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Tyer To Planners: A Lot Went Into Redefining Pittsfield

JD Allen
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer speaks Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors’ annual conference .";

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer was the keynote speaker at the Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors’ annual conference today – where municipal leaders discussed how to create change in a difficult political climate. 

Conference-goers discussed how to plan complete streets, the recreational marijuana industry, green communities, housing rehabilitation and much more.

Mayor Linda Tyer says she felt at home, because she was among officials and…

“Mayors like me who tinker in planning,” Tyer says. “And here especially in Massachusetts, you have to work especially hard because of our long established New England communities.”

Tyer says it has taken a lot of time and work to redefine Pittsfield.

The city has lost a big chunk of its population – about 20,000 residents – since General Electric – the city’s largest employer – left town.

“Our zoning map was cobbled together over many, many decades,” Tyer says. “And in our city we have industrial zones that abut neighborhoods.”

And that’s the crux of the conference, according to Kristina Johnson, Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors Vice President.

“There are 351 cities and towns – I call them special snowflakes. And they have different priorities, different issues. And sometimes the western half of the state gets missed in a lot of the conversations. Planning is a broad umbrella and you touch a lot of issues such as the environment, transportation, community development, housing; and these are the things we deal with at the municipal level.”

Tyer says Pittsfield struggles to make its infrastructure strong and appealing enough to attract residents – half of the city’s housing stock is outdated, built before 1930.

“That legacy of GE came to a hard stop,” Tyer says. “People in this community did not know what happened.”

Tyer describes a turning point for the city: 13 years ago when then-Mayor James Ruberto asked the city council to invest $1 million of the Economic Development Fund into the restoration of the Colonial Theatre.

“It was fraught with debate. It was… you know, we still had people in the community who believed that fund, which was a gift to us by General Electric, should only be used for specific purpose, you know, creating another GE,” Tyer says.

Tyer says the downtown theater has given the city a foothold in the Berkshires.

“To me that was the symbolic moment of when we finally decided we were going to pivot and commit to an art and cultural economy that was already here in the Berkshires,” Tyer says.

Since then the city has transformed itself, Tyer says, redeveloping the city’s downtown — including a fresh focus on Tyler Street. State and federal grants are being used to develop market rate housing, shopping and dining.

Pittsfield’s plan going forward, Tyer says, is to capitalize on the small-to-mid sized businesses that supply the city with jobs.

“This is a 10-year project,” Tyer says. “But it is really exciting because we’re getting to revisit history, design our future and engage the people who live and work in this neighborhood.”

Tyer suggested planners should play to their community’s strengths and intensify efforts to draw state and federal funding. But Stephanie Vance, Policy Director at the American Planning Association, says that could be difficult in today’s political climate.

“Well, yeah… Washington D.C.,” Vance says.

With the White House proposing to cut many programs involved in    municipal planning – in transportation, economic development, heritage and culture, the environment and more – the future is unclear when it comes to aid at all levels of government.

Johnson, of the state Association, says Massachusetts municipalities rely on those funding sources.

“All planning is local in Massachusetts, that’s not the case in the rest of the country,” Johnson says.

Vance suggests planning officials advocate for what they need from their congressional leaders, and…

“You can’t force them to look at an issue that you are dealing with,” Vance says. “You have to tie your issues to something that legislator cares about and talk to them in that context. You need to push it to the top of their own personal agenda.”

With the federal budget process in the early stages, Vance says planning officials need to get involved now to make changes in their community.

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