Northampton Media: “Northampton’s Built Environment: Squandered Public Equity” by Tris Metcalfe, AIA

We are reprinting this 11/1/09 article by kind permission of Northampton Media. This material is presented for the purpose of voter education. NSNA does not endorse individual candidates for political office. [Article amended 11/3/09 by Mr. Metcalfe.] 

Northampton’s Built Environment: Squandered Public Equity
by Tris Metcalfe, Massachusetts, #5393 Registered Architect

I am an architect who has been practicing in Northampton for 29 years, spanning three mayors and three planning directors. I have been professionally involved in eight publicly-owned properties under various contracts—Professional, Volunteer, Pro-bono and with the Northampton Historical Commission.

This mayoral crossroads will decide how our public equity is developed for future generations. I report here in my duty to serve the public’s interests under my Architectural Registration, which defines a responsibility to help create the best possible built environments. I will use facts as I know them to the best of my knowledge to illustrate what mayoral power can do to our public equity.

Summary of Public Properties Exhibiting Poor Mayoral Management

1. Northampton State Hospital: 700,000 square feet of high-quality design & construction unsustainably wasted.

2. Memorial Hall: Unnecessary expenditures. Historic windows destroyed.

3. City Hall: Asbestos ignored, cracks remain in stucco absorbing water to mold, falling ice guards at entries still missing. Third floor remains unused.

4. Pulaski Park: Design and construction budget inflated beyond needs. Access between the Park and Veterans Field is lost because of the flawed and unimaginative Hilton Garden Inn Hotel site plan design.

5. Round House Lot and Proposed Hilton Garden Inn Hotel: Very poor site design. Illegal zoning process enabled by political rubber stamp. Owners of neighboring historic properties sued the City, winning unknown thousands of tax dollars from a judge very angry at the city’s actions.

6. Railroad Bed Bike Path: An emergency safety transportation link to 25% of Northampton was prevented forcing traffic into three neighborhoods and a campus.

7. Proposed Police Station: Poor site planning. Expense added in site location by ignoring existing building equity. Neighboring property adversely impacted.

8. Downtown Homeless Shelter: Our city insulted the developer who created the project.
It is understandable that many citizens are not aware of the importance and value of good architectural design. However, it is not acceptable for any city government to be ignorant of these needs and values, since government holds much power and responsibility to shape the world we all must inhabit on into the future long after they are gone.

Local taxpayers, students, and tourists all experience our public spaces. Economic return will be based upon the quality of design values in these public spaces and buildings.

I believe that all parties, governing and governed, who were involved in the above eight projects are very good people doing what they saw fit in order to accomplish what they felt was necessary.

But it is critical to realize that narrow-mindedness, combined with an ignorance of design potentials, often begets arrogant power. The views of a concerned public are dismissed. This arrogance can hurt well-intentioned goals of all parties. Group-think sets in. Centralized power expands into a select circle. Power-by-numbers, otherwise known as group-think, then absorbs reinforcing any ignorance. Sadly, group-think empowers narrow thinking, and the cycle starts all over again in re-elections. It is the opportunities lost from our public equity that are of concern in this report.

1. Northampton State Hospital: The City lost +/-700,000 square feet of high-quality design and construction in very substantial and solid condition. It had only 2% of its floor systems lost to rot damage as a result of only a few copper flashing leaks. The slate roof was in very good condition.

This site became a huge loss of excellently-built historic public equity in Northampton. It very clearly could have been reused to end up as a far better project than what has occurred. This waste is an amoral crime to sustainability principles.

But the worst loss was from clear sabotage. Just a few feet of cast iron roof-leaders were disconnected in the interior of the front and center of Old Main. This was the worst-damaged area of the many buildings, as water proceeded to fill the plaster and tile-encapsulated joist systems, which doomed them to rot loose in their joist pockets.

This was a clear but masked intentional effort to get rid of the old buildings sitting on that extremely valuable land. The people who did this were charged with preserving our local and national history to create a valuable return to the public taxpaying voters, its owners.

This wasted site has now only returned half the land sales value projected while simultaneously preventing public use or access at a valuable place with very inspiring views where a village center was to inspire civilization.

We who tried to save all this superior public equity found a developer named Bruce Becker who has developed several mental hospitals very successfully. He was very busy at the time of the original RFP, and came close to bidding on the Hospital Hill project that Gerry Joseph (The Community Builders, or TCB) eventually won. Knowing Gerry’s reputation, Bruce said “I knew he would do an excellent job reusing those beautiful buildings.”

