Downtown Development | Transformation projects: Revitalization reframing city cores

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PITTSFIELD — Booming, revitalized city centers occur when public and private investments become married to each other.

Like most marriages, city boosters on both sides describe these relationships as a delicate dance of passion, timing and symbiosis.

"It takes two to tango," developer David Carver said of the ongoing public-private work involved in revitalizing Berkshire downtowns. "Both sides have to look at each other to decide how sincere they are and how capable they are."

The former mill towns of Pittsfield and North Adams have latched on to this strategy. Both are using a mixture of public and private investment to rebuild their downtown centers to reassert themselves as the economic headquarters they once were before changes in the economy and urban renewal combined to change the landscape in the 1960s and '70s. From the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to the Colonial Theatre, from the Beacon Cinema to Barrington Stage Company, the Berkshire's these restoration projects have been accomplished with art at the heart of them.

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the county's designated economic development agency, said North Adams and Pittsfield are heading in the right direction in "a big way."

"The amount of visitor dollars spent in the Berkshires keeps going up," he said. "The downtowns in Pittsfield and North Adams have had a lot to do with that."

Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer said her job is to lay the foundation for private investment in Pittsfield to spur economic development. Her department thinks of the city as a house, and downtown as the living room, she said.

The first step in making Pittsfield more inviting was to ensure the city had a place in the county's burgeoning arts and culture economy, she said. That's why City Hall kicked in financial support for projects like the Colonial, the Beacon and Barrington Stage.

MAJOR BENEFITS

The investments are paying off, she said. These institutions bring people to the city — Barrington Stage Company alone drew 58,500 patrons to Pittsfield last year, Ruffer said — which is good both for the city's tax base and for downtown businesses.

"It was important that they understood the city welcomes them," she said.

Property owner Steve Oakes said Barrington Stage Company's success played a role in his recent decision to buy the Shipton building on North Street for $2.15 million, as did Mayor Linda M. Tyer's leadership.

"I very much had my finger up in the wind," said Oakes, of Otis, a transplanted New Yorker who owns two other buildings in downtown Pittsfield. "That did give me the confidence to expand in Pittsfield."

Pittsfield's downtown streetscape project, the revitalization of the downtown corridor's roadways and sidewalks, has received nearly $30 million in public investment over the last decade, Ruffer said. That sum includes $12 million in city funding, $12 million from the state and $5.6 million in federal funds for items like sidewalk enhancements, benches, tree plantings and ornamental lighting.

In response to that work, the assessed value of downtown Pittsfield's buildings has increased more than 20 percent during the last decade which includes the Great Recession, Ruffer said. Transforming the Howard Building on Federal Street and the Onota Building on North Street into market rate apartment complexes has increased the number of downtown residents.

"There's no question those downtown improvements gave confidence to our developers," said Laura Mick, who led the Community Development Department's work on the downtown streetscape project. "I think everyone came out with a renewed confidence in the downtown."

Ruffer echoed those sentiments.

"We set the tone," she said.

City boosters in both Pittsfield and North Adams say there's no reason why these Berkshire downtown areas can't continue to thrive. They believe that all kinds of consumers will respond to an urban environment that's surrounded by an area with such natural beauty.

In response to visitors' requests for more downtown activities, and merchants' desire for increased foot traffic, the city of North Adams has embarked on a series of streetscape improvements on Eagle Street that include benches, signage and downtown art work, said North Adams City Councilor Benjamin Lamb.

"They can grab a hot dog at Jack's, sit on a bench and check out the mural," Lamb said. "It's really kind of coming to a head at this point."

The city is also planning to construct a "parklet," a miniature park placed on a raised platform, that will serve as an event space. This area will serve to expand the city's park space on the street, Lamb said, creating a gathering area that is considered to be an important piece of the town's revitalization puzzle.

"Our goal is to have ongoing programming around the physical work," Lamb said. "It's not just drop and go away."

The city is already reaping rewards from that effort.

"People are starting to pick up the ball in their own respects," Lamb said, referring to increases in sales and more movement in downtown real estate. "They're seeing a boon in the winter and that doesn't happen."

North Adams has a number of historic buildings that need new attention. Some of that work is already taking place, Lamb said, referring to Moresi & Associates' efforts to redevelop the newly named NORAD mill building on Roberts Drive.

"We'd much rather see adaptive reuse of what's here than see them fall into disarray," he said.

Dave Moresi said it's time for property owners in North Adams to step up to the plate, redevelop their buildings and fill vacancies.

"It's about working with businesses and working people who want to start a business. That's what's going to bring North Adams back," he said, adding those who lack the energy and resources should consider selling property to him. "I'm all about action."

In Pittsfield, City Planner C.J. Hoss is taking a fresh look at downtown zoning policies to provide incentives for those interested in developing multi-use projects similar to the Howard Building and Onota 75 projects. Those new guidelines need to take into consideration the form of each building rather than just its use, both Hoss and Ruffer said.

The switch would refocus local controls on developments that could mar the architectural aesthetic of downtown Pittsfield, and make it easier for people to buy and repair the city's older buildings.

Adaptive reuse projects can be costly, but developers say they're worth it.

"The old heart of Pittsfield still has good bones," Oakes said.

Amanda Drane can be reached at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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