Tailoring Infill and the New Urbanism to Northampton

The North Street Neighborhood Association is not opposed to all infill per se. The “new urbanism” has many appealing features, but three cautions come to mind.

First, due to Northampton’s chronic flooding issues, the proportion of impervious surface in a neighborhood should be closely monitored. A front lawn may not be as “useless” as it looks, and it can add privacy and quiet to a home. Second, urban heat island effects should be considered if a neighborhood is at risk of losing greenspace. Third, any transition from one zoning regime to another should be gradual, to avoid sudden property tax increases and to evaluate the effects of the new regime as they unfold, in case adjustments are needed.

The Atlantic Monthly had an excellent article on zoning and new urbanism in September 1996: “Home From Nowhere” by James Kunstler. This article appears to contain many of the ideas that support the concept of infill. It can be found with related articles at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/sprawl.htm
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Kunstler provides an example of a downtown streetscape that worked:

“Where I live, Saratoga Springs, New York, a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel once existed. Said to have been the largest hotel in the world in the late nineteenth century, it occupied a six-acre site in the heart of town. The hotel consisted of a set of narrow buildings that lined the outside of an unusually large superblock. Inside the block was a semi-public parklike courtyard. The street sides of the hotel incorporated a gigantic verandah twenty feet deep, with a roof that was three stories high and supported by columns. This facade functioned as a marvelous street wall, active and permeable. The hotel’s size (a central cupola reached seven stories) was appropriate to the scale of the town’s main street, called Broadway. For much of the year the verandah was filled with people sitting perhaps eight feet above the sidewalk grade, talking to one another while they watched the pageant of life on the street. These verandah-sitters were protected from the weather by the roof, and protected from the sun by elm trees along the sidewalk. The orderly rows of elms performed an additional architectural function. The trunks were straight and round, like columns, reiterating and reinforcing the pattern of the hotel facade, while the crowns formed a vaulted canopy over the sidewalk, pleasantly filtering the sunlight for pedestrians as well as hotel patrons. All these patterns worked to enhance the lives of everybody in town-a common laborer on his way home as well as a railroad millionaire rocking on the verandah. In doing so, they supported civic life as a general proposition. They nourished our civilization.

“When I say that the facade of the Grand Union Hotel was permeable, I mean that the building contained activities that attracted people inside, and had a number of suitably embellished entrances that allowed people to pass in and out of the building gracefully and enjoyably. Underneath the verandah, half a story below the sidewalk grade, a number of shops operated, selling cigars, newspapers, clothing, and other goods. Thus the street wall was permeable at more than one level and had a multiplicity of uses…”
Kunstler goes on to suggest we should learn from the human-scaled success of places like Nantucket, St. Augustine, Georgetown, Beacon Hill, Nob Hill, Alexandria, Charleston, Savannah, Annapolis, Princeton, Greenwich Village and Marblehead.

Kunstler discusses managing density to avoid congestion:

“Houses may be freestanding in the new urbanism, but their lots are smaller than those in sprawling subdivisions. Streets of connected row houses are also deemed desirable. Useless front lawns are often eliminated. The new urbanism compensates for this loss by providing squares, parks, greens, and other useful, high-quality civic amenities. The new urbanism also creates streets of beauty and character. This model does not suffer from congestion. Occupancy laws remain in force — sixteen families aren’t jammed into one building, as in the tenements of yore. Back yards provide plenty of privacy, and houses can be large and spacious on their lots. People and cars are able to circulate freely in the network of streets. The car is not needed for trips to the store, the school, or other local places. This pattern encourages good connections between people and their commercial and cultural institutions…

“In order for a street to achieve the intimate and welcoming quality of an outdoor room, the buildings along it must compose a suitable street wall. Whereas they may vary in style and expression, some fundamental agreement, some unity, must pull buildings into alignment. Think of one of those fine side streets of row houses on the Upper East Side of New York. They may express in masonry every historical fantasy from neo-Egyptian to Ruskinian Gothic. But they are all close to the same height, and even if their windows don’t line up precisely, they all run to four or five stories. They all stand directly along the sidewalk. They share materials: stone and brick. They are not interrupted by vacant spaces or parking lots. About half of them are homes; the rest may be diplomatic offices or art galleries. The various uses co-exist in harmony. The same may be said of streets on Chicago’s North Side, in Savannah, on Beacon Hill, in Georgetown, in Pacific Heights, and in many other ultra-desirable neighborhoods across the country.”

See also:
The Atlantic Monthly: “How Portland Does It”
Up from grates in the sidewalks grow hundreds of trees, mature enough that when the sun is low on the horizon, their leaves cast shade on the second and third stories of buildings. The trees soften the downtown…

The downtown is amply supplied with parks…

One study in the early 1970s claimed that the downtown needed 10,000 more parking spaces to reinforce its economy. Portland’s leadership, however, instead focused on making mass transit efficient and the downtown convenient and pleasurable for people on foot… Portland…insisted that new buildings, including parking garages, have stores or other pedestrian-attracting uses at street level. Blank walls at ground level were banned…

The Portland area’s growth boundary, drawn up by Metro in 1980, takes in 362 square miles. Inside the boundary, where much open land remains, building is encouraged; outside the boundary, governments discourage building through policies such as refusing to allow certain road improvements or sewer service.

The growth boundary and other regulations have already tightened residential development. The average size of a single-family lot has dropped from 13,200 to 8,700 square feet…

Still, the growth boundary has not changed the basic pattern of development. Housing, stores, and employment have developed mostly in separate zones. As they have, people have been driving more; total miles driven in the Portland area jumped 55 percent during the 1980s. A regional air-pollution problem attributable to motor-vehicle exhaust is in the making.

Potential solutions are being debated and also enacted. Many planners believe that if a number of sizable mixed-use centers, incorporating offices, stores, housing, and parks, are built—dense, walkable, and connected to public transit—people will have more choices of how to get around and the region can remain compact…

Portland officials believe that if the downtown and the city are to thrive, 20 percent of the region’s job and population growth must take place in the city.

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences; Come to the November 8 Hearing
Mishandled campaigns for density can trigger an intense political backlash. In suburban Portland, voters recalled a mayor and two council members over dense development and a neighborhood light-rail alignment (Farris, p.23). Farris, an Associate Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University, recommends a smarter Smart Growth approach that takes into account the facts on the ground and citizen preferences:

…smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns). The density of most cities is 5 to 10 times that of their suburbs (Downs 1994)…