Between the Lines: Driving the Future

Rolling by the State Police barracks in Northampton, I ride north on Rtes. 5 & 10. For a moment, I consider my options: stay on 5 & 10, or take the next right into Hatfield, down Elm Street to the left-hand bend where it becomes Main Street, through the center of town, where it becomes River Road, across Rte. 116 in the shadow of Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield, then all the way up that leg of River Road, past Guilford Rail (actually Pan Am Railways, Inc., since 2006), and down a long hill to the intersection where it dumps back onto 5 & 10.

Today, I bang the right into Hatfield, as I almost always do.

The ride up 5 & 10 is certainly manageable—in some ways easier than taking the River Road route. For one thing, it’s flatter. And it’s definitely more direct. But why risk it? Why ruin a perfect day on my bicycle with a flat tire—the shoulder of 5 & 10 is invariably littered with little shards of broken glass and unexpected bits of metal—or an unpleasant interaction with a motorist on his bleeping cell phone? No, River Road is definitely the way to go.

In a car, my thinking is a little different. When I’m driving, I prefer to take 5 & 10. In addition to the many pretty stretches from the State Police barracks to Greenfield and beyond (it’s actually quite lovely all the way to Vermont), there’s also lots to see and do along the way. There are the obvious “destinations”—Yankee Candle, the Magic Wing Butterfly Conservatory, Old Deerfield, Richardson’s Candy Kitchen, to name a few—as well as several interesting shops and restaurants, from longtime businesses like Tom’s Hot Dog stand in Whately to newer developments like Sonam Lama’s Tibetan Plaza in Deerfield.

Over the years, this section of 5 & 10 has, to my eyes, seen slow but steady growth, with an quiet advance in prosperity. Each year, I see new businesses popping up along this leg of 5 & 10—places like the new Smithsonian Café and Chowder House in West Hatfield and Muffin’s General Market in Whately. But so far, it hasn’t jumped the shark. So far, even with the successful efforts of big retailers like R.K. Miles in Hatfield and even bigger retailers like Yankee Candle in South Deerfield to bring in a steady stream of customers—Yankee Candle alone attracts nearly 3 million visitors each year to its flagship store—this part of 5 & 10 hasn’t gone the way of its southern sections, hasn’t seen itself hemmed in by miles and miles of unbroken development, hasn’t lost its rural charm or scenic beauty.

Not quite a great road to walk or bike, but good enough. Not quite a retail Mecca that glitters and glows in dancing neon light, not quite rural or industrial or residential, this section of 5 & 10 seems to hover somewhere between what it once was and what it may someday become. It’s a roadway in suspended animation. Thankfully, it hasn’t become like Rte. 9 in Hadley or Riverdale Road in West Springfield, like Rte. 20 in Westfield or Boston Road in Springfield. It’s still more like Northampton Street (Rte. 5) in Holyoke than it is like King Street (Rtes. 5 & 10) in Northampton.

The other day, I sought expert opinion to see if the future of the northern section of 5 & 10 might be foreseeable—whether its fate in the age of clustered development and “smart growth” is already sealed. I called Timothy Brennan, the longtime head of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. After reminding me that his organization is mainly involved with 5 & 10 to the Hatfield/Whately line—planners with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments take it from there to the Vermont border—Brennan said that PVPC is “routinely collaborative” with FRCOG, as well all the cities and towns through which, in this case, 5 & 10 passes.

To understand 5 & 10 today, Brennan told me, it’s important to understand its history. Before the opening of Interstate 91 in the 1970s, he said, “5 & 10 was the principal artery through the spine of the Pioneer Valley.” It was called the College Highway, connecting most of the colleges for which the region is well known. After I-91 opened, 5 & 10 was “drained of a lot of traffic,” Brennan said. In the intervening years, it has played “not a lesser role, but a different role” economically and with regard to transportation.

As attractive as the northern stretch may be, Breenan said, it is still a commercial corridor that attracts what planners call “strip development, which is not the planner’s favorite type.” Roadways “fenced in” by dense commercial development are usually “not very attractive,” Brennan said. They’re designed to allow lots of businesses to “show their sign, their doorway, their parking lot.”

In addition to potentially killing the visual appeal of a roadway, that kind of development affects the flow of traffic. Brennan used the analogy of a garden hose: “If you start pricking holes in it, you begin to reduce its capacity to move volumes of water through it.”

And with vehicles constantly entering and exiting parking lots, safety issues arise, leading to more traffic lights, to barriers that divide the roadway and prevent motorists from making left-hand turns across oncoming traffic.

I asked Brennan why my favorite stretch of 5 & 10 hadn’t yet gone the way of Riverdale Road in West Springfield or Rte. 9 in Hadley, and whether it is inevitable that it eventually will become congested, slow-moving, unbikeable, unwalkable and ugly as sin.

“The custody for this lies in the individual cities and towns,” he said. Local zoning law, shaped through democratic process, determines much of what happens and will happen along 5 & 10. Planning agencies like his offer advice and resources, may even have some influence on the process. But “at the end of the day, we have to respect that [municipalities and, ultimately, voters] are in charge.”

Brennan reminded me that in this state, municipalities “live and die on property taxes,” and that under the constraints of Proposition 2 1/2, most cities and towns are desperate to increase the tax base, often by encouraging commercial development. The best planning balances the need for development with other needs, like efficient traffic flow and, perhaps, the preservation of scenic beauty or rural character. But in a democracy, the best plan doesn’t always prevail.

Brennan said he’s become more optimistic about the future in recent years, seeing “attitudinal changes that carry into Town Meeting.” Younger people are less “addicted to rubber-tired vehicles,” more apt to walk or take a train than to drive. Expansion of rail service in the Valley, he said, “will be a game changer,” creating “hot spots for development” in areas proximate to rail stations while allowing other areas to remain undeveloped.

When I get off the phone with Brennan, I hop on my bike, my head swimming. I don’t know if I’ve come away with any greater sense of what will happen to my favorite stretch over the next decade or two. While I feel thankful that the voters and municipal leaders in the towns it passes through have done a good job so far, I feel overwhelmed by a kind of helplessness at the same time.

As I pedal along, the chorus of an old Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “All I Can Do Is Write About It,” comes to mind:

“Lord, I can’t make any changes/All I can do is write ‘em in a song./ But I can see the concrete slowly creepin.’/Lord take me and mine before that comes.”•

Author: Tom Vannah

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