Video: Planning Board Reviews the Latest Kohl Condo Proposal on 5/14/09

Here is a video from the 5/14/09 meeting of Northampton’s Planning Board. This portion includes the board’s discussion of Kohl Construction’s latest 23-unit condo proposal off North Street. This video is 2 hours 27 minutes long and was recorded by Adam Cohen. During the hearing, several board members expressed a desire to see the proposal shrink by 3-5 units. The hearing was continued to Thursday, June 25 at 7:00pm.

Video highlights

0:23:40-0:39:58… NSNA Attorney Alan Seewald presents our objections to the condo proposal. Livability issues. Having to store trash inside the homes for a week. Not enough room for residents’ possessions due to high density. Awkward cul-de-sacs with poor sight lines present security issues. Snow removal plan is challenging and likely to be deviated from. The site is swarming with mosquitoes. Inadequate play space or parking. Exterior of condos is likely to become cluttered with trash cans, etc. Immediate neighborhood within 300 feet of condo site is substantially less dense than proposed development. There’s no valid comparision of the North Street neighborhood to Graves Avenue or Union Street (URB zoning vs. URC). The Northampton Assessors also consider the neighborhoods to be distinct. A good deal of fill would need to be removed from beneath some condo foundations and a rain garden.

0:49:22-0:55:20… City Councilor At-Large Michael Bardsley. The density of the proposal and its proximity to wetlands are troubling. Market Street and North Street are distinct neighborhoods. A condo association with a lot of responsibilities will have higher fees. The contemplated requirements for this development may not be realistic. This proposal is not in character with the neighborhood.

1:59:55… Planning Board member George Kohout expresses concerns about the circulation through the cul-de-sacs, that passersby would “feel like they’re invading” if they walked on them, as opposed to regular city streets.

2:00:45… Planning Board chair Stephen Gilson: “We’ve said to the applicant–at least four of us–on the board have said, we would be happier to see somewhat less density… If that means carving a unit off of each of the [clusters of] fives, and making them split up [into duplexes], I don’t think we’re going to dictate what that would look like, but that would be I think the preference of at least four of us on the board.

2:01:15George Kohout expresses a desire for less impervious surface and is concerned about the proposal for snow storage. “We’ve seen that across the city… What happens to these areas we designate as snow storage, after a couple years is pretty much disregarded.”

2:03:45Doug Kohl asks the Planning Board how they would vote on his proposal as it stands. Kenneth Jodrie, Mark Sullivan say they would be inclined to vote no unless there were changes. Frandy Johnson, Marilyn Richards were inclined to vote yes. Kohout: “I would need to see less units.” Gilson: “It’s the density that’s the problem…” Specific concerns are discussed.

Here are the latest files submitted by Kohl Construction:

Proposed duplex at the end of Northern Avenue (download high-resolution JPEG)

Proposed 21 units off North Street centered around View Avenue (download high-resolution JPEG)

Same 21 units off North Street with stormwater components colored orange and snow storage areas purple (download high-resolution JPEG)

Proposed duplex at end of Northern Avenue

Proposed new design for condo townhouses

Original proposed design of condo townhouses

Diagram of proposed slab-on-grade foundations

Kohl’s density study

NSNA’s density study as prepared by Regenerative Design Group. (The condo residents would be required to avoid disturbing the 35-foot buffer zone around their wetlands. This reduces their usable space.)

Additional materials provided by Kohl Construction:

Parking lot as modified for fire truck access (high-resolution JPEG)
Impervious surface without condos (PDF, 2MB)
Impervious surface with condos (PDF, 2MB)

Here is the 5/7/09 planning staff report as prepared by Senior Land Use Planner Carolyn Misch:

Special Permit (continuation from 12/11 & 1/22 & 3/26):    Townhouse Development

            Project Address:                            Northern

            Zoning:                                            URB

            Adjacent Uses:                               Residential

          Conformance with Sustainable NH:  This is in-town lot abutting the rail trail
that will have access to the rail trail. 
Preserves more than 50% of land as treed wetland, provides recreational
access internally and externally, infill, design compatibility,

Street Continuation

Issues that have been raised
at the previous hearings include:

  • Traffic impacts
  • Design compatibility
  • Yard Size
  • Lack of garages
  • Lights from King Street
  • Water in basement—High water table? 
  • Snow Storage
  • Fire Department Access in new layout with 2 stubbed driveways
  • Flood Damage claims-Floyd (not repetitive loss)
  • Status of Right-of-way.