When we asked Bruce years later if he was still interested in developing the Northampton State Hospital buildings, he said he was very interested. He knew the buildings well, but said that he needed the city, not just concerned citizens, to invite him. He had been burned once before by a city that had stealth ulterior plans.

Just last week Bruce wrote that “Political will and leadership is probably the most important factor in creating a successful project. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of these irreplaceable historic buildings. -Bruce.”

2. Memorial Hall is a gem of an historic building that was built to honor the Civil War dead, but it had an unnecessary $500,000+ elevator installation and also had most of its historic windows destroyed thus killing future state financial help from Mass Preservation Projects Funds. Mass Preservation matches city funds to preserve worthy buildings.

Once a city shows disregard for preservation by very unnecessarily destroying valuable windows, they get totally rejected from that pool of state funds.

The elevator project there was to replace an existing rail riding wheelchair access on the stairway. But only because names were switched on city department office doors would the second floor soon attract wheelchair traffic, very possibly overworking the slower existing chair lift. A much wiser decision would have been to make use of an existing elevator in City Hall to access far more space and new space at that.

The half-million dollars spent on the elevator could have contributed to the bulk of adding 50% more office space to City Hall. That building’s elevator only needed a 10×10 room to land in, plus a 3rd floor door. With the two stairs extended up to the third floor with some bathrooms, we would have had a City Hall-sized assembly and meeting room such as that which existed a century ago, more space for our public to interact with their free speech.

3. The poor condition of City Hall has been ignored for over a decade. At the Northampton Historical Commission, we did a report of the poor condition of the city hall building, finding many items showing next-to-zero maintenance, leading to poor building health and potential occupant health. The city clerk told me she had just been to Worcester’s city hall, and by comparison to ours it was embarrassing to return to her decrepit building.

The problems listed included leaking roof gutters and spouts, rotting trim, cracked stucco from structurally spreading hip roof ridges toward the corner towers which still let in water, which causes mold. City Hall workers may breathe that mold, but hopefully not also the asbestos still sitting in the attic which could have been removed in a 3rd floor renovation by now.

The ice falling over entries, and the rest of the maintenance from water still needs attention, but those concerned with the health of the building have covered over the loosening plaster in the basement with sheet rock.

4. Pulaski Park had a redesign and reconstruction budget that was oversized compared to the real needs that exist there. One of the biggest failures by the power in control of the design process was to insist on maintaining the very worst feature of the proposed Hilton Hotel site plan as shared by the Park.

That hotel plan is to create an extension to the park, more accurately described as a front yard to the hotel, by filling in the entire sloped bank which runs down to the yar
d of the South Street apartments, an historic building.

The flawed hotel site design would cut off public access between Pulaski Park and Veterans’ Field Park behind the Academy. This access would be lost in both the Park design and Hotel design site plans…

The children growing up in the apartment house 12 feet away from the hotel want access to Vets’ Field and the Park instead of a 20-foot-high dark, depressing, light-and-air blocking dead-end wall for the hotel’s garbage alley.

5. The Proposed Hilton Hotel and Round House Lot site plan process was doomed by violations of the zoning process. Since this violation was not discovered for three months, it became legally binding.

The two historic buildings on each side of the proposed hotel sued the city for allowing a site plan that crowded and greatly diminished their value by destroying the environment they enjoyed for nearly a century. Each property won settlements that are paid with taxpayer funds to an amount still undisclosed of all legal costs and fines.

This ridiculous site plan is jammed into all available space while inefficiently squandering it. With a separate garage three feet away with no sprinkler system required, a long dead-end alley was created that prevents fire trucks from effectively protecting the wood-framed South Street Housing’s rear five-level height. That old wooden historic structure is only 12 feet away from the hotel, separated only by the children’s proposed dead-end garbage alley.

If our government was wiser it would seek a better plan—a plan that would eliminate a worthless 20-foot high concrete wall planned between the Hotel and the South Street Housing. Without that wall, a wheelchair ramp with two switchback landings could open up public access for all, along with a stair similar to what exists now. Then all could enjoy a rock garden on the bank at the Hilton Garden Inn.

