Video: Zoning Revisions Discusses Making Core Urban Neighborhoods More “Conforming”, More Dense

Here is a 7-minute YouTube excerpt from last night’s meeting of the Zoning Revisions Committee, recorded by Adam Cohen. It is observed that in zoning district Urban Residential C (URC)–the dense neighborhoods surrounding downtown Northampton–perhaps 40% of the existing single-family homes are “non-conforming”, and the percentage for multi-family homes is even higher. These homes don’t meet today’s zoning requirements for lot size.

Some members of the committee are interested in changing the zoning code so that 70% of the lots in URC will become “conforming”. This implies greater density would be allowed, perhaps much greater. Committee chair Joel Russell observes this might cause an increased need for parking spaces.

The risks of poorly managed densification are substantial. These include parking shortages, traffic jams, overwhelmed infrastructure, vanished greenspace and charming historic neighborhoods turned into an ugly mishmash of incompatible buildings. We hope city officials will study the experience of places like San Diego and Houston, and put protections in place before contemplating higher densities in the infill receiving areas. These protections include infill design guidelines, an appraisal of increased needs for parking and infrastructure, and monitoring tree canopy and impervious surface by ward.

Northampton’s historic downtown neighborhoods were built in a time when cars were more scarce (or nonexistent). It is risky to assume that households will gladly give up their cars to return to those bygone days. A car gives you access to more jobs, better jobs, cheaper goods, and more friends and activities. This is not to say that cars can’t be shrunk and improved to reduce their impact on the environment.

See also:

Proposed Future Land Use Map (PDF)

The orange zones are “Traditional Neighborhood and Receiving Areas”. The light green zones are “Conservation Development and Sending Areas”.

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Joel Russell’s Introduction to Form-Based Zoning, as Presented to the Northampton Design Forum, 1/26/10 (PDF, 10MB)

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We are encouraged by language like “ensure that new development does not degrade the quality of existing neighborhoods and mitigates traffic” and “encouraging designs compatible with historic neighborhoods”. We are concerned, however, about the reference to densities of 50 years ago. Much has changed since then. In particular, women have far more jobs outside the home, meaning more cars are on the road. By the same token, more families have become too busy to dedicate an adult to shopping in small amounts on a daily basis. If you’re buying 50 pounds of groceries and supplies at a time, you’re probably going to prefer to do that by car rather than walk or use the bus. Factors like these mean that a neighborhood that had comfortable density in 1957 might be perceived as congested with cars today.