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Concern voiced that urban renewal plan changes could lead to gentrification

The aftermath of a natural gas explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2012. The so-called "blast zone" would be included in an amended urban renewal plan the city is weighing.
Springfield Fire Department
The aftermath of a natural gas explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2012. The so-called "blast zone" would be included in an amended urban renewal plan the city is weighing.

Springfield City Council holds public hearing on amendment to Court Square Urban Renewal Plan.

The City Council in Springfield, Massachusetts held a public hearing Monday on a new urban renewal plan.

Several owners of downtown property testified that they feared the Springfield Redevelopment Authority could use its powers of eminent domain to clear out their small businesses for some mega-project if the proposed amendment to the Court Square Urban Renewal Plan is adopted.

The city wants to incorporate more of the downtown into the 50-year-old urban renewal plan. Additions would include the so-called “blast zone” – an area of several blocks that was rocked by a natural gas explosion in 2012 – and the neighborhood around the MGM casino, where blight has become worse since the gambling facility opened in 2018.

Sandra Lizak, who owns two automotive shops on Taylor Street in the blast zone, said she worries about what the proposed urban renewal changes could mean for her businesses that have been around for close to 40 years.

“Why can’t these businesses that are operating, functional, and really give back to the community—why can’t we be removed from that boundary?” Lizak asked.

Others said including their properties in the urban renewal area would discourage them from investing in improvements if they thought they would be forced to sell in a few years.

City Councilor Zaida Govan and several of her colleagues said the business owners raised legitimate concerns.

“This is gentrification what you guys are talking about,” Govan said.

The Council did not vote Monday on the proposed changes to the urban renewal plan –that will happen at later meeting.

Officials in the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development along with a consulting firm have been working for three years to amend the Court Square Urban Renewal Plan. In a presentation to the Council at Monday night’s hearing, they said it would promote more residential and retail development downtown.

The plan does not advocate the taking of existing businesses, said Tim Sheehan the city’s chief economic development official. He said the focus would be on vacant lots and the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

“There is a uniformity in terms of the city putting forward the goals and objectives and ultimately what it wants to invest in in terms of public infrastructure to support the private development that would be going into the plan area,” Sheehan said.

Catherine Ratte, a planner with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, who was displaced from her apartment by the 2012 natural gas explosion, served on an advisory committee that had input on updating the downtown urban renewal plan.

“Our citizen advisory committee was also concerned about gentrification and takings and we were very satisfied with the commitment of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority to ongoing engagement with the City Council and city staff to ensure no displacement of current residents,” Ratte said.

Also speaking in support of the plan was Charles Payne, an official with the Carpenters Union Local 108.

“I think this is a very important economic tool for the city to develop (the) downtown area .. its’ been stagnant,” he said.

MGM, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, and housing developers Related Beal and Winn sent correspondence to the City Council in support of the updated urban renewal plan.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.