Section 10.1 describes
approval criteria

The requested use protects adjoining premises against seriously detrimental
uses. If applicable, this shall include provision for surface water
drainage, sound and sight buffers and preservation of views, light, and air; and

The requested use will promote the convenience and safety of vehicular and
pedestrian movement within the site and on adjacent streets, minimize traffic
impacts on the streets and roads in the area. If applicable, this shall
include considering the location of driveway openings in relation to traffic
and adjacent streets, access by emergency vehicles, the arrangement of parking
and loading spaces, and provisions for persons with disabilities; and

The requested use will promote a harmonious relationship of structures and open
spaces to the natural landscape, existing buildings and other community assets
in the area; and

The requested use will not overload, and will mitigate adverse impacts on, the
City’s resources including the effect on the City’s water supply and
distribution system, sanitary and storm sewage collection and treatment
systems, fire protection, streets and schools; and

The requested use meets any special regulations set forth in this chapter; (none
other than site plan) and

The requested use bears a positive relationship to the public convenience or
welfare. The use will not unduly impair the integrity of character of the
district or adjoining zones, nor be detrimental to the health, morals, or
general welfare. The use shall be in harmony with the general purpose and
intent of the ordinance; and

If applicable, the requested use will promote City planning objectives to the
extent possible and will not adversely effect those objectives, as defined in
City master or study plans adopted under MGL c. 41, § 81C and 81D.

The special permit granting authority shall also impose, in addition to any
applicable conditions specified in this chapter, such additional conditions as
it finds reasonably appropriate to safeguard the neighborhood or otherwise
serve the purposes of this chapter, including, but not limited to, the
following: front, side or rear yards greater than the minimum required by this
chapter; screening buffers or planting strips, fences, or walls, as specified by
the special permit granting authority; modification of the exterior appearance
of the structures; limitation upon the size, number of occupants, method and
time of operation, time duration of permit, or extent of facilities; traffic
features in accordance with the regulations of loading or other special
features beyond the minimum required by this chapter. Such conditions shall be
imposed in writing, and the applicant may be required to post bond or other
security for compliance with said conditions in an amount satisfactory to the
special permit granting authority. In addition, when applicable, a site plan
shall be submitted to the Planning Board for its final approval in accordance
with the site plan approval in § 350-11 of this chapter.


Staff Recommendation:

Staff Recommends the Board
take new comment only and in particular response from Fire Department relative
to the revised layout.  If Conservation
Commission closes its hearing, Planning Board should close as well so long as
there are not any outstanding issues that could not be otherwise addressed.

If the Board determines that
the project meets the criteria in the special permit section, including
compliance with the goals and objectives of the sustainable Northampton Plan,
then issue the permit with consideration of conditions listed below.  Alternatively, the Board could close public
comment but leave hearing open to discuss possible decision and conditions for
May 28.

Among Conditions to consider:

No street lights,
porch only. 

Trash removal through

On site snow
storage shall not exceed heights of 5’. 
Snow must be taken off site when storage areas reach this capacity. 

By-laws not allow

All sidewalks,
streets shall be constructed to subdivision standards with materials and depths.

As offered 19,000
in traffic mitigation to be paid in phases or construction of sidewalk along
North Street to meet ADA standards with curb cuts or other improvements as
might be determined through P &T/Neighborhood.

As offered, LEED
certification or proof of qualifications for LEED certified points.

Without an understanding of human nature, well-intended Smart Growth policies can backfire, increasing sprawl. If planners want people to live in downtown neighborhoods, they need to demonstrate those neighborhoods will be respected, protected, and handled gently. John K. Carlisle tells the following cautionary tale on behalf of The National Center for Public Policy Research:

In 1998, the Prince William County Supervisors approved the region’s
first major slow growth plan. The Prince William plan set aside nearly
half of the county land in a “rural crescent” in which future new home
construction and other development will only be allowed on ten-acre
plots. The result, predictably, is a major increase in land prices…
[S]ix-figure income homebuyers – attracted by the large, secluded lots
and gated developments – are moving to the county in droves. Many of
these affluent new residents first sought assurances from the county
that the land-use restrictions would continue to be enforced once they
purchased their homes… Prince William newcomer Greg Gorham, a
software developer, moved from another Virginia suburb because a
builder constructed 20 townhouses on land next to him. “That was the
thing I really didn’t want to have happen to me again,” said Gorham…

See also:

Video: Conservation Commission Reviews Latest Kohl Condo Proposal on 5/14/09
The potential impact to groundwater flows appeared to concern some
members of the Conservation Commission, who called for an independent
expert evaluation of how the proposed development would impact the
hydrology of the site. The condo proposal will be taken up again by the
commission at its June 11 meeting.

