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Main Street Project Would Widen Sidewalks, Create Protected Bike Lanes In Downtown Northampton

A view from City Hall of Northampton’s pilot Maimn Street redesign in the summer of 2020. Complaints from business owners led the city to discontinue the temporary street reconfiguration after only a few weeks. Photo by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz.

Later this month, the City of Northampton and MassDOT will present plans to renovate one of the most walkable Main Streets in western Massachusetts with widened sidewalks and protected bike lanes.

"The ultimate goal is to reallocate that tremendous amount of right-of-way on Main Street to provide safer spaces for people to walk and linger and bike through downtown," says Carolyn Misch, Director of Planning and Sustainability for City of Northampton.

Northampton’s Main Street is unusually wide – roughly 90 feet from one curb to the other. It's also one of the busiest streets in western Massachusetts for foot traffic, with dozens of small businesses and thousands of college students living nearby.

But for decades, pedestrians have been confined to relatively narrow sidewalks while most of Main Street's public space has been set aside for cars, with extra-wide driving lanes and angled on-street parking.

The proposed new design for Main Street generally moves those curbs further into the roadway to make it easier for pedestrians to cross Main Street and to make more room for wider sidewalks, outdoor dining areas, protected bike lanes, and new bus stops:

An animated GIF shows an overhead view of Northampton's Main Street between Crafts Avenue and Center Street. One frame of the animation shows the current satellite view, and the next shows the same view overlaid by MassDOT's design drawings for an upcoming construction project that will widen sidewalks, reconfigure on-street parking, and add protected bike lanes with a narrowed roadway for motor vehicles.
MassDOT's 25 percent design plans overlaid on a current view of Main Street between Crafts Avenue and Center Street. Courtesy of MassDOT and the City of Northampton.
MassDOT's 25 percent design plans overlaid on a current view of Main Street between Crafts Avenue and Center Street.

These changes would extend from Elm Street in front of Smith College's College Hall on the west side of the downtown area to Hawley and Market Streets, just beyond the overpasses that carry the Manhan Rail Trail and Amtrak's Valley Flyer trains, to the east.

The plans are at the "25 percent" design level, which typically means it will be several more months before the project can produce its final designs for construction.  MassDOT will host an online public hearing on the plans on the evening of Wednesday, April 26 (details are below).

In the summer of 2020, Northampton used concrete barriers and other temporary materials to install new bike lanes, expanded sidewalks, outdoor seating areas, and public art with a Shared Streets and Spaces grant from MassDOT (pictured at the top of this story).

But the city dismantled the pilot project ahead of schedule after a handful of outspoken business owners raised concerns that the reconfigured street was increasing congestion and reducing access to parking.

"We were just coming out of the initial pandemic shutdown, and a lot of businesses were worried about anything that might change," says Misch.

After two and a half more years of conversations, Misch says that "we've reached more of a consensus. Everyone understands we need safer crosswalks and safer spaces for pedestrians."

The latest design for Main Street retains a few diagonal on-street parking areas, and converts other on-street parking zones to more traditional parallel parking areas, which take up less of Main Street's valuable space.

Misch says that the city is also trying out new parking management strategies, which took effect last week.

"We’ve tweaked the parking meters in an effort to encourage turnover - it’s going to be higher-priced during peak hours, and we’ve discounted parking on the side streets," says Misch.

Virtual public hearing for Northampton's downtown complete streets and intersection improvements on Main Street (Route 9):

Wednesday, April 26, 6 to 8 p.m., via Zoom. Register online.

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