Guest columnist Richard Szlosek: The ‘Main squeeze’

Main Street in downtown Northampton.

Main Street in downtown Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By RICHARD SZLOSEK

Published: 12-15-2023 9:40 AM

Well, the powers that be in Northampton have unanimously decided to reduce our Main Street down to two lanes of traffic. The project apparently won’t even begin until 2025 and I have stayed out of the discussion because, at my advanced age, who knows what condition I will be in by then. Please don’t think of me as a curmudgeon but I feel compelled to say I am wary of the whole idea.

Back when I was a kid, it was my good fortune to have had a top-notch fifth grade teacher. She once gave my class a talk about how lucky we were to be living in Northampton. The teacher ticked off a list that included Smith College, Look Park and Forbes Library, and prominent on her list was our wide Main Street. She said the street, with its diagonal parking, was the envy of towns all over New England.

I, and I expect many others, grew up with the assumption that the broad roadway was one of the hallmarks of our town. It saddens me that, after the project is completed, future generations will have to visit the historical society to view photos of what the street once looked like.

I suspect there is no one in the city planning office that remembers the traffic jams that once occurred on Pleasant Street every Friday evening during the summer months in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Before the construction of Interstate 91, travelers heading north for the weekend had to take the single lane of Route 5 through Northampton. A line of cars would stretch all the way from Main back past Wright Avenue.

I don’t expect those types of extreme jams will be replicated again, but I fear that, once the new plan is implemented, there might be tie-ups on Main Street that could approximate them. Main Street is frequently very busy with two or three lanes of cars in both directions. How can you possibly expect all those vehicles to funnel into one lane each way and not have backups?

Trucks, buses and cars, whether gas-powered or electric, are not about to disappear and downtown drivers will have the choice to 1) suffer through a series of delays; 2) find alternate routes on side streets that are not designed for increased traffic; or 3) stop driving to Northampton at all.

I grew up on lower Pleasant Street and it is the “improvements” to the road in that section of town that exacerbate my concerns about the Main Street plan. It used to be so easy to enter or exit Wright Avenue. Now there is an abutment on the Pleasant Street end that has narrowed the entrance into a strange angle. If you desire to make a right from Pleasant, it is a rather acute turn. Should there be another vehicle waiting in the intersection to exit Wright, it can be difficult to avoid contact with it.

My family once owned the Imperial Bakery at 376 Pleasant St. and customers could park on either side of Pleasant while shopping. Now that is not possible because bike lanes are on both sides of the street. If that had happened in our time, it would have seriously curtailed our business.

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I worry that all the projected improvements will turn out to be antithetical to local businesses. Not long ago, the city increased the time parking meters are in effect until 8 p.m., which must have had a negative effect on restaurant business. The plan to reduce the number of Main Street parking spaces along with the narrowing of the street both seem calculated to drive people away from downtown businesses.

Yes, driving on Main Street can be a pain, but if the new scheme is implemented, it will likely worsen the situation. I fear people will find some other place to go, and how will the city benefit from that? The term “main squeeze” has always been a slang reference to one’s significant other, but I fear that “Main Squeeze” will be the new nickname for our narrowed principal thoroughfare.

I realize that my opinions could be proven entirely wrong. Nevertheless, I wish planners would leave our hallmark Main Street alone and improve the sidewalks and roads on residential streets instead. Who knows, perhaps with improved walkways, some people might actually decide to walk downtown instead of driving?

Richard Szlosek lives in Northampton.