A study released today envisions transforming an area of downtown Springfield, Massachusetts that was rocked by a natural gas explosion two years ago into an incubator for the innovation economy.
The study suggests a combination of improvements to public parks, sidewalks and streets in concert with investments by private building owners would be needed to transform the roughly three- block area impacted by the November 2012 explosion into an area attractive to entrepreneurs.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno endorsed the creation of a so-called innovation district that would have housing, work space for start-up companies, and businesses that cater to an active urban lifestyle.
" Some of the ideas here are for discussion. But, if you are going to move the city forward you need to be bold and innovative and that is what we are looking to do with this plan," said Sarno.
The area affected by the natural gas explosion is home to bars, nightclubs, restaurants and a variety of small businesses. There are also warehouses and walkup apartments. It is known as the Entertainment District, but Sarno said he wants to rebrand it “the dining district” and drive out the nightclubs and bars that have given the city problems from time to time.
Innovation districts are all the rage. A once desolate area of the South Boston waterfront has been transformed over the last decade into an innovation district. New Haven, Providence, and cities across the country are all trying to create innovation districts.
The Springfield study was done by Utile, Inc., a Boston-based planning and design firm. It was paid for by a portion of the $850,000 settlement the city received from Columbia Gas. DevelopSpringfield, a business development partnership, facilitated the study.
Jay Minkarah, the CEO of DevelopSpringfield called the report exciting and said he believes several of the proposals for improvements to public spaces can be implemented.
"Those set the stage for the private sector to come in and make investments."
The study suggested creating outdoor cafes with WiFi, widening sidewalks, converting one-way streets to two-way traffic and putting in bicycle lanes.
Evan Plotkin, who heads a downtown property management company, said creating an innovation district will depend ultimately on what private property owners decide to do with the damaged buildings.
"But, you need to prime the pump. Something has to happen first before something else happens and that is where city government comes in."
City economic development officials plan to hold a meeting next month with property owners in the affected area to discuss the redevelopment possibilities.