CHICOPEE – The city will be studying the traffic flow downtown with the idea of eliminating some of the one-way streets that encourage motorists to speed through the area without slowing down and stopping at local restaurants and other businesses.
Using a $200,000 grant from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which is designed to mitigate negative impacts from the MGM’s Springfield casino, the city will hire a design firm to examine and recommend changes in traffic patterns.
“We will be looking at different traffic patterns, we will be looking at pedestrian infrastructure, parking on-street and off-street,” City Planner Lee Pouliot said. “We will be looking at all the things you would typically think about dealing with an urban neighborhood.”
City Councilors approved the grant but several said they wanted to make sure there will be plenty of input from residents and business owners, especially after the Center Loop bike lanes were installed and parking taken away several weeks ago as part of a pilot program to encourage more pedestrian traffic.
Multiple business owners have complained to councilors that on-street parking has been taken away by the bike lanes, which are delineated by arched white metal barriers.
“There are a lot of businesses upset. The parking is going to cripple them,” Councilor Frank N. Laflamme said.
But Pouliot said studies have shown the city’s downtown is “overparked.” While the bike lanes took away 60 spaces, a new parking lot at City Hall now has 77 spots that help prevent any parking shortage.
“The city of Chicopee has heard through numerous public forums, public comments and surveys that residents desire additional biking and walking infrastructure. Many residents have said that they do not currently bike or walk because of safety concerns,” Pouliot said.
The Planning Department continues to take public comments about the bike lane through an online form found on the city’s website. People can also email comments to [email protected] or mail them to him at 274 Front St. Chicopee Hall Annex, 4th Floor, Chicopee, 01013.
Councilor Lucjan Galecki said he and his fellow city councilors did not expect to see the barriers for the bike lanes and had to field multiple calls from angry constituents.
The board was briefed on and accepted the $76,000 grant for the walking and biking loop in January. The original plan was to use planters and other decorations to separate the bike lane, but state officials instead suggested the metal barriers, which can be removed for the winter, folded up and easily stored, Pouliot said.
Not everyone objected to the bike lane, especially as the city continues to work with the bike rental program ValleyBike Share, which will have several stations set up in the city including one across from City Hall on Front Street.
“Our downtown has been dormant for 30 to 40 years,” Councilor Joel McAuliffe said. “I think it is a well-intended effort. We will see how it goes and we will make adjustments as needed.”
If the city wants to grow the downtown economically it cannot continue to do the same things. To make it easy to bike and walk downtown will help attract people to the center and by doing so bring in more businesses, McAuliffe said.
The pilot program will also help the city better prepare to create a more walkable downtown that is needed, especially if proposed plans to redevelop the historic Lyman Mills building into about 100 apartments and the Cabotville Mill into as many as 600 apartments come to fruition. Both projects have been stalled for at least four years.
The one-way traffic in Chicopee Center was created in the 1960s and 1970s when people used Chicopee as a cut-through between Holyoke and Springfield before Interstate-391 was constructed. At the time there were frequently bottlenecks in Chicopee Center so the one-way streets were created to move traffic through the area quickly, Pouliot said.
“Right now people race through the center and they leave,” Mayor John L. Vieau said. “I would like to see us maximize what we do have downtown, thinking creatively and coming up with a way to have a small-town feel in the center.”
Vieau said he likes the idea of having a two-way traffic flow that would bring more people into the center instead of just pushing them through.
The study of the downtown streets, which will also look at issues such as lighting and security, will involve business owners as well as residents.
Councilor Gary Labrie said he would also like to see it look at marketing the downtown more.
Pouliot said he agreed marketing is vital for attracting housing and business development as well as bringing people to the area.