Our Guest Article at Northampton Redoubt: “The Kohl condo proposal and the Struggle Over the Meaning of Infill”

The Valley Advocate’s Northampton Redoubt blog today publishes a guest article from NSNA member Adam Cohen, “The Kohl condo proposal and the Struggle Over the Meaning of Infill”. This article reviews the current state of the condo proposal and outlines many of our key objections. A difficulty that is becoming increasingly apparent is how unresolved Land Court issues are disrupting the negotiation process:

One aspect of the Kohl condo controversy actually has more to do with best practices than Smart Growth. At the January Planning Board hearing, Kohl implied the neighbors were obstinate and rigid for not negotiating with him over the design of the project. The neighbors feel hamstrung in this regard, however, because a Land Court lawsuit over titles and rights-of-way on the property is not resolved. We don’t know what the baseline is that we should start negotiating from.

Even [Kohl attorney] Michael Pill, I believe, would concede at this point that the lawsuit is not frivolous, and indeed the judge has agreed to hear our motion for summary judgment this coming August. The neighbors have asked the Planning Board to defer consideration of Kohl’s proposal until the case is resolved. The board decided to proceed anyway. There is a strong possibility that even if the Conservation Commission and Planning Board approve Kohl’s proposal in the coming months, they will have to revisit it all over again after decisions come down from Land Court. None of this strikes me as good practice or an efficient use of people’s time.

See also:

Gazette: “Developer to submit revised North Street plans”

Video: Planning Board Meeting of 3/26/09; Board Declines to Endorse Zero Lot Line Changes; New Kohl Condo Proposal Discussed

Valley Advocate: “Bogged Down – Doug Kohl runs into trouble with plans for his subdivision off North Street in Northampton”

Video: Conservation Commission Meeting of 3/12/09; Deadlock on Kohl Condo Proposal
3:11:40… Wetzel: “So to me, getting rid of these guys [points
to condo units 1-10]…is a big help” because they are at a relatively
low elevation close to the water table. He wants more room to be made
for the development’s normal operations, such as snow clearing and snow
storage. He believes that violations of wetlands protection covenants
are likely to occur over time…

3:51:13…: Meyer: “This has been the problem with this
project from the beginning… When the footprint of the project
impinges on the wetlands, there’s no other place to do improvements…
If you had the project heavily concentrated in one end of the site,
going right to 35 feet, but nothing was happening down at the other end
of the site, then there’s some place where you can do significant
mitigation in the 35 to 50 foot zone… I don’t think that the
difficulty is something that is set in stone. I think it’s generated to
a certain extent by the design of the project.”

Planning Board Gives Initial Critique of Kohl Condo Proposal: Jan 22 Video

0:30:46…: Attorney Alan Seewald for the North Street
Neighborhood Association: “When I first looked at this plan [a version with 25 units], the thing
that struck me was just how dense it is. It’s completely out of
character with the neighborhood… There are no yards here. There is no
place for kids to play. There’s no place for people to be outside. This
is a real shoehorn project, trying to stuff too much into too small a
space… The other thing I would suggest about parking is that because
of the high water here, there are going to be no basements. So all of
the people’s stuff is going to where? …It’s probably going to go into
the garage. So no cars are going to be in garages here, because there’s
no other place to put stuff…  This needs to be significantly reduced
in size. That would alleviate the problem with parking, traffic,
pedestrian movement around the site, traffic and intersections offsite.
This whole project creates problems because of its density.”

1:09:30… Doug Kohl
of Kohl Construction: “I could see that making little single-family
houses is more in keeping with the footprint of this neighborhood.”

1:37:00… Planning Board chair Francis Johnson: “I think there’s a concern about the number of units…”

1:37:07… Planning Board member George Kohout:
“…perhaps this development is a little too dense for a number of
reasons. Just that it does create a different kind of burden on a
neighborhood–not quite in character…and that’s one of our big
criteria in this kind of review. It would also relax part of the stress
on wetlands by moving, let’s just say, for example, those four units,
22, 23, 24 and 25, out of there. That might allow for some different
configuration of the stormwater structures and provide more room for
some of that shared access. But I’m also struck by the offer that the
developer made about looking at single-family homes… workforce
housing…because single-unit structures would fit in much more with
this area.”

1:47:48… Doug Kohl: “You will get as part
of that [forthcoming additional test pit data], questions addressed
like, ‘Is any portion of the building that we’re placing here built in
any kind of a previously filled wetlands?’ We should be able to answer
that question for you quite clearly.”

Good Cul-De-Sacs and Bad Ones

Tree Loss and Slab-on-Grade Foundations: A Poor Fit with the Sustainable Northampton Plan

Northampton Redoubt: Urban Planning, Public Policies, and Urban Ecology
…the Kohl development on North Street will probably not closely mimic
dense older urban neighborhoods in any country, and it will cost us
part of an urban forest as well. Look at the schematic below [refers to the original 31-unit proposal] and tell
me that this proposed development is the best that can be done with
regards to Smart Growth. It appears to me as a tightly clustered
residential sprawl-development moved into town with basically a token
nod toward Smart Growth principles, that is it’s close to town and it’s

…I have not been able to find definitions of
infill that include removing viable greenfields, though they may exist.
Generally infill seems to concern redeveloping previously developed
areas, vacant lots, or brownfields and rehabilitating historic
buildings. Thus obscured from the recent debate has been the importance
of maintaining Northampton’s Urban Ecology, which enhances the quality
of life of intown dwellers, human or otherwise…

…the Kohl
North Street area development proposal includes row house condominiums
set to the rear of parking lots, not free standing detached single
family homes that front the “street,” which would better match the
existing neighborhood and is also a tenet of Smart Growth.

Daryl LaFleur: North Street Area and Urban Ecology
Constructing homes in the downtown area near existing services, infrastructure and public transit makes sense. However, the Urban Land Institute’s report on Springfield [PDF] suggests removing decaying buildings and creating more green
spaces in Springfield’s downtown area as a way to enhance that city’s
quality of life and lure people back to downtown. Springfield would
like to create, on a larger scale, what Northampton currently has and
one need only walk around downtown Springfield and observe the lack of
urban green patches to understand why. Similarly, despite all of its
problems, the Big Dig in Boston aims to add parkland and green
recreational areas in an urban environment for the same reason, to
improve the quality of life for inhabitants and give business owners a
reason to stay put.

Northampton Redoubt: Urban Ecology, Planting Trees, and the Long-Term View
have yet to read anywhere where infill is described as developing
existing and vital ecosystems. Each time I read about infill the topics
concern redeveloping brownfields or previously developed urban areas
that are not utilized to the fullest extent.

For more on urban ecology visit: http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/la/LA338-S01/groups/d/
and note in the bibliography Northampton’s own Rutherford Platt from
the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. According to the
website urban ecology was founded in the 1970’s by Richard Register in
Berkeley, California to “rebuild cities in balance with nature.” Urban
ecology is defined as the study of the interactions between biological
communities and the urban environment and its goal is to achieve a
balance between human culture and the natural environment.