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Berkshire Trade & Commerce, by John Townes

As TDI winds down, city looks to maintain momentum of revitalization

Officials say initiative has had positive impact on Tyler Street district
March 18, 2019

The city’s involvement in the Commonwealth Gateway Cities Transformative Development Initiative (TDI), which began in 2016, is ending in June.

However, the momentum of revitalization in the Tyler Street business district and surrounding Morningside neighborhood will continue, according to offi cials who have worked on the wide-ranging initiative over the past three years.

“The main role of a TDI is to establish collaborations, set a direction and support local partners,” said Amewusika “Sika” Sedzro, the TDI Fellow for Pittsfi eld. “Much has been accomplished, and the community is well placed to move forward with the projects and initiatives that have been started.”

Pittsfield City Planner C.J. Hoss concurred, noting that the TDI has fostered more coordination of the overall goal of neighborhood improvement and economic revitalization there.

“It has brought more focus and resources into the neighborhood,” said Hoss. “Many things have come together to illustrate the city’s commitment to that neighborhood, and we’re seeing tangible signs of progress on many levels.”

The TDI is a program of MassDevelopment, the state’s fi nance and development agency, to stimulate revitalization in designated Gateway Cities – those which have populations between 35,000 and 250,000 and median household incomes and rates of educational attainment below the state average.

Eligible cities apply for TDI status and assistance for specifi c districts within them. As a Gateway City, Pittsfield applied for the Tyler Street and Morningside area, and was accepted as one of the first 10 TDI cities.

A TDI lasts for a specific time period. The Pittsfield TDI program started is 2016 and expires in June. (The initial contract was renewed to 2019 last year.)

The TDI designation made the district eligible for a variety of support programs and funding. This included a process to develop a shared vision for the district and for specific revitalization plans and projects.

MassDevelopment invests in the TDI districts through a set of tools, including technical economic development assistance, real estate investments, small pilot grant programs, and the services of experts such as Sedzro.

The program works with cross-sector partnerships to engage community members in actionable planning, implementation of local economic development initiatives, and stimulation of public and private investment.

BMC to William Stanley Park
The area covered by the TDI extends along Tyler Street east from Berkshire Medical Center (BMC) to Woodlawn Avenue where it becomes Dalton Avenue. It includes residential streets in Morningside to form a corridor between the hospital and the William Stanley Business Park.

Tyler Street is one of the city’s main commercial streets. While it has numerous businesses, including many successful ones, it has had a high vacancy rate including some visible eyesores, such as an abandoned gas station.

Morningside is one of the lower-income neighborhoods in the city and has struggled with issues of poverty, crime, blight and related problems.

There were many projects and initiatives that preceded the TDI, such as the Tyler Street Business Group, which has been active in business revitalization projects; and the Morningside Initiative, a neighborhood organization that works with residents, the city government, and other stakeholders.

However, there was not a coordinated framework or concrete vision shared by the community and other stakeholders.

Sedzro and Hoss noted that TDI districts are initially characterized by the level of preparedness for revitalization that exists when the program starts.

“Neighborhoods are either on the cusp of change, or already in the process to varying degrees,” said Sedzro. “In Pittsfield, the TDI area was in the very early-stage planning.”

Sedzro said many collaborations were created within the neighborhood and the city government, and among organizations such as the Tyler Street Business Group, Goodwill Industries, the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA), Morningside Initiative, Berkshire Children and Families, Be Well Berkshires (a program affiliated with Berkshire Health Systems), and many others.

It has also worked with business and property owners, and other private investors, such as David Carver, whose firm CT Management Group is redeveloping the former St. Mary’s church on Tyler Street for market-rate housing.

Sedzro said initiatives supported by the TDI have included a mix of larger projects and initiatives, and individual specific actions.

“Public art and other smaller activities within the district have helped to bring new life and spirit there,” she said.

Other examples she cited include foodsecurity initiatives. “Several individual projects are coming together to connect the neighborhood with access to fresh food,” she said.

Community vision
Because the district is considered in the early stage of revitalization, one of the priorities of the TDI was to bring together government, neighborhood residents and businesses, community groups and other stakeholders to develop a shared set of goals and a vision for the area.

This included creation of a Tyler Street TDI Corridor Implementation Plan.

