It’s less than a mile long, but the newly barricaded stretch of Strong Avenue in Northampton has been described as Shangri-La — a lush, green and coronavirus-safe atmosphere that’s welcoming outdoor diners from all over.
In only around 7 hours Tuesday, nearly the entire roadway off Main Street was redesigned as part of the “Summer on Strong” project, spearheaded by Eastside Grill owner Deb Flynn, whose business abuts the public parking lot that marks the end of the completely refashioned part of the avenue.
The remodeled roadway stretches from the intersection of Strong Avenue and Main Street to the public lot next to Eastside, encompassing roughly 0.7 miles, where vehicle traffic is now shut down, numerous plants lay about and walking and biking room is expanded, allowing for more outdoor dining, live music and pedestrian-friendly shopping, according to Flynn.
“That’s the goal: Let’s do something for everyone. It’s not just for one person or one thing. It’s for everybody,” Flynn told MassLive while sitting inside her restaurant before it opened for business Wednesday evening. “It’s something to see and do that brings people out. There’s going to be so many people who are interested and haven’t been to Northampton or haven’t been because of the pandemic, and now they’re coming out. It’s just one more thing to add to the city that has so much to offer anyway.”
Flynn credited the city with supporting the project. According to her, it was a team effort. The first people to arrive at the avenue Tuesday morning to get the ball rolling on the redesign were personnel from the Northampton Department of Public Works and Fire Department.
“Everybody was very easy to work with,” Flynn said, noting how they had to raise $23,000 for the project. “This was not cheap. This was very expensive to do.”
According to the restaurant owner, $4,500 of that money is going toward radio advertising, and $9,500 is going toward the musicians, who will be performing at the Dowd Performance Stage as part of Summer on Strong for nearly all of June. The blues, country, folk, funk and jazz artists and bands that will be playing include The Hendersons, Greg Hall, the Green Street Trio, Rose Porter, the Brian Bender Trio and the Darby Wolf Trio.
Nearly 20 businesses and organizations sponsored the Summer on Strong project, among them the Downtown Northampton Association, Familiars, the Homestead restaurant, Local Burger, the Northampton Arts Council, Greenfield Savings Bank and Lowes, which worked with the redesign organizers “from the get-go,” according to Robbie Bocon, the general manager at Eastside.
“They worked with us from the start with acquiring things, actual manpower to help build,” he said.
Bocon worked with landscape architect Justin Pelis to design the remodeled streetscape and create a blueprint. For him, the new space isn’t just an opportunity for expanded outdoor dining. It’s more than that.
“It’s designed as a walkthrough, it’s designed as a bike-through, a community space,” said Bocon, who, like Flynn, was heavily involved in the planning of the Strong Avenue redesign, “something to come to Northampton for, check out and then see the rest of the city.”
Around a dozen people were enjoying the newly remodeled street Wednesday afternoon, only a day after much of the roadway’s streetscape got the facelift. Some were eating lunch from Local Burger, others drinking cool beverages from Familiars Coffee & Tea and many sitting beneath the shade of the red umbrellas that were set up, a saving grace amid the sunny, nearly 90-degree weather.
Bicycles were stood up against telephone poles, and a wooden gazebo stood at the end of the walkway, which was marked by flower boxes, small palm trees, plants and herbs. A trellis and painted cement barricades blocked the avenue from Main Street traffic.
Close to the Main Street entrance for the new space, Kaylin Rivera and Amaraya Deza, both of whom grew up in Northampton, enjoyed the sunshine while they waited for their food.
The lifelong friends live states apart, Rivera in Massachusetts and Deza in Connecticut. However, the pair meets regularly in the small Pioneer Valley city to catch up, and on the bright Wednesday afternoon, they shared their excitement about the redesigned avenue, with Deza noting how she was taken off guard by the completely changed roadway.
“I didn’t even know that this was happening. I pulled up, parked and was like, ‘What is happening?’ “ Deza said. “But I think it’s really beautiful. It makes the street lush and green, so it’s just a nice place for people to sit and be together. Especially with social distancing and these small businesses that we can’t sit in and haven’t been able to sit in for a year now, we get to enjoy the food and this spot.”
Rivera noted the new space offers “a little sense of normalcy” amid the COVID-19 public health crisis.
“It’s more welcoming amongst what’s currently happening,” she said.
Deza and Rivera weren’t the only longtime friends basking in the warm weather while sitting comfortably under the umbrellas on Strong Avenue.
