MassDevelopment

Pittsfield planning for the next transformation

February 28, 2017 : Berkshire Eagle, by Carrie Saldo


PITTSFIELD — It took more than one brushstroke, but the Storefront Artists Project helped spur the redevelopment of North Street. City planners wonder if that inspiration can strike twice.

A version of the program that allowed working artists studio space in vacant properties, is one of numerous ideas being considered as part of the Tyler Street Transformative Development Initiative. 

Pittsfield is one of 10 communities in the state selected last year for the three-year MassDevelopment program designed to concentrate efforts, resources and investments in a given area. The ideas for the revitalization of the 1.2 mile area with stores and services within walking distance were presented by City Planner Cornelius "C.J." Hoss and TDI fellow Amewusika "Sika" Sedzro to City Council Tuesday. 

"The TDI is designed to solicit ideas and figure out the best and highest use of these properties [in the district] and get the right stakeholders involved," Sedzro said. The underlying idea is the "strategic use of public dollars to attract private investment."

But the TDI designation was not a grant that made a pool of money available to the city, Hoss pointed out. Instead he said it is about planning support, grants and other initiatives only available to TDI communities. 

While anchored by Tyler Street, the district is flanked on the east by Berkshire Medical Center and the William Stanley Business Park on the west and also extends several blocks into residential areas to the north and south.

Over the past year the city has solicited public input and worked with established community groups on a potential revitalization and collected data to determine opportunities for development, Hoss said. 

The area may be divided into seven unique districts focusing on health and hospital, food and farm, mid-town residential, residential, retail, commercial services, as well as food and entertainment.

Current ideas for improvements run from the ordinary to the more unconventional, Hoss said. 

They range from plantings, curb extensions, improved lighting, and a dedicated retail district. Other suggestions include implementing Storefront Artists Project 2.0 — the project spent a decade pairing working artists with otherwise vacant commercial spaces — and contracting with the Better Block Foundation, which helps communities develop innovative ways to reactivate neighborhoods through short-term projects like temporary bike lanes. 

Councilors John M. Krol Jr., Ward 6, and Nicholas J. Caccamo, Ward 3, said they hope bike lanes are included in any future redevelopment of the area. 

"The economic benefits are there," Caccamo said. "Reports show that bikers per month will spend more in an area. That's certainly something I hope to see in this project."

Transportation is being studied as part of the process. 

Hoss pointed out that fewer people living on or near Tyler Street have cars and that many area residents walk, bike or take the bus. Through the process, it was brought to the city's attention that there are no bus stops on the street. 

Sedzro said she is working with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to determine where bus stops, or perhaps bus shelters, might be placed.

Housing is another major component of the potential redevelopment of Tyler Street. 

A project at the former St. Mary's Church could help to kick-off that effort. 

Krol prompted the mayor to share details of future market rate housing at the site. He called the property a "major linchpin for this neighborhood" where housing is "subpar." 

Mayor Linda M. Tyer said that a "very experienced local developer" has a purchase and sales agreement with the diocese for the convent, school and rectory, all of which would be converted into housing. She said the church would be redeveloped in the second phase of the project. 

Sedzro said the initiative began by partnering the three entities and spent much of the past year building other partnerships. Initial participation from the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, Tyler Street Business Group and city now includes Berkshire Community College, Be Well Berkshires and Berkshire Children and Families.

Sedzro said she has held a number of community listening sessions to gather input and help determine the needs of its residents and business owners. Among the concerns were public safety at night. Tyler Street only has street lights on the south side of the street. 

Several City Councilors bemoaned the fact that the need for lighting has been discussed and debated for years.

"Lighting is really a public safety issue," said Ward 4 Councilor Christopher J. Connell. "I think that should be one of our top priorities especially on the North Side of the street."

As TDI work moves forward, Sedzro said she is looking for continued input and volunteers. 

She said she is in the process of establishing three sub-groups that would brainstorm about street improvements, residential and quality of life issues, and small business development. 

The TDI is also focused on the potential reuse of the Tyler Street Fire Station and former Hess Station properties and will work with state partners to pilot housing and rehabilitation programs, Hoss said.