PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Hundreds gathered on Tyler Street Saturday afternoon for a day filled with music, art, food, mini-golf, shopping, and conversations.
What if that could happen every day?
It wasn't a block party. It wasn't street fair or parade. It was a demonstration that if all of the pieces come together, Tyler Street can be the dynamic neighborhood that the community wants.
The Better Block program put the pieces of what makes a neighborhood great together, just for one day, to bring what many stakeholders have talked about conceptually to life.
"It is about prioritizing the people first, people walking, people biking, and providing a space for everybody. Motor traffic is continuously traveling, there are no traffic jams. Police get through, ambulances get through, and if you look around, this block of Tyler Street has probably not seen this many people in one corridor on such a beautiful day in quite some time," Jonathan Braddick, from Team Better Block, said.
In June, Better Block held a community meeting with more than two dozen interested parties. That was the start of brainstorming and planning for what the ideal neighborhood would look and feel like. The group identified the section between Cortland and Smith as the area to try it out.
And then, dozens of volunteers made it happen - from the planning to communication to physically building such things as a beer garden, children's games, a streetside cafe, crosswalks, and parklets.
"The Better Block process is not a one size fits all method of placemaking and traffic calming. Our model always fits into each, unique, individual community. I think with Pittsfield, especially Tyler Street and Morningside, what stands out to me is there are so many interested social service organizations already here that probably know each other a little bit, some didn't before now, and there is so much already happening. The Better Block team was able to pull those connections together," Braddick said.
One of the pieces focused on was infrastructure. The city has been looking to do a streetscape renovation of Tyler Street. Better Block, which was contracted through MassDevelopment's Transformative Development Initiative, visited the street and took noise measurements, determining that part of the reason people don't spend as much time in the neighborhood is because of traffic whizzing by, and the noise echoing among the buildings.
For Saturday, new traffic calming measures were put in place. An additional crosswalk was added, additional bump-outs created, parklets and a bicycle lane were put in. The road remained open and traffic flowed through, at a slower pace. That dropped the noise levels, allowing pedestrians on the sidewalk to talk comfortably. The organization brought in art and planters to spruce up the street, making it a little more comfortable.
Nicholas Russo is an engineer by trade and was intrigued particularly by the infrastructure piece. He quickly joined the volunteer effort to get a better understanding of how a road's infrastructure impacts the use of the area.
"Pittsfield is a car dependent city and I really want to learn how to calm the traffic, like we are doing here, and do these infrastructure treatments, learn the methods and the tools behind it," Russo said, of his involvement.
A second piece is vacancy. That section features a number of vacant storefronts, including the former Tyler Street Firehouse. The volunteers built a beer garden and performance space at the firehouse. The vacant Hess gas station was turned into a mini-golf course. The storefronts along the south side were spruced up with new paint and filled for the day with pop up vendors. Those out on the street on Saturday could stop into the various shops, art galleries, markets, or cafe.
"I hope to see leases signed on these pop ups, which we already have initiatives going. I'd love to see the fire house sold to a conscience, respectful developer and make it into a local neighborhood service, something for the community," Braddick said.
Sika Sedzro is the area's fellow with the Transformative Development Initiative. She said Saturday's effort help build in-roads with the property owners, as MassDevelopment hopes to assist them in getting the property filled. And, the volunteer's efforts helped improve the spaces.
A new mural was unveiled on the side of the Goodwill building.
"It really helped us sort of focus on something that was doable and able to get us to engage with some of the property owners who hadn't been able to get the market moving on their properties. It has been really valuable in that way," Sedzro said.
To get that spur in the market, the TDI has launched a storefront improvement program. The state and the city have combined to make some $60,000 available to property owners on Tyler Street who are looking to improve their frontage. Owners can apply for renovations to the facade, replace windows and doors, improve exterior lighting, and new signage.
