Mitchell Chapman: What if the Berkshire Mall had opened in Pittsfield?
PITTSFIELD — As someone who is a bit of a history nerd, alternate-history scenarios fascinate me. Locally, one scenario has always held my interest: What if the now-shuttered Berkshire Mall was built in Pittsfield, as originally planned?
While there were several Berkshire Mall proposals beforehand, during the 1979 Pittsfield Mayoral election, a mall plan by Pyramid Companies was close to fruition, which would have seen the construction of a $100 million mall that would have taken up the west side of North Street, between Columbus Avenue and West Street. The incumbent mayor at the time, Paul Brindle III, later told The Eagle in 2019 that if the plan had succeeded, downtown Pittsfield would have had its own Crossgates Mall.
"For the first time we have developers with thoroughly proven credentials who wouldn't be here if they weren't confident they could make things happen," reads a Feb. 5, 1977, Eagle editorial praising the project. "In contrast to their predecessors, they have no intention of asking the city to make investments on the strengths of some petty architects' drawings and blind faith."
However, Brindle would lose the election to Charlie Smith, who opposed the mall and stopped the project in its tracks by refusing to sign a $14.2 million Urban Development Action Grant, which some considered a mistake.
"I don't think the Pyramid plan was perfect, any more than any other plan will be," Richard L. Whitehead, who spearheaded the efforts to bring the mall to Pittsfield said in an Oct. 20, 1980, Eagle article. "But with all the effort that went into it, to have a small group defeat that project is going to make it difficult for the city to attract a reputable developer."
In many ways, Pyramid's plan was doomed to fail. Its scale and design irked locals, as an April 18, 1980, article in the Decatur (Ill.) Herald described the proposed Pittsfield mall to be "dull windowless block buildings beloved of department stores, and a 125-foot clear plastic structure critics said would be 'the world's largest telephone booth.'" Many also thought the project was too large, and would suffocate downtown (it was intended to be larger than needed to discourage a competing mall from being built). But by the time Smith entered office, large retailers like J.C. Penney had already agreed to the original mall plan and were reluctant to see it changed, and Smith's demands for a smaller mall arguably made it impossible for Pyramid to land other chains, specifically Jordan Marsh.
"Unfortunately, the bottom line is the developer and the city couldn't agree on what was being built," Phillip Comeau, a HUD official who worked with Pittsfield on the UDAG grant told The Eagle on July 2, 1980, when the city was told they had lost the grant. Pyramid would take their business elsewhere, building the $57 million, 550,000-square-foot Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough we know today, which now sits empty and abandoned save for Target and a movie theater. It acts not only as a decrepit monument to what was once a thriving center of retail and commerce for the area, but also of what could have been, while Pittsfield's North Street is dotted with empty storefronts, a situation that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
An unrecognizable North Street
Had the Pittsfield mall been successful, there's a few things we can reasonably assume, the first being an increase in gentrification in the immediate area of the mall, and the second being an influx in motor vehicle and foot traffic in its vicinity, though the proposed mall sounds like it would have been an eyesore.
Rather than eat up North Street as feared, I think a more likely scenario is that the mall would push businesses onto other streets, effectively extending the city's "Main Street," and while some businesses would succumb to competition from the mall, more would adapt. No matter what, small businesses would always compete with big chains, as during the Lanesborough Mall's tenure, large retail chains were just a small car drive away, and the rise of online shopping closed that gap farther.
It's likely that the construction of such a mall would lead to a butterfly effect that would have led to a modern Pittsfield completely unrecognizable from our own, as such a project would pressure the city to be more walkable and it most likely would inspire other developers to build in the city. Renowned city planner Jeff Speck notes in his book "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time," creative-class citizens that large companies desire gravitate towards lively "urban hubs" with healthy street life, and it's arguable a Pittsfield mall could've provided that.
The Pittsfield mall would also come with an environmental and historic price tag as it required the demolition of several historic buildings, and it's possible that no matter where the Berkshire Mall was placed, it was destined to fail — though undoubtedly, a Pittsfield-based mall would be easier to repurpose given its proximity to a population center.
I think it's important that this history is taught and that we learn from it. Pyramid's failed mall plan teaches us that large development plans in places like Pittsfield are messy, disruptive and often not ideal, but without them, it can be hard for cities to thrive, and blocking them can have unintended consequences.
Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and columnist.
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