Latest Kohl Condo Proposal for North Street: 20 Units as Duplexes

This week Kohl Construction submitted a revised condo proposal to the Office of Planning and Development. Compared to the previous proposal shown to the Planning Board on May 14, the new proposal reduces total units from 23 to 20 and breaks up the larger masses into duplexes. Several members of the Planning Board had asked for a reduction of 3-5 units.

The new proposal will be taken up by the Planning Board at its Thursday, June 25 meeting (7pm, City Council Chambers, 212 Main Street). Concerned citizens are urged to attend.

The Conservation Commission hearing previously scheduled for June 25 has been canceled. The Commission desires to hire a hydrogeologist to evaluate how the proposed condos would impact the wetlands and buffer zone.

While the new condo proposal is a move in the right direction, many important issues remain:

  • Units 5-12 would be in an area that Conservation Commissioner Paul Wetzel objects to building on because the ground is so wet (March 12 hearing)
  • Wetzel also expressed concerns about how the underground stormwater detention system by Unit 10 would interact with groundwater in and around the wetland
  • Unit 18 appears to be slated for the same place as a unit that Conservation Commissioner Downey Meyer objected to previously as too close to the wetland
  • The total amount of disturbance inside the 100-foot wetlands buffer zone would remain high; Meyer objected to this on the version of the proposal reviewed on March 12
  • The two cul-de-sacs of the development would be awkward, with poor sight lines, and poorly integrated with the surrounding neighborhood. This would likely impair neighborhood cohesion and might lead to security issues. The Sustainable Northampton Plan disfavors cul-de-sacs
  • A 1999 Tropical Storm Floyd flood damage report for the end of View Avenue (near proposed Unit 1) suggests much of the site may be at risk of future flooding (View Avenue is at a relatively high elevation on the property)
  • The density would still be too high relative to the amount of land suitable for building. The proposed units look like they are squashed into North Street’s backyard space. This disrupts the character of the neighborhood and intrudes on neighbors’ privacy. The units would not be in harmonious relation to their surroundings, a condition of the special permit Kohl needs
  • Would the View Avenue duplexes have a monotonous repetition of design? That would contrast with the charm and variety of the existing neighborhood
  • We presume the condos would still be built on slab foundations. This is also out of character with the neighborhood and raises durability questions
  • This site is swarming with mosquitoes during the summer months. It would be hard to blame residents for spraying insecticides so they could use their outdoor spaces in safety and comfort. That could put them on a collision course with the health of the wetlands.

Here are the two units proposed for the end of Northern Avenue (download the PDFs below for the complete proposal in high resolution):

Here is the main body of 18 units proposed around View Avenue:

Here is the previous May 14 proposal by way of contrast:

The proposed design for the units at the end of Northern Avenue (unchanged since November 2008):

The proposed design for the duplexes around View Avenue:

Here is the complete Kohl filing of 6/17/09 with Office of Planning and Development:

Chart L1: Existing Conditions of the Land (PDF, 622KB)

Chart L2a: Layout and Planting Plan (View Avenue) (PDF, 1.1MB)
Chart L3a: Grading & Utility Plan (View Avenue) (PDF, 1.6MB)

Chart L2b: Layout and Planting Plan (Northern Avenue) (PDF, 1.2MB)
Chart L3b: Site Grading & Utility Plan (Northern Avenue) (PDF, 1.7MB)

Chart L4: Details (sidewalks, stormwater management) (PDF, 1.4MB)
Chart L5: Details (more stormwater management) (PDF, 896KB)

Northern Avenue Duplex (PDF, 68KB, unchanged since November 2008)
View Avenue Duplexes (PDF, 100KB, new)

Exterior Duplex Lighting Schedule (PDF, 251KB)

Here is a report on the proposal from Northampton Senior Land Use Planner Carolyn Misch:
Staff Report to Planning Board from Carolyn Misch, 6/18/09 (MS Word, 708KB)

See also:

Letter to Gazette: “Defending rights of North Street neighbors” (6/16/09)
…I live on South Street, which used to have a lovely little wooded
area at the corner where it forks into Old South and New South. In my
opinion, destroying that woods to allow “infill” was a very bad
decision. And there’s a lot of research to the effect that we human
beings actually need natural views in our lives, even in a downtown.

Video: Conservation Commission Meeting of 6/11/09

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

Video: Conservation Commission Reviews Latest Kohl Condo Proposal on 5/14/09

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

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

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

Video: Conservation Commission Meeting of 3/12/09; Deadlock on Kohl Condo Proposal

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

Portland notes that medium-density neighborhoods like ours have established patterns of backyards. These “create a much-valued ‘private realm’ of outdoor spaces that contrast functionally with the ‘public realm’ of street frontages. Infill development which intrudes significantly into the backyard realm can have substantial privacy and solar access impacts and is often a key concern of neighbors…”

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
    condos’ slab foundations would put them in different relation to grade
    than the surrounding homes, most of which sit on basements or crawl
  • 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

Portland Infill Design Strategies: Best Practices for Context-Sensitive Infill Design

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

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

Tree Loss and Slab-on-Grade Foundations: A Poor Fit with the Sustainable Northampton Plan
…Bruce Maki, editor of, issues a Quasi-Rant on the matter of “Crawl Space vs. Slab Foundation”:

…Quite frankly, you couldn’t give
me a house built on a slab foundation. With no easy access to any of
the “environmental systems” (electrical, plumbing, HVAC) maintaining
these structures is a nuisance at best, and a nightmare at worst…

Tasha Lucas…from Monster Constructors…adds:

Slab-on-grade foundations are constructed with reinforced concrete and
are usually shallow, quickly built, and inexpensive. For a builder that
doesn’t have to live in the homes that he builds, slab foundations are
a dream. Slab foundations are used with homes that do not have
basements. A major disadvantage to slab-on-grade foundations is that
they are not resistant to seasonal movement changes and moisture
disbursement due to root growth. In other words, slab foundations are
not a long-term option for homes in North Texas…

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

Smart Growth vs. “Smart Growth”

Valley Advocate: “Bogged Down – Doug Kohl runs into trouble with plans for his subdivision off North Street in Northampton” (3/17/09)

Watering-up: Studies of Groundwater Rising After Trees Cut

Topographical Map Shows How Kohl Condo Proposal Will Eat Into a Rare Stand of Mature Trees in Downtown

Boston Globe: “How the city hurts your brain” (1/2/09)