Northampton natives Jeff Olmstead, Dr. Andy Dewitz, Ruth Griggs and Barbara Elkins were finishing off the last few sips of their iced coffee from Familiars, mulling about outside the coffee shop and enjoying the new streetscape. The four friends, who all attended the city’s high school together decades ago, hadn’t met in quite some time due to the pandemic, they noted.
Dewitz, a doctor at Boston Medical Center, was the one who brought the group out to the avenue Wednesday. He was driving from Eastern Massachusetts to his 1960s summer home in Conway when he reached out to his friends to ask about grabbing lunch. Like Deza and Rivera, the outdoor diners were a bit surprised by the setup.
“I knew that Familiars had a wonderful outdoor setup. What I didn’t know was that this terrace would be open at this point, ‘Summer on Strong,’ ” said Griggs, a resident of the city, an active member of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and president of the Northampton Jazz Festival.
Olmstead, a Northampton resident, musical composer and director of Valley Jazz Voices, noted he and his friends had “a pleasant morning” on the redesigned stretch of the avenue.
“I think it’s great,” he said about the new streetscape. “I look forward to coming back many times over the summer, because we’ve got a variety of good food here. I just never have to leave Strong Avenue now, because it’s food and beauty everywhere.”
Waiting for her lemonade on the front steps of Familiars was Taylor Alexa Musante Bartmon, the granddaughter of former Northampton Mayor David B. Musante Jr.
Bartmon attends Greenfield Community College, where she is studying to become a preschool teacher, and moved to Northampton two years ago, making her the third generation in her family to live in the city. She called the the new streetscape “wonderful.”
“I’m actually very happy to continue the Musante legacy of living in Northampton. I love this city, and I loved what they did with this,” Bartmon said about the redesigned avenue. “Because of corona, people are a little scared to come out to come eat, but this is a great way to keep the businesses up and running and keep people happy.”
Inside Familiars the excitement about the remodeled roadway was matched by co-owner Danny McColgan, who said it would be great for the redesign to last longer than the summer, but noted he undesrstands the concerns surrounding snow removal and other issues.
“I’m super stoked,” McColgan said about the Strong Avenue redesign. “We’re so excited the city gave us this opportunity and were so great to work with.”
According to the business owners who participated in the redesign process, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz gave quick approval for the owners to move ahead with the remodeling. The Summer on Strong initiative was no small feat, though. While the restructuring of the roadway only took a couple of hours Tuesday, the planning for the project took months.
Flynn and Bocon at the Eastside Grill first laid out their plans for the street remodeling to city officials in February and received approval from the Northampton License Commission in April. Each business had to receive approval individually during the same meeting, but their plans were all the same.
The remodeled design is now expected to last until Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 6, However, Flynn and Bocon will seek an extension for the redesign, according to the general manager. The project turned out better than they could’ve imagined, they said.
“We wanted something unique for Northampton, not just outdoor dining, something unique for Northampton,” Bocon said.
For Flynn, the redesign looks more beautiful than she thought it would be and will strengthen the business community citywide, not just on Strong Avenue.
“It’s for the greater good of Northampton. We’ve all been struggling this past year and a half. It’s not only good for Strong Avenue or the area down this end. It’s good for the entire city,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing, a really good thing.”
Although Flynn acknowledged there may be some frustrations with roughly half the street being shut down to parking and traffic, she believes the the Summer on Strong project will benefit the community as a whole.
Her sentiment was echoed by the mayor, who was walking to Familiars on Wednesday to grab a drink. Parking’s “really important,” but sometimes, the issue’s overemphasized and over-prioritized, Narkewicz noted, adding there are spaces where people can park nearby and walk to Strong Avenue, including off-street lots and the E. John Gare Parking Garage on Armory Street.
“This is a great example that shows that prioritizing pedestrians and outdoor dining and entertainment over parking, people will find a place to come be here,” the mayor said.
Narkewicz thanked all the businesses on the avenue, led by Flynn, that created the concept and brought it to him for approval.
“I think it’s a great example of a partnership between local businesses and municipal government to keep our downtown vibrant,” he said.
Quoting the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” Narkewicz said, “If you build it, they will come.”
“They’re flocking to it. There’s a lot of buzz on social media about it, and this is exactly the kind of thing we’ve been talking about,” the mayor added. “Obviously, coming out of the pandemic, I think this has been one of the big ‘aha’ moments for people, as we’ve stood up outdoor dining. Now that people have experienced it, they want to keep it. “