Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Bedford Revival as Model of Adaptive Reuse and Urban Revitalization?

A recent New York Times article featured the successes and challenges of historic preservation in Buffalo.  One of the issues raised there involved the at times uneasy relationship between preservationists and developers.  A briefer piece yesterday focused on the approach that New Bedford is taking.  The center of the whaling trade in the mid-19th century, New Bedford fell on hard times and in recent decades "started to become known mainly for blight and despair," epitomized by "The notorious 1983 rape at Big Dan’s tavern."

The city government hopes to capitalize on the improved current situation through intensified use of its historic resources, the centerpiece of which is a major downtown hotel to fill the void created when the last one disappeared half a century ago:
The LaFrance Hospitality Company, a family business in Westport, Mass., which owns eight hotels in New England, a restaurant and catering business, is planning a $10 million 106-room Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites on a 1.6-acre parcel across the street from New Bedford’s fishing piers. Site preparation is under way, with a groundbreaking planned for early next year.

The five-story hotel will incorporate a historic granite structure, which used to be a whale oil refinery, a reminder of the days when New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world. Its facade will combine brick, granite and wood. The site is just outside the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, 13 city blocks of 18th- and 19th-century buildings where the likes of Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass once strolled.
Although the model is not directly applicable to Amherst for a variety of reasons, the examples are in some ways heartening and should cause us to take notice: A large chain hotel would not be consonant with Amherst's sensibilities or downtown zoning, but the fact that a major national firm such as Marriott can adapt itself to the constraints of a historic structure should remind us of what is possible.

Further highlights:
Since 2000, 32 buildings in the downtown have been restored, at a cost of more than $80 million; 14 other buildings are in a “preconstruction” stage, the city said. Most of these are historic structures that are being renovated into commercial or mixed-use space, often with the help of state and federal historic tax credits.

In addition, several developments are under way elsewhere in New Bedford, including a $35 million mill conversion into condominiums, and there are plans to build the $2 million Waterfront Community Center on the Acushnet River, which will be a recreation facility and event center.
New Bedford has embraced a belief that the arts can be used to rebuild its fortunes. In 2007, it authorized hiring a creative economy development officer to coordinate arts programming, financing and development.

The city’s landmark Zeiterion Theater draws an average of 4,500 people downtown on weekends. The city also holds an annual Arts Symposium and Open Studio Weekend, which attracts 300 to 500 visitors.
Amherst is undertaking some similar measures and could learn from the others.  New venues such as The Amherst Cinema Arts Center and adjoining structures--one of which, not coincidentally, houses the new Chamber of Commerce--epitomize the advantages of historic preservation through adaptive reuse, and more generally, of using culture and leisure activity to rejuvenate the downtown social atmosphere and economy.

Although Amherst is a destination in itself rather than a pass-through of the sort that New Bedford had become, our problem is not entirely dissimilar:  Thousands of visitors come to see Amherst each year, but because our accommodations are limited, many have to travel in their cars to and from the large motels along Route 9, expending fossil fuels, fueling traffic congestion--and leaving both the room rental fees and the taxes to neighboring Hadley.  Given that clean economic development, including cultural tourism, is among the priorities in Amherst's Master Plan, it stands to reason that a well-conceived and sustainable hospitality industry should likewise be among our prime topics of discussion.

(Elizabeth Abbott, "Old New England Whaling Center Will Soon Offer Visitors a Place to Stay," New York Times, 26 Nov. 2008)

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