6. The Railroad Bed Bike Path corridor is an undeveloped missing link in Northampton’s transportation system. It was planned to be a road when the New South Street overpass was built, and also again when the parking lot below Pulaski Park was built. The corridor represents a potential 28-foot-wide, two-lane access road, which could connect Route 66 traffic from the southwest directly to I-91 or downtown.

Eliminating this possibility means forcing traffic through the worst intersection in town, where three state routes and two local roads all collide together with city pedestrian and bike traffic.

The rail bed corridor between Route 66 and New South Street presents an obvious direct-level connection, linking 25% of Northampton to its core, not only for all emergency traffic, but also for the growing Hospital Hill traffic. This traffic is being funneled by our City’s planners through three neighborhoods and the Smith College campus instead of where it obviously belongs in order to benefit all people.

Under a better traffic plan, the new West Street neighborhood and campus could use the dead end of Route 66 as a pedestrian street with very low vehicular use. Both residents and through-traffic would find greater safety and less stress. The three neighborhoods would benefit from losing standing traffic-jam exhaust pollution.

Bike path users would not lose anything, but could gain access with a more attractive alternative routing. The improved two-lane Route 66 in that section would be 35 feet wide at the existing stone retaining walls, and could have 65 new parking spaces added. Under this plan, West Street opens up for a new commercial and residential area. Additional parking also would help the ‘old Baptist church’ renovation to survive, since that church died due to a lack of parking.

This would attract out-of-town use to that new venue, and also help sustain West Street commercial growth as it more sustainably supports Hospital Hill development and growth.

To those who believe it is always the case that a new road just increases traffic, I would say yes, but that this new road would serve our neighborhoods well as it would remove traffic there where it is the most detrimental.

7. The proposed Police Station represented another poor site-planning process. Better concepts for both saving public equity and creating human environments were ignored. Its design adds expense by destroying the existing built equity of a solid frame and foundation where added stories could easily mass against the existing abutting blank small wall.

Instead, our city planners chose to mass the new building awkwardly on one portion of the site, blocking the large wall of open-air windows at the four stories of its neighbors in the historic restored ‘Elks’ building.

This both wastes money and hurts the potential of the existing and new built environments.

8. A suitable site for the Downtown Homeless Shelter in existing city property had been difficult to find. This problem was brilliantly solved by a local developer who bought the long unused ‘Elks’ building and then found other symbiotic tenants and buyers. This allowed the city to have a very economical and well-located homeless shelter below the Quakers, who traditionally care for the homeless, and next to the police station.

Due only to a very bad bank construction loan, which required sales of condo units before dispersing additional construction funds, the project stalled. Potential buyers came and went, waiting for a timely completion. The project was not over on budget, even as it became over on time.

It was rebuilt for only about $100 per square foot by reusing all of the equity possible. It had units selling as plywood and sheetrock shells for up to $150 per square foot. But since no bank would step forward, one of the unit owners became the new bank, and the developer was bought out.

The city then callously ignored his recognition as the key developer who created their homeless shelter project when no one else was willing, able or aware enough to it. This is only important in that it’s more empirical proof of our city government’s dismal ignorance.

These eight examples indicate that if we voting taxpayers want better development to shape this city for its best future, we need to elect a government that has a far deeper understanding and appreciation of what can be won or lost, in human values, by the design process.

Human psychological qualities can be ignored far too easily in the architectural design process. Too many take for granted what is or isn’t good or bad in a built environment. But it is inexcusable for the power that shapes these environments to also be ignorant of the design potentials that can be gained or lost forever.

All environments shape that which is within them. We need the very best economically possible built environments to shape our fellow citizens and not have ignorant poor design forced on us by those inspired by a narrow idea of economics devoid of human-built design values.

—Tris Metcalfe, Architect, October 2009

See also:

Northampton Redoubt: “Northampton voters to choose leader on Nov. 3”
A project [Hospital Hill] that once had some vision has turned into a slightly less than routine housing subdivision adjacent to an industrial park.

Paradise City Forum: Hilton Garden Inn at the Round House

Northampton Redoubt: “Metcalfe Hilton Garden Inn design alternatives” (7/26/07)

Northampton Redoubt: “Metcalfe Hilton Garden Inn redux” (10/16/07)
Regardless we will live with what is built there until better renovations by demolition occur in the future when a much better city government would propose design competitions that fully illustrate to
all of us what we are forcing in ourselves. We know when mistakes get built they remain for a long time due to the economics and then also they might get used as justifications for more bad design work since it’s existing and therefore absurdly ok. No way, for anything anywhere near called a paradise!