Gazette: “Early count too close to call on Kohl project” (5/19/09)

Gazette: “Wetlands, density bog down Northampton condo plans” (5/15/09)

Our Ad in the May 6 Gazette: “How to Avoid Classic Infill Design Mistakes”

With the guidelines from Knoxville, Portland and Toronto in mind, problems with the Kohl condo proposal are readily apparent:

  • The development would convert close to an acre of urban greenspace into impervious surface, with many mature trees cut down
  • The monotonous repetition of design throughout the development would be out of character with the individuated appearance of the existing homes, a key part of our neighborhood’s charm
  • The condos would exhibit “monolithic massing” in contrast to the fine-grain neighborhood pattern
  • The condos’ slab foundations would put them in different relation to grade than the surrounding homes, most of which sit on basements or crawl spaces
  • Most condos would lack the setbacks, “green edges” and porches that characterize how nearby homes typically greet the streets in front of them
  • No consistent street wall would enclose and frame the condo access roads; no ‘urban room’ would be created. Several units would have front entrances that don’t face the roads. Contrast this with the cozy feel of nearby Northern Avenue, with its consistent street wall on both sides
  • The access roads would be an awkward cross between private driveways and regular streets. They wouldn’t resemble the surrounding city streets. The visual and physical links to the existing neighborhood would be poor. Most of the condo units would be hidden from North Street
  • Compounding the disconnection, the access roads would be dead-ends and uninviting to neighbors walking by
  • The condos would intrude on the backyard realm of the existing homes next to them…

“We will have to admit that it is beyond the scope of anyone’s
imagination to create a community. We must learn to cherish the
communities we have, they are hard to come by.” –Jane Jacobs, quoting Stanley Tankel, from Seeing Like a State

Kohl Files New Notice of Intent Ahead of May 14 Hearings

Tropical Storm Floyd Flood Damage Report (1999)
In the map below, the red flag behind View Avenue (the topmost
flag) indicates a flood damage report from Tropical Storm Floyd (1999).
This area is in the eastern portion of Kohl Construction’s proposed condo site, one of the more elevated portions. We infer that much of Kohl’s property may be at risk from heavy rainfall events.

Our Radio Campaign This Week on WHMP
Some of the site may also be “filled wetlands”. Building on these is disfavored by Northampton’s 2004 Flood and Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan (PDF), as it is associated with shifting foundations and flooding.

Impervious Surface: New Condo Proposal Differs Little from Previous One

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

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.

Our Ad in the April 11 Gazette: Slab-on-Grade Foundations Raise Questions of Durability

Good Cul-De-Sacs and Bad Ones

…Northern Avenue has several aspects that likely improve its safety:

  • It is linear
  • The homes are well-integrated with good intervisibility
  • It is well-connected to a main road (North Street)
  • You can stand on North Street and see down to the end of Northern Avenue
  • Access to the rear of homes on Northern Avenue is relatively restricted
  • Homes line both sides of the street

By contrast, the cul-de-sacs in Kohl’s latest condo proposal give reason for concern:

  • The roads would not be straight
  • The space would be visually broken up
  • The homes would be isolated from North Street
  • Many units would be difficult or impossible to see from North Street
  • Footpaths (shown in pink) and the woods would give easy secondary access to the units
  • Homes would only be present on one side of the street

Planning Board Debates Kohl Condo Density – Quotes from the March 26 Hearing

Any design multiplied 23 times would not be in
harmony with the neighborhood, which is characterized by the diverse appearance of its homes.

The planning staff also argues that Union Street and Graves Avenue are
“within the North Street Neighborhood area”, and thus Kohl’s proposal
acceptably resembles the denser land use patterns of those streets.
However, the map of “Assessors Neighborhoods of the City of
Northampton” (detail shown below; complete map: 2.7MB PDF) classifies Kohl’s parcel in a distinctly different neighborhood (number 8) than Union and Graves (number 16).

Kohl’s parcel is in zoning district URB, whereas Union and Graves are
in district URC, where higher densities are expected. There is simply
no apples-to-apples comparison between Kohl’s area of North Street and
Union/Graves. And dense as they are, Union and Graves are still
well-integrated with the surrounding street network, unlike Kohl’s
latest proposal.