Morgan Square (now Silverbrick Lofts)
Ashford Place* (now Museum Park)
Park Street Lofts
From the mid 1970’s all through the 1980’s Springfield saw these areas and buildings rehabilitated, refurbished, or repurposed as housing; some as condos or townhouses, most as apartments. While most of these projects at first attracted what were then called yuppies and now hipsters, as well as a few empty nesters, all but a handful saw a radical transformation to housing poor individuals and families or some level of serious decline.
I lived in three* of these developments in four intervals from 1987-2008 and experienced both as a resident and as a representative of the civic association the changes each has undergone. Almost all of these projects created fairly unique, stylish living spaces even by today’s standards: high ceilings, enormous windows, exposed beams, brick walls, historic built-in carpentry; one unit at Classical has its own observatory! Today perhaps 3 have maintained their value and their clientele, 3 have been redone and are striving to remain market rate, and the rest, at best, represent a challenge moving forward.
More importantly, their existence didn’t in any noticeable way slow the decline of general livability downtown; retail shops continued to close, small groceries didn’t move in, cafes didn’t open and stay open, all the diners closed.
Now, on the other hand, there is a real chance, albeit only a chance, for the downtown to have all of the amenities I’ve looked for and dreamed of since I moved downtown 30+ years ago, but it comes tied to (cue ominous music and thunderclaps) a huge “silver bullet” resort casino designed to attract visitors to my community. Jane Jacobs forfend.
Anyone who reads my work knows that I am critical of a number of decisions and priorities of the local economic development cabal, but mobilizing in favor of the MGM proposal for the tornado ravaged South End was not one of them for the following reasons:
*The Commonwealth specifically designated this region of the state for a casino development, there was little to no chance that no casino would be built in the area, and the other four proposals had all of the drawbacks with few of the positive attributes of the MGM plan.
*The enormous tornado damage to block after block of historically significant structures in this economically struggling neighborhood made it very unlikely that a patient incremental response would be up to the challenge of remaking the neighborhood before even more vacant, undeveloped structures began to further erode what remained of our good bones.
*ALL smaller scale projects in the last 20 years in the South End have followed a suburban auto-oriented design model and MGM showed a commitment to good urban design principles even going so far as calling on Jeff Speck as a consultant.
*The MGM proposal takes an area which paid roughly $500,000 a year to the city in taxes and guarantees to increase it to more than $20,000,000.
The simple truth is, inviting this behemoth in is a risk, for the last 40 years different pundits and experts have promised a resurgence based primarily, believe it or not, on many of the very same arguments the most sober commentators make today. The city put lots of effort into façade grants, quality of life improvements, schools, parks, and library enhancements in the urban core; all to no avail. Yes, other silver bullet approaches were tried too: the downtown mall, the no car zone, large scale “urban removal”, the giant arena, the convention center (phases 1 and 2), and the Basketball Hall of Fame (versions 2 and 3).
There is a nagging voice in the back of my mind saying “this is too easy, this is too simple, this is too good to be true”. From the movie theaters to the street level retail this project produces ex nihilo all of the amenities I’ve been waiting to see return downtown for the last 30 years: in many ways it isn’t “promising” to bring what I want, it IS what I want. At the same time it could be, I think only without looking at the specifics, the most un-strong-townsy project ever.
Moving forward everything good or bad that happens in the city will be claimed to be a consequence of MGM. Given that there is no way to double blind the future we’ll never know, if “Mom and Rico’s” closes, it will truly have been because of MGM or if it would have happened anyway. Maybe the TD district will thrive as an alternative to the Vegas environment, or maybe it will fail because the billion dollar resort casino consumes all of the available development “oxygen”. What I do know is that most opponents will claim the city was destined to thrive if not for the project, and opponents will say doom was inevitable without it.
I know that I don’t know and that I’ll never know. but since MGM IS coming to town, my town, I want to make it work. It should work. Not because casinos are a wise economic development model but because the city is built on a fundamentally strong foundation of prewar design, extremely high quality housing stock, dozens of walkable neighborhoods and arguably the best designed municipal water system in the country.