At last Friday’s Urban Land Institute panel presentation in Springfield, Elizabeth Davison, director of Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs, capped off the formalities in a portion of the final report about implementing plans.
The first item Davison addressed was the need for more effective communication from the city to its residents, as well as a means by which residents can more effectively provide feedback to the city, for instance via the city’s own Web site. Fostering "active participation from the community, allowing comment" is the panel’s hearty recommendation. Part of the task the panel laid before the city entails the creation of an overall communications plan, so that it might, in a targeted way, publicize its many achievements to date, and take in comments and questions on those and ongoing projects. "Make sure things are in the news, and that people know that things are happening," Davison said.
Davison continued by providing a list of "tools and techniques" for accomplishing the projects the ULI recommended, in both the downtown as well as across the neighborhoods.
"When we interviewed some of the neighborhood residents," Davison said, "there was sort of a sense of being under siege: sometimes with crime, sometimes with illegal uses of housing around them."
Davison praised the city’s effort to get some of these illegal problems under control, but took it a few steps further. "We heard about some new strategies, upgraded technology, a more organized system. I think that needs to be communicated to the residents, but I also think that it can be upgraded. There are more things that can be done by engaging the civic and neighborhood associations, and having creative partnerships with other departments, and also being proactive working with neighborhood groups. Let’s have a neighborhood cleanup day. Send out a letter that has a check list of all the things that a homeowner, or a resident, can do. Look around your yard: is there some junk out there? Does the grass need cutting? Maybe the porch could use a little paint? Things like that, if done by many people, can really upgrade a neighborhood."
"We also heard a lot about people buying up houses, renting them out, perhaps not to the best tenants, and also perhaps not maintaining them properly," Davison continued. "We would suggest you look at licensing rental units. It gives you a good tool, gives you an inventory of owners, it gives you something you can yank away if they’re abusing that right."
Davison went on to put a spotlight on the Planning and Economic Development Department, which is currently orchestrating a long-unchanged zoning revision (PDF) process. "We found that there were processes in place that were perhaps not the most predictable, or the most orderly," Davison offered. "We think that the planning [department] staff and the Planning Board need to play a major role in looking at issues like special permits. We think the idea of site plan review is a good one as well. We also feel that the master planning process must be done throughout the city."
"While you have a few planning staff," Davison continued, "you have some vacancies; I know you’re recruiting; we do feel it’s very important that you fill all those jobs with qualified people. We also feel that neighborhood planning is a gap here." She went on to say that the planning department should engage more with neighborhood groups on an individual basis. "[It] will become clear which neighborhood is right for which strategy, once you take a detailed look," Davison said, indicating that the department would refer to the three categories the panel laid out for strategy earlier in the presentation (conservation, transition, and intervention).
As for where to begin the following Monday morning, Davison told city officials to focus on the old federal building, creating some activity there; generate multiple-department coordination and creative thinking for the former Gemini site to improve the Hollywood area, preparing it for infill housing; revisit 31 Elm Street and consider other options besides a hotel, perhaps mixed-income housing, or office use; and proceed with plans to raze the old York Street jail.
After that, "you need to focus. Pare it down," Davison said. "The Main Street, State Street corridors, and Court Street, are the [mid-term projects] that need to be done. We know there are some plans in place; keep going on those, improve on them, expand on them."
"[The panel] also talked a lot about upper-income or middle-income housing," Davison added. "We think that the Springfield Carriage Company area is particularly important in expansion of those ideas. Lastly, we feel that the civic center parking deckwe know that it’s not in the best conditionwhen something is done with that, we feel like it needs to be enhanced visually, so it looks like part of the fabric of downtown."
Davison turned last to financial issues: "We feel very strongly that the state support to the communities around …Massachusetts needs to be equitable, and right now [it’s] not. You’re not getting your fair share. You need to work on that. That is a priority project."
"We know the city, although in a much better position, is still fragile on a financial basis," Davison continued. "You need to look at some new sources of revenue. A couple that we’ve suggested as options would be rental property licensing fees, that could help support some of your code enforcement and neighborhood programs. The sale of some of your vacant land could raise some funds. As we just mentioned, [there is also a need for] additional state financing."
Davison also conveyed the panel’s recommendation for a focused use of federal funds on projects that will deliver. "We feel that you need to focus those [HOME and CDBG] funds on some catalytic priority projects. We heard about the new infill housing going in many neighborhoods, but given the high construction cost, and low market values, you have to put a huge subsidy in for one house. We feel a better use of the funds would be to get some of the bigger projects that are more catalytic. Use your money for that."