Video Highlights from the 10/19/09 Mayoral Debate: Wetlands, King Street, Infill and the BID
Question: “Every town and city in the United States wishes they had more open space in their downtowns, believing that even little parks or open areas make a city more livable. They also attract people who want to live or frequent that city. Seemingly, Northampton does not have the same outlook as other communities. How did the infill theory for growth of the business district morph into an infill theory for all of the residential areas that surround the business district? Besides local developers and real estate agents, how does this infill benefit the current citizens and taxpayers of Northampton who live in these areas?”

“I agree with Councilor Bardsley that we need to think about design standards. I think we need to think about density…and I think we need to think about things like greenspace and trees.” 

Bardsley: “I think we need design standards… Infill isn’t simply cramming in buildings.”

[ clip below is 4 minutes 7 seconds long]


Video: Bay State Village Forum for Mayoral Candidates, 10/21/09; Term Limits; North Street Condo Proposal
Video highlight: Candidates discuss infill, sprawl, and protecting the interests of existing residents (2min 43sec)

Michael Bardsley: “We should try to have standards that will make sure that a new development that goes in maintains the integrity of the neighborhood… For example…there is a project…moving forward to go in on North Street, and from what I know of that project, I’ve looked at the site, I’ve looked at the plans, to me that is not a project that is going to maintain the integrity of that neighborhood. It’s a project that’s very dissimilar to the other homes around there, and I think that’s problematic.”

Design of New Police Station Wins Approval; CBAC Video (10/21/08)

March 10: Zoning Revisions Committee to Meet; Our Suggestions
Before trying to facilitate infill development, might it be best to first establish infill design standards? (see Springfield)

Video: Zoning Revisions Committee Meeting of 5/20/09
1:30:09-1:38:39… Discussion of design guidelines. Jim Nash:Neighborhood groups have anxiety about what infill will look like.Specifying design guidelines up front will ease the way for other regulatory changes. Residents will have more trust in the outcome. Let’s analyze mistakes from the past.

Lessons from San Diego: Why We Need Infill Design Guidelines

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

Knoxville Infill Housing Design Guidelines: Lessons from Experience
As the Zoning Revisions Committee gears up to implement the vision of the Sustainable Northampton Plan, there are useful lessons to be drawn from other cities that have traveled the infill path.

Smart Growth vs. “Smart Growth”
“Reviewing the diagram of the planned single-use sprawl [on Hospital Hill] a mile and a half from downtown, the mayor remarked on how well the architect used urban design principles by packing a lot of homes into the design. Density of construction is, of course, only one principle of urban design, but without regard for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, packed housing can also be a ghetto.”

Valley Advocate, Sustainability: Vision or Buzzword in Northampton?, 10/2/08

…Alas, 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.

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.

Springfield Works on Infill Housing Design Guidelines; Residential Design Presentation by Dietz & Company
The City of Springfield conducted a housing design forum on June 26 to gather public input. Noting this the day before in The Springfield Intruder, Bill Dusty writes,

Let’s hope the City acts on some of the recommendations. I’ve visited many neighborhoods where oddly-fitting housing designs have made a street look disconnected – duplexes next to historical houses, for example, on Eastern Avenue. Too often, it seems, design takes a back seat to rapid construction because of the City’s apparently eager desire to rake in real estate tax dollars as soon as possible.
Download Envisioning Sustainable Northampton – Final Notre Dame Studio Presentation Book
This book was prepared by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture Urban Design Studio for the Northampton Design Forum to stimulate discussion about urban design and sustainability in Northampton.

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

Envisioning Sustainable Northampton: Notre Dame Urban Design Presentation – Slides

Video and Slides: Final Presentation of Design Northampton Week
An old court house is contrasted with a new one:

The old Post Office is contrasted with the new one:

nomp-haho: “City Council – Village Hill Northampton” (9/27/09)
In every historical planning document relevant to this project, we see the intention to create a mixed-use village on the South Campus. The South Campus would support a diverse assortment of businesses, including technology, light industry, the arts, education, and service. Plans have called for a mixed-use village with a walking-friendly, bustling atmosphere that would draw visitors from across the region. Now we have an industrial park with a single tenant, Kollmorgen.

Notre Dame Northampton Charrette Critical of Hospital Hill Plans, Fleshes Out Alternative