Video: Conservation Commission Meeting of 8/27/09; Rebutting Gerrit Stover

Northampton’s Conservation Commission essentially signed off on Kohl Construction’s 20-unit condo proposal for North Street last night, and we’ll have that video for you within a few days. The main arena now shifts to Land Court, where a lawsuit over matters of title and rights-of-way continues.
In the meantime, here is a video of part of the commission’s August 27 meeting, which included a discussion of the conditions to be imposed on the proposed condo development (see our previous pictures from and commentary on this hearing). This video is 2 hours 22 minutes long and was recorded by Lachlan Ziegler.

Here is the agenda for the portion of the meeting shown:

Northampton Conservation Commission

Date: Thursday August 27, 2009
Time: 5:30 PM
Place: City Hall Hearing Room (use back door or main Crafts Avenue door) 2nd floor, 210 Main Street, Northampton

For more information: Bruce W. Young, Land Use and Conservation Planner


Approval of Minutes for 07/23/2009

5:30 PM
Request for a three-year extension of Order of Conditions DEP File #246-591 filed by John Ewing. Project location is Old Wilson Road, Map ID 44-012.

5:45 PM
Request for Determination of Applicability filed by M&S Holdings to determine whether the work depicted on the plans is subject to the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act and/or the Northampton Wetlands Ordinance. Construction of a replacement structure within the original footprint is proposed to take place in Riverfront Area. Project location is 8 Easthampton Road, Map ID 38C-077.

6:00 PM
Continuation of a Notice of Intent filed by Tofino Associates, Inc. and Northern Avenue Homes, Inc. for the construction of twenty-three dwelling units and associated roadways, parking areas, driveways, sidewalks, utilities, landscaping and stormwater management system. Project is proposed to take place in the 100-foot buffer zone of Bordering Vegetated Wetlands. Project location is Northern Avenue, Map Id 25C-12 and 25C-17.

During the public comment period, Gerrit Stover claimed that approving the project would reduce pressures to consume outlying natural areas with homes on five-acre lots (1:31:50-1:33:18 on the video).

The irony is, it’s condo projects just like the one Kohl proposes that have motivated sprawl elsewhere. Before a homebuyer commits to a neighborhood, many like to know that their greenspace, natural resources, privacy, parking and traffic concerns, and neighborhood design integrity will be respected, and that change will occur gradually, in a logical and predictable fashion. When that’s not the case, many a wealthy homebuyer seeks secluded large lots to protect their amenities as best they can.

John K. Carlisle of The National Center for Public Policy Research gives the following example:

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…
This is not to say there should be zero growth in in-town neighborhoods, but poorly managed growth that’s perceived to harm those neighborhoods seems neither wise, sustainable, or politic. A good start towards reassuring in-town residents would be to implement infill design guidelines before attempting to ratchet up density near downtown.

A large part of what makes the North Street neighborhood attractive and walkable is its well-connected network of streets, where most homes are oriented towards the public street and form a reasonably consistent street wall. This street wall gently enfolds pedestrians and helps them feel comfortable, a point stressed by the Notre Dame Urban Design Studio. A telltale sign that the Kohl condo proposal is bad infill is that it violates this pattern, as we discussed here.

See also:

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
Download Envisioning Sustainable Northampton – Final Notre Dame Studio Presentation Book

Envisioning Sustainable Northampton: Notre Dame Urban Design Presentation – Video and Handout

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

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…

Kohl Files Narrative and Drainage Report with Revised Condo Proposal; Interpreting the Wetlands Ordinance
In the brief above, Attorney Pill leans hard on promotion of infill in justifying his interpretation of the Wetlands Ordinance. Here is how the Notre Dame School of Architecture defines “infill” in Envisioning Sustainable Northampton:

Infill: noun – new development on land that had been previously developed, including most greyfield and brownfield sites and cleared land within urbanized area. verb- to develop such areas.” (page G3)
This definition is not a good fit with most of Kohl’s land off North Street. This land is largely undeveloped and uncleared, and currently contains just one single-family house (8 View Avenue). It also contains one of downtown’s few remaining groves of mature trees and buffers a wetland. Responsible–sustainable–infill should not be interpreted as a license to pave over a city’s green infrastructure.

