ROSLINDALE >> I am one of the perennial visitors to the Berkshires, drawn to the beauty of your hills, farms, cultural scene and historic town centers. Although I live six miles outside of downtown Boston, my family helped to settle Ashfield and Buckland in Franklin County during colonial times, and I care about what makes Western Massachusetts such a special part of our state.
On a trip out your way last weekend, I came away encouraged by one new development in the area and discouraged by another. Each one represents a different path to your region's future. Which of the two paths you follow is up to you, the people who call the Berkshires home.
First, the encouraging news. For a couple of decades, I viewed downtown Pittsfield as a gem in the rough, an under-appreciated collection of early 20th century buildings, streets and sidewalks waiting for risk takers and entrepreneurs to dust off the vacant storefronts and infuse them with life. It was only a matter of time before investment started helping downtown Pittsfield to realize its full potential as the economic and cultural magnet for the region, not unlike downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, or Burlington, Vermont, or Kingston, Ontario — all of which have achieved successful downtown transformations over recent decades.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the buzz of activity on North Street has achieved critical mass, thanks to years of effort in revitalized cultural resources, daytime businesses and night life. The emerging tenant mix and market momentum is obvious for outsiders to see. Great Barrington no longer has a monopoly as the downtown destination of choice in the region.
But here's the bad news: driving south from Pittsfield on Route 7, a new four-story Marriott Courtyard hotel obliterates views of your gorgeous hillsides, looming over a sprawling junk scape of asphalt parking lots and strip malls that can't be traversed on foot. Pittsfield is rising while Lenox is sinking low, sacrificing what makes your region distinct from everywhere else — and becoming like anywhere else in the process.
Why should people go out of their way to visit or resettle in a place that looks just like the suburban sprawl they have back home?
To grow and prosper, towns along Route 7 must find room for the new businesses that will bring jobs for local residents and tax revenues for local governments. The issue isn't whether development and traffic should come, but where, and on what terms. To preserve what's best about the Berkshires, the smart approach is to steer future investment into your existing town centers that already hold generations worth of public infrastructure that is costly to duplicate in greenfields.
Think of what that new, four-story hotel would add to downtown Pittsfield, where visitors now happily pay more than $300 a night for a room in the hip, boutique Hotel on North. Think of what would be saved in terms of the scenery and traffic congestion on Route 7. People walk more in compact downtowns, which means fewer vehicle trips on your clogged roads and more pedestrian traffic for the small businesses that depend on it. And for everyone concerned about climate change, the greenest buildings to develop are the vacant ones already standing, waiting to be recycled.
Core city is critical
Unfortunately, what makes this kind of future harder to achieve in Massachusetts is our lack of county governments that can see and do what is best for a region as a whole — and spread the revenue benefits evenly, or where they are needed most. Instead, we leave each town to fend for itself, a legacy of our colonial Congregational system of governance. This doesn't work best at a regional level, as the sprawl on Route 7 shows.
Why should towns outside of Pittsfield care about what happens in downtown Pittsfield? The core of a region's largest city sets the tone for large employers when they consider the best places to locate. A thriving core attracts employers and new jobs to a region. A struggling core with an image of decay and risk repels them, making them look elsewhere.
Communities have choices: settle for the development you get, or aim higher and shape the development you want. What the Berkshires will become a generation from now depends on the decisions you as a region make today.
Carter Wilkie is co-author of "Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl," and a former board president of Roslindale Village Main Street, the first urban main street revitalization program to join the National Trust for Historic Preservation's network of main street programs in 1985.