One early step was identifying the overall challenges and opportunities within the TDI district, along with common priorities. The process included interviews and community meetings. Professional consultants and other experts were also retained.

The TDI also supported processes to identify potential sites for public and private development, or public/private projects, to reduce blight and physically enhance the area. The TDI also drew on previous research and existing resources.

To help launch the TDI in February 2016, MassDevelopment, the Tyler Street Business Group, PEDA, and the City of Pittsfi eld sponsored an open house to gather the opinions, ideas and goals of members of the public on topics including housing and neighborhood development, arts and culture, parks and recreation, community and food resources, and public transportation.

The city also engaged an environmental planning class at Williams College in the autumn of 2016. Students surveyed the conditions of every building/property within the TDI district. This data was combined with a GIS parcel file to provide an overview of conditions within the neighborhood.

In a particularly prominent step in the visioning process, the TDI supported the Pittsfield Better Block, a one-day demonstration of the potential of Tyler Street with pop-up stores, galleries and other activities which was held on Aug. 26, 2017.

The project included in-kind or monetary donations from the city, General Dynamics, Greylock Federal Credit Union, Goodwill, Berkshire Community College, Berkshire Children & Families, Central Berkshire Habitat, and the Berkshire Realtors, among others.

Preparations engaged over 250 residents in a Community Walk & Talk, Concept Plan, and Build Week activities.

Among other results, this led to the formation of the Tyler Street Lab @ 730.

Increasing investment
Hoss said the TDI has had an important role in creating a positive framework that has helped to drive progress in neighborhood improvement and economic revitalization in a variety of ways.

“One of the primary purposes of the TDI has been placemaking to stabilize and revitalize the district, and encourage opportunities for housing diversity and other development,” he said.

He cited increasing investor interest in Morningside and Tyler Street as one tangible indication of this.

“Because of certain perceptions about Morningside, there had not been a lot of interest in investments there in the past,” Hoss said. “But that’s changing. The redevelopment of St. Mary’s for market-rate housing is probably the most viable sign of this. However, if you look at data such as real estate transactions, there has been a steady increase in other purchases of properties over the past several years, and a notable uptick in the last year.”

Hoss said this trend is also reflected in other ways. “In our office, we’ve been getting a lot more questions from business and property owners about resources available for development projects and property improvements there,” he said.

This dovetails with other city actions, he added, such as an expansion of the area covered by the Housing Incentive Development Program from downtown into the TDI area. This provides tax incentives and other support for the development of market-rate housing.

The TDI has also helped to set a context for a major ongoing city project, a plan to improve the streetscape and traffic controls on Tyler Street. The city set this as a priority several years ago, viewing it as an extension of the improvements that were previously made to North Street.

“Tyler Street is a long, straight roadway, and cars tend to drive at faster speeds,” Hoss explained. “That creates safety issues. Also, drivers tend not to notice the business there. The basic goal of the project is to slow traffic somewhat, improve safety, and accommodate pedestrians, bikes and public transportation more.”

Hoss said the city has been conducting design studies and has held public meetings to develop a preliminary set of options. He said they hope to hold a public meeting soon to present the proposed options and gain feedback. After that they will prepare a final plan and pursue funding sources and eventually prepare it for construction.

“With a project like this there are many considerations that have to be taken into account,” he said. “For example, we can’t widen the street, so there will have to be choices in certain sections between a bike lane and on-street parking.”

The work of the TDI was an important resource in the process, Hoss said. It provided a backdrop of a larger vision for the corridor based on all the surveys and input.

“The work to determine what the public wants Tyler Street to look like and the type of environment there has been very useful in determining how the streetscape should relate to that, and what the priorities should be,” he said.

Sedzro, whose position ends with the TDI contract, emphasized that the district will continue to be eligible for funding and other support for specifi c projects from MassDevelopment after the transition.

She summarized the current status of Tyler Street and Morningside as being ready to build on the initial progress that has been made and increase the pace of revitalization and neighborhood improvement over time.

“While it is still in the early stages, I’d say the work of the TDI and its partners have been very successful,” she said. “It has help to concentrate resources and focus, and has oriented the area towards positive change. The bones are there, and I’m confi dent the public and private sectors and the overall community will continue to move forward.”