City struggles to revive downtown

By David Maloof, Globe Correspondent, 10/27/2001

WESTFIELD - Both small and large, this city's population is modest by city standards but its land area is the second largest among Massachusetts' cities.

Incorporated: 1669
Population: 40,000
Area: 47 square miles
Distance from Boston: 98 miles
Tax rate: $16.29 per $1,000 (residential); $27.88 (business)
Government: Mayor, city council
Median house price: $134,450 (January to September 2001)
Public schools: Eight elementary, two middle, one high school, one vocational technical high school
Hospital: Noble Hospital, Western Massachusetts Hospital
Transportation: Bus service to Holyoke, West Springfield, Springfield; paratransit for elderly and disabled
That combination is one reason that Westfield has grown steadily, doubling its population since the 1950s and quadrupling it since 1900. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

"Westfield is large," said James Boardman, director of community development and planning. "That is our blessing and our curse. There are growth opportunities, and we're trying to make sure that they happen for us, and not to us."

In a sense, the advent of the automobile has led to frequent challenges, and to changes. According to Robert T. Brown, a retired Westfield State College history professor who created a local historical museum at the college, Westfield companies once manufactured 95 percent of all the world's horse whips, employing about 3,000 people. The advent of the automobile made more quaint the city's designation as The Whip City, as a welcoming sign on Route 202 announces.

Columbia Bicycles, Stanley Home Products, and several paper mills all had headquarters here.

Those industries have given way to several distribution centers, which take advantage of the easy east-west access on the Massachusetts Turnpike and north-south route of Interstate 91. Boardman said the city is looking to add more industrial parks, seeking sites that take advantage of the city's infrastructure without infringing on existing residential neighborhoods.

With changes have come a new identity, he said. Back in the 1950s, when he was born, "We were definitely more of a blue-collar community. Now it's more guys with ties."

Because Westfield is divided by two rivers, noted Brown, "You can't get anywhere without crossing bridges."

But with one bridge closed and three others under threat of closure by the state due to safety concerns, traffic becomes even more of a concern than it already is with the rush hour backups between the turnpike interchange and downtown.

The downtown is large in size, but small in activity. On one recent weekday around noon, sidewalks were virtually empty, and the free, on-street parking was plentiful.

"It's not healthy," acknowledged Boardman. "It's a classic suburban small downtown that was built on a retail foundation. There's no foot traffic. We need to get people living in the downtown and working in the downtown."

Boardman said that the downtown crumbled, beginning in the mid-1960s, when a shopping center opened on Route 20. Others followed; the downtown hasn't recovered.

A decade earlier, the Westfield State College campus moved from downtown to a location three miles away. With that came something of a psychological separation.

"About a year after I came here" in the mid-1960s, recalled retired professor Brown, "I went into a local business to buy some furniture. When I mentioned to the owner that I taught at the college, he said: `Is that still there?' "

Since then, the city's new identity as a bedroom community has become one obstacle in rebuilding the downtown.

Residents commute to nearby Springfield, Hartford, and even eastern Massachusetts. The turnpike and Route 91, as well as numerous smaller roads leading to desired destinations, makes it easy to both get to work and ignore the downtown.

"Once you drive out from downtown, the feel is first suburban, then rural - and soon residential again: Essentially any roads you take, you pop up onto a development among the trees very fast," Brown said.

Across from the college, the 275-acre Stanley Park offers recreational space, gardens, workshops and concerts.

With a low end of $225,000, according to Carolyn Coughlen, cofounder of Park Square Realty, the prices of new homes - most of them built on half-acre lots - are modest, compared to some parts of the state. But for Westfield, they signal a big change.

As lifelong resident Boardman puts it, "When I was growing up [in the 1950s and 1960s] there was no such thing as a $100,000 home in Westfield. Now there isn't, again."

He said an average of 100 new one-family homes have been built per year since the 1950s.

One recent effect of the population growth has been in the school system. "We've had about one new school every year during the 1990s," Boardman said. They include a new middle school two years ago.

For home buyers seeking an existing starter home, typical would be a three-bedroom ranch with a one-car garage, costing around $135,000, according to Coughlen, who notes the scarcity of condominiums and luxury apartments.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/27/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
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