MassDevelopment

How A Springfield Renovation Project Is Revitalizing The City

July 26, 2010 : Banker & Tradesman, by Paul McMorrow


When the federal courts pulled out of their Springfield home in 2008 and decamped for a new courthouse across town, local political and business leaders feared the move would open up a black hole in Springfield's struggling downtown. There was even talk of mothballing the structure.

Instead, MassDevelopment took over the nearly-vacant building and launched a project to reposition it as a first-class office building. In the process, MassDevelopment officials said, they've turned an office construction job into a tool for a neighborhood-wide rebuilding effort.

“From an economic development perspective, it's very important that Springfield remain a vibrant place to work and live,” argued Robert Culver, CEO of MassDevelopment, the state's quasi-public development and finance agency. “We've been working with Springfield since before the receivership. It's had its ups and downs, but it really is a great city with great bones and a substantial base in financial services.”

A Downtown Lynchpin

MassDevelopment purchased the 150,000-square-foot building at 1550 Main Street for $2.5 million last September, and began work on a $9 million renovation. The agency signed leases with the federal General Services Administration to keep 36,000 square feet of federal tenancy in place. Two other significant leases, with the Springfield School Department and Baystate Health, brought the building's occupancy rate above 96 percent.

“We only do this sort of thing when it appears no one else will jump in,” Culver said. “MassDevelopment is not in the business of being an asset manager.”

Springfield, a one-time manufacturing hub, has struggled mightily to find its post-industrial identity. In 2004, a state board seized control of the city's finances ahead of a potential municipal bankruptcy. City officials regained home rule last year.

1550 Main sits in the heart of Springfield's downtown, in the shadow of MassMutual's headquarters tower. It's next door to a distressed shopping mall, and its doors open up on a street that's already struggling to maintain its vibrancy, said Zachary Greene, a vice president at MassDevelopment. In 2006, a national Urban Land Institute panel identified the courthouse's impending vacancy as one of the main challenges facing the city's downtown.

“We don't like empty buildings in the middle of downtown,” said Kateri Walsh, an at-large Springfield city councilor. “This building will bring an influx of new people into the downtown, and that will be a plus for the restaurants and the banks. It's nice to go out at lunch and see other people.”

Walsh said she hoped the influx of businesses and foot traffic from 1550 Main Street would seed the redevelopment of Court Square, a cluster of vacant historic buildings lying four blocks down Main Street.

Larry Spang, project manager for the architecture firm Arrowstreet, said when his firm was brought in to reposition 1550 Main Street, there was concern over whether a tenant base existed that could fill the building quickly.

“It's a key component to the downtown,” Spang said, “and I don't think you could have lured a commercial developer into taking on the risks.”

“It's a lynchpin for the downtown,” Greene said. “People don't come down here like they used to. Downtown was a real bustling area, with major department stores. We're bringing in 400 new people to activate the street, and it will have a huge impact on the downtown.”

Culver argued MassDevelopment's approach to revitalizing Springfield's commercial core – rebuilding the streetscape block by block – is “the way urban renewal works.”

“It'll be alive,” he added. “Main Street will come alive, and in so doing, Springfield will come alive.”

Making It Work

To make 1550 Main Street work as a competitive office building, MassDevelopment undertook an extensive modernization project. The former courthouse building was completed in 1982, and inside and out, it showed its vintage. Dated carpeting and wood paneling filled the building's private spaces, walls were painted green and accented by pink light fixtures, and bathrooms were dark. On the stark brick plaza that greeted visitors, Jersey barriers outnumbered trees.

“The feds did a good job constructing a solid building, but in designing the renovations, we looked at how the plaza and the building should look so they're inviting to tenants,” Greene said.

That work involved painting hallways, replacing carpeting and ceilings, renovating bathrooms and elevators, and reconfiguring office suites. MassDevelopment improved the efficiency of office floor plates, and converted some former courtrooms into conference rooms and meeting space. Architects activated an interior atrium by opening it up to retail tenants and reinforcing the interior space's connections with surrounding streets. Construction crews are currently modernizing the building's street-level façade and replacing the old brick plaza with a new public space that will better knit the building into the surrounding streetscape.

“In the ‘80's, plazas and atriums were hot, but they pull people off the streets,” said George Tremblay, a principal at Arrowstreet. “If we couldn't put a building up to the street, we could at least create a place where people want to be.”

“We're providing a revitalized front yard to come and gather and enjoy Main Street on, as opposed to hiding from Main Street,” Culver argued.

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