Suburban ‘Raise the Drawbridge’ Sentiment Motivates Some Smart Growth Policies
Bozeman is an interesting case study because it is small and because the Smart Growthers have strong control of the city…

…the real problem is that city and county officials are trying to stop suburban growth around the city by imposing Portland-style growth controls. Officials insist that new developments are far more densely packed than the market demands…

On a practical level, these Smart Growth policies are counterproductive. Restricting growth in the city, or creating unattractive high-density projects in a place awash in open space, only pushes people farther out into the countryside. In Belgrade, eight miles away, one finds market-driven suburban-style subdivisions. That city does not have many restrictions, and those who cannot afford Bozeman or who want a bigger place simply move away, thus promoting the sprawl that Smart Growthers are trying to stop…

New York Times: “Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children”
After interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at Portland State found that high housing costs and a desire for space were the top reasons…

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

Condo Monotony: The Future of Ward 3?

To maximize profits, the developers have shoehorned units into their lots with little regard to the preexisting appearance of their neighborhoods. The developments feel inward-facing or ‘withdrawn’, not part of the regular street fabric. These aspects are probably what prompted the “carbuncle” comment from the planning board member.

Lessons from San Diego: Why We Need Infill Design Guidelines
…the new housing diminished neighborhood character and walkability. Pejoratively known as “Huffman Sixpacks”, the six-unit apartment complexes that invaded older neighborhoods were like windowless boxes with a parking lot in front. Architect Michael Stepner, who served on San Diego’s Planning Commission for nearly three decades, explained that the unfortunate buildings emerged through a combination of factors, including increased parking requirements and a lack of design guidelines. Single-family homes fell quickly because the area was already zoned for multi-family units. “All the builder had to do was buy the house, get over-the-counter permits, demolish the house and build the apartments,” Mr. Stepner said. Communities resisted the loss of historic homes, especially given their unwelcome replacements…

Our Ad in the May 6 Gazette: “How to Avoid Classic Infill Design Mistakes”
“For the past few decades,” write Knoxville area planners, “the construction of new houses on these vacant lots–infill housing–has often been incompatible with the historic features in neighborhoods of the late 1800’s to 1950’s. Inappropriate infill has been a problem in the ‘Heart of Knoxville’ neighborhoods…

“Following World War II, many single family neighborhoods were rezoned to permit apartments. This was done under an urban development theory that the highest density housing should be close to the central business district. The results have been mixed. In some instances the design of multi-unit buildings are completely out of context to older neighborhoods with apartment buildings looking like they should have been part of suburbia. In places where multi-unit housing is permitted…it is essential to neighborhood stability that new apartment buildings be designed in scale and context with the early architectural features of the neighborhood…

“Multi-unit housing (where permitted by zoning) should have similar front yard space to that of the traditional single-family houses along the street… Multi-unit housing should be designed to continue the architectural rhythm of the block. In addition to the same ‘build-to line’, porches, bays and breaks in the front façade should be created that mimic the look of older homes when looking down the block. This should be done by dividing the building into separate sections which are proportionally similar to original houses on the block.”

Knoxville Infill Housing Design Guidelines: Lessons from Experience

Portland Infill Design Strategies: Best Practices for Context-Sensitive Infill Design
Most residential areas zoned for medium-density development have established patterns of backyards, which 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 (see pages 35–37).
Principle: Respect the backyard realm by minimizing intrusions by larger structures, where this is a priority…

Toronto Urban Design Guidelines: Infill Townhouses

Springfield Works on Infill Housing Design Guidelines; Residential Design Presentation by Dietz & Company

Smart Growth vs. “Smart Growth”
…developers often seize on convenient aspects of Smart Growth that align with their profit goals and disregard others. A common result appears to be overlarge developments, inapt developments, and/or excessive density. These are major bones of contention in Los Angeles and Berkeley, to give two examples.

Portland: A Photo Tour of Spiraling Densificati

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time

Scrape-Off Redevelopments Provoke Backlash in Denver Neighborhoods

Houston Chronicle: “Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage grove…”
Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage Grove, a small neighborhood with narrow streets, few sidewalks, poor drainage and scarce parking for the owners of its many new homes and their guests.

Like many neighborhoods inside Loop 610, Cottage Grove in recent years has experienced a flurry of construction of large townhomes that loom over 80-year-old cottages next door. Two or three dwellings crowd sites where one house stood previously. Streets are cluttered with vehicles parked every which way. Water stands in the streets after heavy rains.

“It was shocking to see this jewel of a neighborhood in this condition,” said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute who toured Cottage Grove two years ago. “It was about the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, to be honest with you.”

Large Lots Gobble Up Land in Massachusetts
While infill will continue in selected submarkets, smart growth advocates should aggressively pursue higher-density, quality development at the periphery rather than the typical low-density suburban sprawl of the past 50 years (Danielsen, Lang, and Fulton 1999). (p.26-27)