A ‘Swiss army knife’ park: Chicopee turning vacant lot into space for food trucks, entrepreneurs and community
February 25, 2021 : MassLive, by Jeanette DeForge
The city of Chicopee will turn a vacant piece of property downtown into a “Swiss army knife of a park” to help entrepreneurs promote their businesses, give the community another spot to gather, show off the benefits of the neighborhood and market the empty lot.
Center Park will be created at 181 Center St. The .28-acre lot that has housed a gas station dating back to the 1920s, most recently one called Racing Oil.
The property has been vacant since 2004 and the city foreclosed on it in 2009 for a lack of tax payments. In 2017 the city received about $340,000 in federal grants to evaluate and clean up contamination on the land so it could be used again. After the work was completed, the city in 2020 requested proposals for anyone who wanted to purchase and develop the land — but received no response.
The project, funded with a $10,000 Commonwealth Places Grant and a $10,000 MassDevelopment Grant, is also being constructed with volunteer help from A. Crane Construction, Interstate Towing, the Ondrick Company and the ROCA program. Officials are hoping the property will be ready for a ribbon-cutting in mid-April, said Julie Copoulos, director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce.
The project is being developed in a partnership with the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce and multiple city departments including the mayor’s office, planning department, parks and recreation and the treasurer’s office. The Transformative Development Initiative, which is designed to increase vibrancy in the downtown area surrounding Center and Exchange streets, is also involved with the initiative.
“I think of it as the Swiss army knife of a park. It can be used however people want to access it,” said Patrick McKenna, assistant city planner.
The park will be laid with crushed stone and the A. Crane Company has agreed to build a shade pavilion. There will also be electricity and a large container placed on the site that can be used for storage, Copoulos said.
The park is essentially going to be a community space. The city hopes to attract food trucks and a variety of outdoor activities. For example, a local yoga studio may hold an outdoor exercise class at the site, an art studio could hold a craft class there or a new entrepreneur could set up a booth to showcase some of their products, Copoulos said.
“We are looking for creative ways to engage the community and create a space that brings people downtown,” she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, science has shown gatherings are safer outside when masks are worn and people can social distance and she is hoping that Center Park will become a safe spot for small groups to gather, she said.
The exact system of booking the location has not been developed yet. Copoulos said she is expecting businesses and community groups will be able to use the space for free or for a nominal fee.
While the plot of land is relatively small and considered an “infill property,” studies show the property is significant because it is just a few parcels away from one of the gateways, or entrances, to the city.
The hope is the project will highlight the land, show what is possible for the parcel and help sell it and help redevelop the center of the city, McKenna said.
And if the property is sold, the equipment such as the picnic tables that are to be built by ROCA and the canopy, can be placed in a container and moved to another location so a new pocket park could be developed, McKenna said.