City Council and Planning Board Proceed Cautiously on Rezoning Committee

At a special joint meeting on April 17, Northampton’s City Council and Planning Board discussed the composition and mandate of a new Rezoning Committee. This committee would suggest changes to Northampton zoning laws in accordance with the new Sustainable Northampton Plan. After about an hour’s discussion, the participants agreed that an ad hoc committee of two city councilors and two planning board members would develop options and bring them back to the City Council and Planning Board for further discussion.

Below are Google videos of this meeting in six segments. Our overall impression was that officials are trying to proceed with caution, mindful of last year’s controversies such as the one over the Hilton Garden Inn. Some participants expressed a desire to get input from neighborhood associations. Since major changes to Northampton’s neighborhoods are contemplated, and since even well-intentioned urban planning can have bad outcomes, we feel that a great deal of caution and outreach is indeed warranted.

The sound is sometimes faint in these videos. You may need to crank up the volume.

See also:

Gazette: “Leaders mull how to fill rezoning panel” (4/19/08)
City councilors and planners are trying to figure out who should serve on a new board charged with recommending various zoning changes advanced in Sustainable Northampton, the city’s new comprehensive plan.

Should the committee be large or small? Should it include a mix of appointed local officials and city residents as the plan suggests or, as At-Large City Councilor Michael R. Bardsley proposed – no elected officials at all.

“If the goal is to broaden the conversation about zoning, then I think the direction to go is including more citizens,” said Bardsley, during a joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Board held Thursday…

In a recent memo, planning officials said they would prefer a smaller rather than larger committee. A large committee could “bog down” the process and become ineffective, they said…

Gazette Lead Editorial: “A public role in planning” (8/27/07)
the Planning Board’s options are limited statutorily, in our opinion
there needs to be a way for the board to garner public opinion earlier
in the process and work with developers sooner to address design

Gazette Guest Column: “Give residents a role in city issues” (11/27/07)
there to be sustainable citizen involvement in the future of
Northampton, input on issues of consequence to the lives of our
residents needs to be both actively solicited and facilitated so that
critically important opinions are not coming in a delayed,
after-the-fact manner, where the opportunity for true discussion has
then been missed.

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are
so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current
Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with
neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of
appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major
problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond,
and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own
ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation
between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their
simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to
build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

cannot let planners and developers decide what we will do with our
lives. I never hear planners discussing psychological health and
cultural values. Planners have a different approach. As one Berkeley
planner told me, no matter what they build, eventually those who can or
must tolerate the new, worse environment will replace those who can’t.
As this happens, resistance to further degradation lessens. But I
reject this “race to the bottom.” And with enough time, planners and
developers could also train Americans to live like drones in
anthills—but why let them?

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Cities tend to be complex organisms, Scott observes, so planners are constantly tempted to try to simplify their task:

Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is
established, the logic of uniformity and regimentation is well-nigh
inexorable. Cost effectiveness contributes to this tendency… [E]very
concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in
administrative time and budgetary cost… (p.141-142)

In Northampton, the simplification du jour appears to be a drive to segregate our open space to the periphery, while weakening greenspace preservation in the more urban districts where it is already scarce.

Scott proposes guidelines to reduce the potential harm from plans. These include:

Take small steps. In an experimental approach to
social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our
interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer
wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then
plan the next small move…

Favor reversibility. Prefer
interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be
mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.
Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect,
given our great ignorance about how they interact…

Plan on surprises.
Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen…
In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for
accommodating changes in family structures or living styles…

Plan on human inventiveness.
Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the
project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to
improve on the design… (p.345)