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Guest Column: Will MGM Respect Its Host?

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

But “will you respect me in the morning?”

In its plans for a casino in Springfield’s historic South End, MGM Resorts seems to have little regard for the site’s urban context, despite its initial, effusive praise for our city’s history and character. Who cares about the “morning,” several years from now?

Early on, MGM made just a couple of good concessions to the city’s wishes (preserving the Spiritualist Church on Bliss Street and the old Mass. Mutual headquarters, for instance) and proposed saving a couple of other facades only. Beyond that, MGM has resorted to a good old-fashioned “urban renewal” site-clearance scheme—the old “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” claim didn’t work then and won’t work now. Other than a few more tiny bits, it has not agreed to any of the Springfield Historical Commission’s additional substantial, basic requests in over a year.

The casino’s multi-block site is rich in Springfield history. Large buildings, and even parts of streets in the site’s interior, were “given away” from Day One. That leaves abundant space for gambling floors, the huge parking garage, and a deep “super-cellar” under it all for service and deliveries. But there are many wonderful, historic and distinctive buildings, mostly at the site’s perimeter, that can be incorporated into the MGM development.

The Springfield Preservation Trust has prepared data sheets on seven buildings with minimal requests of MGM for saving them, or portions of them. (These can be found at: www.springfieldpreservationtrust.com/casino.) Referring to those, I’d suggest:

• Union House Hotel on Main Street: Keep it all. MGM proposes demolishing it all, then building the same.

• The former Turnverein German-American social club, State Building and old United Electric building, all on State Street: Keep these buildings, tying them together along with the new hotel tower. Preserve the amazing stained glass atrium in the United Electric building.

• YWCA building on Howard Street: This, and other old areas of existing buildings, can remain as boutique hotels, business suites, etc.

• State Armory on Howard Street; Keep it all, and restore the drill hall’s profile for entertainment, etc.

• Edisonia Theater on Main Street: Keep at least the façade. And why not add on top?

• Old buildings’ higher floors are not bad; people like higher levels, to “overlook” activity below. They are great places for cafes and bars. Handicap-access level changes have been solved for decades. And, deep foundations next to shallow ones have been done for centuries.

 If MGM appreciates Springfield, it should show us it does. Residents here might return the favor. People are invited to write to MGM’s Springfield office and the Gaming Commission in Boston to defend our local history. We really do not want just another “mega-structure,” hulking casino sitting here. MGM says it’s new to working in an urban context. Fine—if its own consultants can’t figure out how to approach that, there are certainly lots of architects and engineers around here who can guide MGM to a worthy solution.

Architect William J. Devlin is a former member of the Springfield Historical Commission and is active in the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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