Baystate West was built with the best of intentions. In the 60’s and 70’s people thought that downtowns could compete with malls by doing their best to imitate them. In the past I’ve compared that behavior to that of post war cargo cults in the South Pacific but the truth is it seemed to work at first. I was in Baystate West when it was so busy that it was hard to make your way onto the escalators or to get in line for a California Dog at Orange Julius. What no one realized was that the success of the downtown mall would destroy the street life which was the one area of advantage the city could offer relative to the suburban mall. It turned out then, that the micro-success of Baystate West acted more like a 5th column decimating the downtown. The irony that it was created to save downtown retail shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
The decision to locate a Umass mini campus downtown was made as much to be a catalyst for urban revitalization as to provide educational opportunities to the residents of Springfield. Not surprisingly, I find those goals laudable. What I find astounding is that nothing that has been learned in the last 30 years about how to energize a downtown was taken into account when the final decision was made to locate the campus in TowerSquare (née Baystate West). I understand completely why the decision was made. TowerSquare has thousands of available square feet, three decks of underutilized parking, and a few small shops and food outlets along with the restaurants of the Marriott Hotel to provide services to the students. Most of the students will never ever have to leave the complex.
Oh, wait. That’s good for MassMutual (the owners of TowerSquare), and convenient for the students, but it completely and totally defeats the purpose, well one of the two major purposes anyway, of Umass having a presence downtown. It’s even worse than that, or perhaps, it’s even worse than it seems at first blush. See, there’s a simple fact related to urban behavior: the first step outside the primary destination is the key step. Once beyond the original structure, amenities outside are on a level playing field with those inside. People who get out, just one step, are much more likely to do more and more on the outside. That is where the dynamism comes from in a downtown.
It’s interesting, bordering on comical, to read the criticisms of MGM’s plans for a downtown casino and entertainment/retail complex which fail to see just how permeable not only the design of the complex is, but just how spectacular the decision to not include entertainment venues on site is. People will need to step outside, people must wander along Main Street, or through Court House Walk and Court Square to get to Symphony Hall, the MassMutual Center, and City Stage. The proposal works like a car radiator, maximizing the surface area and multiplying the dispersal of people throughout the downtown. Umass at TowerSquare is the definition of a Big Box: encapsulating and insulating the people within. The fact that the activity (education) the project is intended to promote is sacrosanct has insulated its execution from the criticism it deserves.
The strategy chosen is a proven one. Proven to fail. Nice job, everybody!