The hope is that a more appealing frontage will attract businesses to lease out the storefronts. Those businesses are required to provide a minimum of 20 percent of the entire cost, but the grant does make some of those improvements owners had considered more affordable.
Ward 2 City Councilor Kevin Morandi, who has the southern half of Tyler Street in his ward, said Saturday's demonstration is a start of efforts to improve one of the city's main corridors.
"We're hoping to see Streetscape, see the street changed. We are hoping to see better lighting. We are hoping to see better-looking buildings. The city has rolled out a facade improvement program and we hope to get four or five storefronts done," Morandi said.
"This is the start right here of what Tyler Street can be."
Adding to the appeal of the neighborhood is a new mural on the wall of the Goodwill building. The city's Office of Cultural Development and Sedzro partnered to commission the painting. Planting Seeds for a Better Tomorrow, by local artist Kathy Garren, was unveiled just before the Better Block events kicked off.
"This mural project is a big part of connecting Goodwill pride to the community. We are so honored to have been selected as a site," said President and CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires Inc. David Twiggs said.
Twiggs said Morningside "is a special place in Pittsfield" and took pride in the "energy and team work" being put toward revitalizing the neighborhood. Twiggs knows the neighborhood from living on Curtis Street.
But arguably the most important thing to come out of Better Block is the community support. Braddick said more than 100 people and organizations put effort into the program. A core group of about two dozen local volunteers put in between five and 10 hours every week throughout the summer to make it happen.
Russo was one of those in the core group. He said everybody involved "put their whole heart and energy into it."
"I'm blown away... I've been amazed to see how much we've been able to rely on people who either I've never met or I just heard about through Facebook but never met in person. To see how they've come through and done their part and gone above beyond, that's what brought everything together," Russo said.
So while the city and MassDevelopment have put forward programs, the Morningside Community has strengthened their ties together in a grassroots way.
"What's been really useful with TDI and the philosophy behind the Transformative Development Initiative is that we recognize that every city is different. We understand that it takes not just the city but a cross-sector - we're talking about civic, private, and public institutions. They have to work together to make the city stronger," Sedzro said.
"This is working at it both from the top down and the bottom up, really trying to get everyone to work together in a focused and coordinated way. I think the importance of a process like this is that we understand part of the reason a city like Pittsfield hasn't been able to reach its full potential is because there are capacity issues and issues with resources and tools. What we are trying to do is fill those gaps and have it be a cross-sector, community-driven process."
Sedzro is in her second year as the TDI fellow. The first year focused on planning and the second is the year some programs begin to roll out. She said Better Block helped coordinate and build energy from stakeholders in the effort to revitalize the area.
"There are a lot of projects that are spinning off from this," Sedzro said of the community coalescing around Better Block.
She said behind those efforts there is a large group all "having the faith that we will get there."
Saturday night, all of the stagings will come down. The fire house will be locked back up. The bicycle lanes and parklets will be removed.
But for one day, Morningside saw it and sometimes seeing is believing. The hope is that belief in what Tyler Street truly can be one day will push those involved to make those temporary changes into permanent ones.
"I've been reading about how these things were going on in big cities around the country. It has been amazing to see it happening here, in my hometown, in my backyard. I'm really happy to have been involved in this process and I'm hoping to see more things like it in different neighborhoods," Russo said.
There will be the day when the doors of the former Tyler Street Fire Station will be opened, the old emergency vehicles in the backdrop, with a live band and a craft brewery serving up drinks. Across the street, Jacob's Pillow will be giving dance lessons. That day will be on Aug. 26. The old fire house is too decrepit for the building inspectors to let people all the way in and attempts by the city to dispose of the property had found no interest. But, what is possible with the historic buil
Seeing is believing. For the last year MassDevelopment has been in a planning process for the redevelopment of Tyler Street. But, words on paper doesn't always tell the story. But those visions and dreams enunciated by the Morningside community are set to become a reality, if only for a day. MassDevelopment has brought in Team Better Block, a group which 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 imp
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