Northampton councilors adopt resolution in favor of Picture Main Street despite opponents urging them to consider alternative

The Northampton City Council approved a resolution Thursday in support of Picture Main Street, a planned $21 million redesign of a half-mile stretch of Main Street that is expected to get begin in 2025.

The Northampton City Council approved a resolution Thursday in support of Picture Main Street, a planned $21 million redesign of a half-mile stretch of Main Street that is expected to get begin in 2025. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 11-17-2023 9:28 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Despite pleas from the biggest group opposed to Picture Main Street to pick an alternative design, the City Council officially went on record Thursday in support of the city’s years-in-the-making plan for a $21 million redesign of Main Street downtown.

“Picture Main Street is not anything that is radical. The components have all been used elsewhere successfully and it reflects current transportation thinking,” said Stanley Moulton, the city councilor for Ward 1. “It is a people-centric plan, rather than a motor vehicle plan.” 

The project, which has generated heated debate in the city, would narrow Main Street to one lane in each direction with a middle lane for turning. It would also add bike lanes on both sides separated by buffers, expand sidewalks to allow for more room to walk, and remove more than a third of on-street parking.

The overhaul would redo a half-mile length of Main Street, beginning west of the intersection of Elm and West streets next to Smith College to the intersection of Market and Hawley streets near the rail trail bridge that spans Main.

Construction is scheduled to take place from 2025 to 2028, raising concerns from businesses on how it would impact their bottom line, as well as how the design would affect traffic flows and safety.

Some 30 people crammed into the City Council chambers Thursday — with more attending remotely — to speak their minds about Picture Main Street ahead of the council’s vote on a resolution to support the project that was ultimately approved unanimously.

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Jeff Sternal, one of several residents who spoke against the project during public comments, said he worried about traffic flows in the city, especially if the city wanted to add more housing and grow its population.

“Those houses will come with cars, and those cars have to get through the city. Unless we add another artery, there’s no way it can accommodate those changes with our current plan,” Sternal said. “The Main Street redesign plan as it’s constituted today pushes hard to make our downtown more inclusive, which is great, but the lane reduction pushes the city further down the opposite path.”

Others at the meeting spoke favorably about the project.

“Nothing in the Picture Main Street project is experimental — all project elements are true and tested,” said Northampton resident Jonathan Fogelson. “We should all divert our collective talent, experience and energy towards developing strategies to help support our Main Street businesses so that they too may benefit.”

The council allowed the chief group critical of the city’s proposed plan, Save Northampton Main Street, to give a presentation on its alternative design, which they debuted Monday at the Hotel Northampton. That design retains two lanes in both directions and eliminates buffers for the bike lanes, as well as calling for construction of a bike path “loop” that would connect the bike lanes on Main Street to the existing bike trail that runs through the city.

“It’s just a question of how these things can be implemented. And we think it’s worthwhile to give this another look,” said John DiBartolo, an attorney with an office in downtown Northampton who led the presentation. “The goal is to have the city contemplate some of these changes and see if it contributes to reality in a way that’s safer.”

Following the presentation, councilors questioned DiBartolo about some aspects of the alternative design. The discussions at some points turned contentious, with Council President Jim Nash rebuking the alternative plan.

“You’re fanning the flames of concern,” Nash said, addressing detractors. “You are not traffic engineers.”

When Judy Herrell, a business owner and member of the Save Northampton Main Street, tried to interject, Nash told her sternly she did not have the floor to speak, as only DiBartolo had been allowed to present.

Despite the strong disagreements, Council Vice President Karen Foster said it was “heartening” to see the high levels of civic participation on the matter.

“Passions are high, we all love downtown, and we are all invested in a thriving one,” she said, adding that the people in charge of the current redesign were “people with an enormous amount of experience and qualification moving this forward.”

Other councilors also expressed their support for the current design.

“Change is inevitable. The current situation we have, we cannot continue this way,” said Ward 4 Councilor Garrick Perry. “I’m looking forward to moving past this portion, and really doing the outreach to our business owners, with our communities, and explaining what is happening.”

During the meeting, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who earlier this week rejected the alternative plan put forth by Save Northampton Main Street, announced that the city was partnering with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Northampton Association to strategize new efforts on how to support businesses once construction begins in 2025.

Sciarra said the new partnership was working on communication strategies to connect businesses and residents to project teams, marketing and engagement campaigns to promote businesses during construction, and ways to minimize disruption during the construction period.

“Downtown will remain open for business during construction, and we will be asking everyone to direct their energy and their passion and their love towards supporting it,” Sciarra said. “We’re being very creative in our thinking and we are very open to ideas.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.