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The Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program grant would fund a feasibility study of how the downtown and Mass MoCA campus could better connect to encourage visitors to explore North Adams.

Mass MoCA, North Adams Seek Study on Downtown Connections

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Getting people from Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to the downtown has been a goal since the museum opened more than two decades ago. 
 
But despite bringing in millions of dollars every year, the massive museum's ability to revive Main Street has been tepid at best. 
 
Now the city and museum are "thinking big" on a federal grant to see if they can make a connection that's frustrated past arts and community leaders for years. 
 
"I think you all are aware that it's not enough to just put up a sign that says downtown's that way in the hopes that a global audience will find their way there," said Jenny Wright, the museum's director of strategic communications and advancement. "There are actual physical and psychological barriers that put Mass MoCA on one side and downtown on the other side of the highway. We're bifurcated by infrastructure."
 
Wright told the Mass MoCA Commission on Monday that she thought the small rural city was a perfect candidate for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act's Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program. The program is providing a $1 billion over the next five years for planning, construction and technical grants for communities affected by past infrastructure projects. 
 
U.S. Transportation Secretary Peter Buttigieg said it is the first-ever dedicated federal program created to "repair the harm caused by some of the infrastructure choices of the past and instead replace them or improve them for projects that bring people together." 
 
"We have a vested interest in the design of the future of North Adams as we're a critical part of its ecology," Wright said. "That said, I'm sure you're also all aware of the unprecedented amount of federal money that's become available as the result of last year's passage of the infrastructure law."
 
Visitors trying to get to downtown from the former Spraque Electric campus have to navigate a sea of parking lots, a street that's four lanes as it approaches the city center, numerous lights and crosswalks and a massive overpass. 
 
That whole area was once densely packed with homes and businesses until it was leveled in the mid-1960s by the Central Artery Project that straightened out and widened Route 2 through the city and included the construction of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. 
 
Wright, who is putting together the package for the grant due by Oct. 13, said the North Adams Vision 2030 plan is "a visionary document in its ambition."
 
"Infrastructure in that document is a primary area of focus, and it presents North Adams as a city that has been literally scarred by infrastructure," she said. "Things like the flood chutes are mentioned, to the overpass, these themes come up again and again as barriers to access that prevent the economic success of the downtown. ...
 
"What we really need is a seamless connection between the Mass MoCA campus and the downtown."
 
The Vision 2030 Plan, developed early last decade, points out the "poor street and sidewalk connectivity" and areas "difficult for non-natives to navigate," as well as years of deffered maintenance on critical infrastructure. 
 
"This is really a moment to take the overarching themes from that vision plan and look at ways to study the impact of some of those proposals, this being one of them," Wright said. 
 
Mayor Jennifer Macksey said in talking about the application, there was a feeling it should focus on economic development and connections. She thought it an excellent opportunity.
 
"I think this is an endeavor that really shows MoCA and the city working together ... We're partners and they are active participants in the community," she said. 
 
If approved, the initial grant would fund a pre-planning feasibility study of traffic patterns and environmental impacts. It would consider multimodal transportation, development, emergency access, potential for jobs and traffic.
 
Commissioner Eric Kerns suggested looking for a transcript or minutes of a Northern Berkshire Community Council seminar a few years ago that examined the impact of urban renewal and "the kind of devastation wrought by that destruction is in the psyche of North Adams."
 
"There were some really interesting thoughts that some members of the community who had witnessed that firsthand had to share on that and those might be some good stories to tell as part of this," he said. 
 
Wright also said, in response to a query from Kerns, that she was in touch with U.S. Rep. Richie Neal's office. 
 
Judith Grinnell, found of the Hoosic River Revival, said she wasn't sure what her part would be in application, but felt that the work the nonprofit and the city have done and will be doing  should be considered. The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to begin a study of the flood chutes that cut through the city. 
 
"I believe it's very important that we have a voice and how that will manifest itself, I don't know," she said. "I look forward to talking more once you have more, more than just a foot in the door."
 
The commission voted to include a letter of endorsement in the application. 
 
"This is really a moment to think big about these kinds of things. And it really needs to go on beyond Mass Moca sort of approaching the city for approval of a sculpture or an installation," said Wright. "We're doing a lot as individual contributors, but we really need to be on the same page about what the city needs and how we can all pull together in the same direction to get us where we need to be."
 
In other business: 
 
The commission approved a two-year lease, with an option for a two-year renewal, with the Council on the Uncertain Human Future and founding convener Sarah Buie for 640-square-foot office space on the second floor of Building 13.
 
"They were launched in 2014 and they're a collective listening, reflective, knowledge-sharing group with many international partners and networks across different organizations, both academic and nonprofit with a focus on climate issues and other environmental crises," said MoCA Director Kristy Edmunds.

Tags: federal grants,   mass moca,   

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