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'Better Block' Program Eyed To Bring Morningside's Vision To Life

June 9, 2017 :, by Andy McKeever

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Seeing is believing. 
For the last year, MassDevelopment has been in a planning process for the redevelopment of Tyler Street. But, a plan written on paper doesn't always make the vision real to many people.
But those visions and dreams enunciated by the Morningside community are set to become a reality if only for a day this summer.
MassDevelopment has brought in Team Better Block, a group that will head a community effort to bring all of those ideas to life on one section of Tyler Street to show off exactly what can be. The improvements will be temporary and constructed by volunteers from the area. The hope is that the special event will generate even more momentum toward a complete revitalization of the street. 
"We start by building small and scaling up. And when we do, everything changes. The important thing is that we start," Jonathan Braddick, a project manager with the consulting firm said on Thursday when the effort kicked off.
Braddick shared the story of his own neighborhood in Dallas to explain how the process is intended to work. One day it struck him that he didn't know his neighbors very well. He made an effort to meet them and got talking about the area they lived in and a particularly slummy looking corner was talked about. So they spent a day cleaning it up. That led to a wall being repainted. They added flowers and color to various places to spruce it up.
"I wanted to change something. I wanted to make an impact. But like a lot of us, it is hard to get started. Sometimes we need a little nudge or permission to do something,"
There were small areas throughout, which were built because of certain traffic patterns which no longer existed, that were vacant. He wondered why there weren't more benches and other amenities. He found out, there were ordinances and laws against it.
That's when the idea of taking "one street for one day, and we made it into our ideal street" took hold. They built bike racks, brought in flowers, painted walls, and built outdoor seating places for restaurants. 
"The city took notice. A year later they changed a lot of those ordinances," Braddick said.
Now working with Team Better Block, he focuses on is on "reclaiming cities for the public good one block at a time." The organization has run similar programs in Haverhill and in Bethel, Vt. And now, they will be doing it in Pittsfield.
Braddick and Team Better Block principal Andrew Howard started that process on Thursday. They gathered at the Berkshire Dream Center to lead a walk through the neighborhood to find out exactly what the community wants. They'll take that back and reconvene with a plan in July. 
"In August for one week, we are all going to build it," Braddick said.
From Aug. 23 until Aug. 25 the community will be bringing out its hammers and nails and constructing temporary outdoor seating areas for restaurants, bringing in flowers and building flower boxes, painting crosswalks, and a business owner doesn't give permission to paint the exterior, plywood will be used to the same effect. The volunteers will replicate what they envision for the future.
On Aug. 26, there will be a block party in the temporary space. And then it will all be taken down. But, if only for that day, the vision of what Tyler Street could become will be shown off and the hope is that momentum and community support will drive permanent changes.
The company says it has had results. In the blocks it has undertaken, 63 percent of the changes have ultimately become permanent. Braddick said stores in those areas have reported an 80 percent increase in sales. 
What will that look like in Pittsfield? More than two dozen interested volunteers shouted out some ideas. The former Hess Station was envisioned to be torn down and a pocket park created in its space. The former firehouse could be a brewery or restaurant with outdoor seating or an art gallery. There could be community gardens, crosswalks can be painted to become more welcoming, there could be cafes, more benches, places for food trucks to pull up, murals on the walls, and bicycle friendly routes. 
"This is truly an exciting project that will literally transform one of our city blocks with the help of residents. The results will demonstrate the amazing possibilities of what happens when we unite as a community to move our city forward," said Mayor Linda Tyer.
Howard took note of how loud Tyler Street is and took decibel readings through an app on his phone. Right now with empty storefronts, no visual cues to slow down and a lack of cars parked on the road, traffic speed and volume increases. He said to make the street more pedestrian friendly would be to drop the speed by 5 to 10 mph. The various aesthetics improvements and outdoor seating arrangements will help to solve that. 
Part of Tyler Street is in City Councilor Kevin Morandi's ward. He is particularly interested in the ways to slow traffic down to help the local businesses.
"We need to slow them down. We need to get them notice what is here and what the Morningside area and Tyler Street offers. I think this is a great start to do that," Morandi said. 
After hearing the ideas of sidewalk cafes, and more color being added to crosswalks and buildings, Morandi envisioned how the program can eventually lead to permanent developments.


"I think this is an awesome program. I am really excited through MassDevelopment and some of our partners that this is being brought to Pittsfield," Morandi said. 
Howard said he'll be touring the former Tyler Street firehouse on Friday to see what is possible there for the one-day event. And the city will have to permit the temporary improvements the company makes. He's already been working with nearby property owners to get access during the day.
The program is just the latest effort in the Transformative Development Initiative. Sika Sedzro has been appointed as a fellow to head a redevelopment project in the Morningside neighborhood. She's been working on plans to redevelop specific properties on the street while at the same time growing community involvement in taking ownership of the area. 
The Tyler Street Business Group has been supportive of the effort and was one of the multiple interested groups attending the kick-off event.
"The Tyler Street Business Group is excited about the economic development potential creating a Better Block brings.  This event will stimulate thought in the private investment area, which has many possibilities," said President Diane Marcella had previously said in a statement announcing Thursday's event.
"It will allow for wide community engagement, a chance for neighbors and people that want to share their abilities, to come out and create a vision for Tyler, together.  We want to thank Mass Development for making this possible."