political and personal pressure.
For the next few weeks and months I made it my job to forward all of the official information about these goings on to the people in the state bureaucracy who dealt with the approval of historic tax credits. At every opportunity I button-holed everyone even remotely connected to the project and told them that razing the Shean Block in connection to any development at Court Square just might blow up the entire project.
About this time MGM had changed its project slightly, placing the hotel where the market rate housing was, and relocating its housing to, potentially, the Court Square building.
The people at MGM liked me. I made clear in my remarks at Historical Commission meetings that the MGM development was not an historic preservation program with an economic development component, but rather an economic development with a commitment to contemplate historic preservation as a component; MGM could choose to do nothing in the way of preservation and still get approval to move forward and, in my opinion, they would.
I spoke to people at MGM about the tax credit issue and the manner in which it had been handled to no avail. I made contact with Jeff Speck. I knew that he had worked for a time with MGM on the Springfield project and had given them advice about making it connect to the city. Putting a surface parking lot, which had once again become the plan, between MGM and the rest of the downtown would clearly not improve the “connectedness” of the project. Mr. Speck responded by contacting MGM and writing this letter:
To put this in perspective, Jeff Speck is arguably the world’s foremost expert on walkability and MGM does billions of dollars worth of urban development. Jeff Speck put that relationship at risk to take a stand on an issue in an obscure third tier city just because I asked him to do so. I can’t think of a better example of personal and professional integrity.
When this journey started I was the only one on my side. Everyone else knew that every problem related to downtown development was a parking problem and that any investment in more parking would make the city a better place and anyone saying anything different was literally crazy. Now everyone but the developer understands that parking lots and parking garages have no place on Main Street; the current plan was revealed just last week and, according to everyone involved, there are no plans for placing parking on Main Street.
Can I get a Hallelujah?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so naive as to think that the Shean Block is completely safe; it wouldn’t be the first time that a Springfield building which proved stubborn in the face of demolition or taking was, oh my goodness, destroyed by a suspicious conflagration of some sort! Powerful people are accustomed to getting their own way after all, and Jesus does love them more than he loves the rest of us, so why wouldn’t an act of God occur in order to enable our betters to give us a little bit more of what’s good for us?
That said, I take pleasure in knowing that our zizagueo has managed to preserve one good building in one place at least for a time this once. Sometimes the good guys win.
Wait a second, do you smell smoke?