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State, City And Business Leaders Planning Neighborhood Development In Pittsfield

City, state and business leaders met in Pittsfield Wednesday to kickoff an initiative to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the former General Electric plant.The main avenue through the Morningside neighborhood is Tyler St., a commercial and residential mix that is bookended by Berkshire Medical Center on the city’s downtown thoroughfare North St. and the William Stanley Business Park, which used to house GE.

“When I was a kiddo, just across the street there were 13,000 employees at General Electric,” Bianchi said. “At 4:30 in the afternoon when the whistle blew hundreds of would run down the hills, because many of our families didn’t have cars, and meet our dads as they came up. This was an incredibly vibrant area.”

Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi grew up in Morningside and says anything a working-class family needed was within walking distance.

“Needless to say when GE closed this changed an awful lot, but there are still hundreds of people that live in the Morningside area who grew up here who still believe in it,” he said. “And I believe in it too.”

City Planner CJ Hoss says the hope is to return the area to a live-work-play environment through residential, economic and infrastructure improvements. The meeting of roughly 50 people brought together the Tyler Street Business Group, city planners, MassDevelopment and project managers from Elan, a design and architecture firm from Saratoga Springs. It’s an initial step to create an action plan for the area that MassDevelopment selected for a transformative development initiative. Ann Haynes says the quasi-public agency provides technical, financial and planning assistance for local businesses.

“The redevelopment of North and South streets, a sustained effort in a strategic place, said ‘Pittsfield knows how to do this, let’s know look at other neighborhoods,’” Haynes explained. “They proposed Tyler St. because they really wanted to build on the engagement that had been happening with the neighborhood business group as well as the residential group that had already been operating in that area. We also felt that because of that strong partnership, public, private and non-profit coming together, even though it was a residential district which is unique among the 10 districts selected, we felt that it was a great place to start the program.”

Elan led a brainstorming session where people highlighted opportunities, challenges and current successes on Tyler St. Development ideas focused on historic preservation like the shuttered St. Mary’s church, a community center, parks and more affordable housing. State Senator Ben Downing represents the city.

“It’s close to the region’s biggest employer in Berkshire Health Systems,” Downing pointed out. “It’s walking distance to downtown Pittsfield. You’ve got a preserved and intact neighborhood feel. You’re right near one of the priority economic development sites that the state is putting nearly $10 million into in the form of the Berkshire Innovation Center.”

Ground is expected to be broken in the fall for the two-floor 20,000-square foot life sciences innovation center in the vicinity of the former GE plant. About 10 companies including General Dynamics and SABIC along with a number of schools such as UMass Lowell, Williams and Albany’s SUNY Polytechnic have signed on to use the lab, development and classroom spaces. It’s expected to open in 2017. A bridge connecting the Tyler Street area to another main city route in East St. is set to open in spring 2016.

Crime, poverty and a paralyzing nostalgia for the old days are among the neighborhood’s challenges expressed by those at the meeting. An 18-year-old was killed in a shooting last month across the street from the site of an August 2014 gang-related shooting involving two teenagers. Senator Downing says crime could deter investment in the area if the city and others were not taking action beyond law enforcement. 

“If we can make this a neighborhood that is vibrant and welcoming to residents and businesses I think we can push out the negative influences that we’ve seen from both crime and poverty,” said Downing.

Elan plans to hold public and private meetings over the next several months, expecting to release a district plan in March.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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