James Howard Kunstler:
“We don’t have to have a craft fair to get people to come here.”
“A public place so dismal that the winos don’t even want to go there.”
Most of Springfield’s public spaces reside on the better end of this continuum of public space, but, often due to a dearth of programming on the edge, most require something akin to a craft fair to truly energize them. In a paradox endemic to America, much of this public space is privately owned. Even in the downtown the automobile is granted an often annoying presence at the periphery of pedestrian space, and places blessed with an abundance of public space can’t program all of it all the time.
I chose my first day of summer break to meander through a handful of the city’s newly restored, redesigned, and refurbished parks and plazas to grab some lunch, to have a coffee, and to see if anyone would be joining my wife and me in any of Springfield’s outdoor rooms.
We started at Food Truck Friday at the MGM plaza:
A former student was taking orders at the slider truck so I got to hear a hardy “¡Señor!” called out when my order was ready. I shared one with Liz, and she got me some hummus from the Holyoke Hummus Co.. Fun. When we got there it was buzzing, by the time we left it was packed.
MGM does a good job of programming the plaza, day and night all year ’round. They really have to, the retail apocalypse has made what they had hoped would be some attractive shopping options into a candle place, one T-shirt shop, and a jeweler. I kid you not; $1,000,000,000.00 doesn’t go a long way in retail these days!
From there we wandered down Courthouse Walk; easily the most authentic and European feeling space in the downtown, but its eastern edge sits totally vacant while a $40 million redevelopment plan sits $3-$4 short of funding. On this day a few dozen people ambulated through it while passing from the farmers’ market in Court Square to MGM.
The market occupies onlyone side of the square, but it does have room to grow!
On Mondays there are classic car shows here, and later on this summer the Jazz and Roots festival will cover almost the entirety of the square. This space hasn’t been touched in the most recent round of rehabilitation, but it is easily the king of urban public spaces west of Boston in New England…in terms of its potential. There are 8 unique spaces in and around the blocks it occupies, including Courthouse Walk, each with its use, its charm, and its beauty, most of which can still be sensed despite its most significant structures sitting vacant for decades.
One of those unique spaces is the oasis Evan Plotkin has created at One Financial Plaza. Today he has displaced the Palazzo hot dog cart to the farmers’ market and the difference can be felt:
Monday through Thursday this is reliably the most active outdoor room in downtown Springfield. How did he do it? How did he take a quintessentially bland 1980’s corporate plaza and transform it into the place to be? Music, either live or piped in at all times. Water, by restoring the original fountain. Food, by placing a café at one corner, and the aforementioned hot dog cart at another. The cart is now owned and operated by the owners of the café, but it wasn’t always so. Convincing a brick and mortar establishment to let a hot dog cart in its territory at lunchtime must have been a hard sell but, as often happens, once it was established they saw that it drew in more business to the area than it stole from their regular customer base. Another element which can’t be overlooked is movable tables and chairs. It’s right out of the PPP manual: people prefer chairs that move! Public art rounds out the composition.
Around the back of the building Nadim was setting up his outdoor dining area. On Saturday we’d decide to celebrate surviving the Worthy Brew Fest by dining al fresco with Nadim himself. I could see the campanile from where I sat. I couldn’t help but think that people pay a great deal to fly to Europe to have no more aesthetically pleasing an experience:
On this day we stopped at Starbucks, don’t judge, we were offered free drinks by the owner for signing up for a Dr Seuss license plate. Clouds had started to fill in and only a few people sat with us in front of the Forbes and Wallace fountain, but the people watching was extraordinary.
The park occupying the place of the former Steiger’s department store was mostly empty. The summer beer garden is open Wednesday-Friday from 4-9, and Saturdays 12-6. We’ve been 4 times already, twice just to grab a bite to eat on the way through the area, once as part of the mural festival, and once we walked down expressly to just enjoy the experience. Unlike many downtown events there is an actual mix of White and Black Springfielders. I don’t think it is at all coincidence that the owner is an African American native of Springfield. It’s a great idea and it energizes Main Street wonderfully well, in ways other activities and events of a similar sort have not.
Stearns Square and Duryea Way were quiet. The night before the BID had had their pre Bruins Stanley Cup Game 7 beer party on Duryea Way, but we were at a community event celebrating the conclusion of the Fresh Paint Springfield mural festival and so I wasn’t able to get there to take some pictures of the space being fully utilized. The replica of the first American gas powered auto, the Duryea, attracts people to the space, and it does its job of being a welcoming pass through from Union Station to the heart of downtown remarkably well.
That brings me to some brief (let’s hope!) editorializing: In a city like Springfield not every public space can be activated all the time. Willow Walk, Duryea Way, and even Courthouse Walk are mostly going to be attractive areas to walk through, not destinations unto themselves (at least until the Court Square building is completed). The activation of Stearns Square is dependent upon the success of the dining establishments which surround it and their willingness to expand their outdoor dining opportunities, upon which the entire redesign of the surrounding area was based. The McKim, Mead and White plaza and the fountain by Augustus St. Gaudens really preclude a redesign of the space with a water slide and picnic area! It’s enough that the renovation allows access to the fountain by anyone wanting to cool off on a hot summer day.
This is the public park contiguous to the MGM property:
Nice. But it could use a splash pad or a sprayground.
Speaking of water features, only the Riverfront Park and Pynchon Plaza will have fully kid friendly splash pads. I’m a little surprised MGM didn’t include some water in the design for their numerous outdoor spaces; here water is abundant, unlike Las Vegas. Perhaps therein lies the answer. The new Riverfront Park will be fully open in a few days. The playground, fountain, 9/11 Memorial, performance space, and bike path, along with limited access to the river with areas for fishing or just viewing the river make this a very different park space from the rest. There are numerous issues to be dealt with still which I will mention in a later post, but it is a beautiful place, and acts as a reminder that Springfield is only here because the river is here.
The places and spaces we visited are all well within a half mile of a central location downtown, and I haven’t included the Springfield Armory National Historic Site at all, despite the fact that it to has just undergone a complete reconfiguration of its grounds, nor have I treated downtown’s most active public space: the Quadrangle.
When Pynchon Plaza is finished, about a year from now, we will begin to see if it does a better job of connecting Main Street to the Springfield Museums than its predecessor.
I have also left out the Apremont Triangle. Mass Mutual has contracted the services of the Project for Public Spaces to engage the neighborhood (including yours truly!!!) in creating a plan to energize that public place. As I have written many times, it has tremendous potential and could become the center of a second main street on a newly re-invigorated Chestnut Street, a Chestnut Street which looks to have the capacity to become Springfield’s answer to what Greenwich Village was to Manhattan.
I’m optimistic. It’s sad that the commercial energy isn’t there to have bookstores instead of pop-up mini libraries, cafes instead of food trucks, permanent arcades instead of bean bag toss and giant Jenga, but such is the state of urban retail. Most of these spaces are surrounded by misallocated (from an urbanist perspective) ground floor uses which could be reprogrammed tomorrow. In the interim these temporary measures will have to suffice to keep the public realm active and alive. I’m looking forward to spending my summer right here.