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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: In reimagining downtown, North Adams must dream big while staying clear-eyed

A newly awarded $750,000 federal grant allows North Adams to reimagine its downtown in a more holistic light — something city leaders have been dreaming about for years.

North Adams wins $750,000 to look at how to better connect downtown and Mass MoCA. Removing Route 2 overpass is an option

The grant comes from the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, a U.S. Department of Transportation initiative to assist municipalities with projects that connect neighborhoods by removing or changing big transportation barriers. North Adams seems like the poster child for such a rethink of large infrastructure tangles that complicate downtown cohesion. The Route 2 overpass, a product of 20th-century urban renewal, essentially severs the heart of the city from its own cultural centerpiece, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts. The 100,000-plus people per year who visit Mass MoCA often don’t contribute to foot traffic and economic activity downtown.

That’s a serious obstacle for a post-industrial city looking to attract investment and spur growth, as North Adams community stakeholders have recognized for years. The city’s official Vision 2030 plan, finalized in 2014, also flagged the overpass as an issue to downtown development and suggested removing it and reintegrating Route 2 through downtown — even as the plan’s authors acknowledged what a big, costly and unwieldy process that would entail.

We are glad city leaders saw the benefit of going for this federal grant, as it gives the city a jumpstart on the first step of such a process: to dream and think big. The $750,000 will fund an analysis of downtown car, pedestrian and bicycle traffic and a feasibility study about how to shape those patterns to the city’s benefit. Obviously, one possible course it will look at is removing the overpass, though Mayor Jennifer Macksey stresses this is not simply a removal proposal but an evaluation of options ranging from tearing down and relocating the overpass to beautifying it to considering other possible connectors.

As the city’s Vision Plan authors knew years ago, the option that makes the most sense conceptually is also the priciest in practice: removing the bridge that disrupts downtown’s continuity and rerouting Route 2 in a way that makes sense for foot and auto traffic alike. Still, Mayor Macksey does have the right approach: The conductors and interpreters of this study have to be open-minded. It’s easier said than done, but North Adams must be both imaginative and clear-eyed in assessing what it can do to better connect its downtown. This is a chance to think outside the box, but a six-figure federal grant for a study is the sort of chance that a small city might not see again soon. That means North Adams must use this chance to identify some doable proposals and get a firm sense of what empirical benefits can be expected from inevitably expensive plans.

This isn’t an argument against thinking big; we’re simply saying think big in terms of the possible upsides (boosted downtown activity and investment) and downsides (ballooning price tags and the snarl of long-term construction). The Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston offers a great example of what is possible for ambitious efforts to introduce aesthetically pleasing open space that better bridges long-segmented sections of a city. But the Big Dig that preceded it also offered painful lessons about the pitfalls of grand reconstruction projects prone to overrun on budgets and timelines. North Adams is not Boston, but folks in the Berkshires have their own lived experiences with frustratingly long infrastructure projects— just ask Pittsfield-area motorists who have been traveling over a one-lane bridge on Holmes Road for four years.

We note all this not to dwell on the negative but to pragmatically hope for the positive in North Adams. We know local leaders see the potential that could be unlocked in this scrappy city, and we see it, too. This study could be the beginning of a game-changing moment for North Adams. Going in with the right expectations and a keen eye for what’s realistically possible will increase the odds of a big win for a city that deserves it.

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