Pandemic changed scope of Elm Street renewal project

The Westfield Redevelopment Authority met in-person June 1 for the first time since March 3, 2020. Their first order of business was to approve the meeting minutes from that meeting more than a year ago. (PETER CURRIER/THE WESTFIELD NEWS)

WESTFIELD- The Westfield Redevelopment Authority (WRA) met June 1 for the first time since March 3, 2020 to discuss the Elm Street Urban Renewal Project. 

The WRA was the first municipal body to meet in-person in City Hall since most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted May 29. 

When the WRA last met more than a year ago they were moving through the process of finding a company to construct a new building in the place of the former J.J. Newberry’s Department Store, which burned to the ground in 1986. The decision had come down to Arch Communities LLC based in Needham and Domus, Inc., which is based in Westfield. 

The WRA at the time chose to reject both project proposals in the interest of seeking more input from the city. Both companies had proposed a hybrid building that would contain both residential and commercial spaces. 

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the business landscape, however, and the WRA may be choosing to take the project in a different direction in the pandemic’s aftermath.

Many businesses did not survive the past year, and other storefronts that were already vacant before the pandemic still remain vacant more than a year later. Rather than have a hybrid building with retail and residential spaces, WRA members expressed an interest in a residential-only building instead. 

WRA Chair Kathleen Witalisz and Community Development Director Peter Miller pointed to the Bank of America building at Park Square, the former Clemenza’s location on Elm Street, and the Bentley Billiards building to name a few vacant spaces. Miller noted that the future of Lansdowne Place on Thomas Street is in question as well, as Westfield State University let the lease expire. 

“The need for housing has changed dramatically. Property values have increased,” said Witalisz. 

Witalisz said that the increases in construction costs and the shortage of some materials are other new factors that did not have to be considered a year ago. 

The Domus and Arch proposals had also included more than 60 residential units, which Miller and Witalisz said may be too much. Miller said that Arch had once expressed that it could be buildable with just 40 units. 

“With the COVID, we are not seeing people going back into buildings as a workforce station any longer. You are seeing more online and you are seeing more flexibility in that respect,” said Witalisz, “But that gives us an opportunity to look at the flexibility of millennials that would be looking for an opportunity for downtown living that is going to have ease and accessibility.”

Miller suggested that a residential building with an open space concept and an outdoor common area for residents would be a good option in the new business and real estate landscape.

“My goal is to not see gravel on that primary strip as soon as possible, but the thought of retail, that balloon popped when we talked to [Domus and Arch],” said Miller.

The WRA will revisit the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the project with a lower number of residential units than what had been proposed last year. 

“We would like to at least look at the RFP we sent out before, let’s modify it to make it a little bit more specific to what the city and we would like to see it look like,” said Witalisz.

In the interest of getting the RFP out before July or August, the WRA agreed to meet again in two weeks on June 15.

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