Video: Zoning Revisions Committee Meeting of 10/6/10; King Street Forum Comments; Planning Staff Offer Suggestions

Here is a complete video of the 10/6/10 meeting of Northampton’s Zoning Revisions Committee. The committee discussed a search for a new chair, comments from the recent forums on King Street, and suggestions from the planning staff on what activities to prioritize through next spring. This video is 1 hour 47 minutes long and was recorded by Adam Cohen.

Here is a YouTube video excerpt where the committee discusses a search for a new chair in light of Joel Russell’s recent resignation from the committee. Vice Chair Danielle Kahl expresses a willingness to consider the position but seeks reassurance that the committee won’t necessarily be expected to forward the Chamber of Commerce’s zoning proposals for King Street (PDF) without change.

Danielle Kahn: “I think that I would be willing to serve as chair…but…I wouldn’t want to bring us through a process–particularly, obviously with regard to King Street–if we weren’t all on board that there might be significant compromise to the Chamber proposal, like that there could be changes to it…if there’s going to be like a lot of resistance to any change to it at all, then I think it’s going to be really difficult for me to help us to do that, you know, or any chair for that matter.”

ZRC members circulated a draft of comments from the recent public forums on King Street zoning:

Also circulated was a memo to the Zoning Revisions Committee and the Planning Board from Wayne Feiden, Director of Planning and Development, and Carolyn Misch, Senior Land Use Manager/Permits Manager. In contrast to Joel Russell, who believes that a thorough rewrite of Northampton’s zoning is a priority, Feiden and Misch believe that “low-hanging fruit” should be plucked first.

As a heads up to residents of North Street and other streets that lie near the boundary between zones URB (medium urban residential density) and URC (highest urban residential density), page 4 of the Feiden/Misch memo suggests that during January-April 2011, the ZRC should “determine areas within walking distance to commercial centers whose zoning designation should be amended (e.g. properties zoned URB that should be zoned URC).” (Download PDF of Northampton zoning map)

This has the potential to bring substantial change to the rezoned areas, such as higher densities, smaller lots, reduced setbacks between structures, reduced open space, and a change in permissable uses. The changes could be compounded if the rules for URC itself are loosened to allow a greater intensity of land use.

NSNA is not opposed to all change. However, when tinkering with neighborhoods that are healthy and where residents are largely satisfied, we believe that changes should be slow, gradual and cautious. The 20th century is littered with examples of vibrant neighborhoods that were harmed by well-meaning plans. See, for example, this PDF of a presentation on “The Tragedy of the West End Urban Renewal in Boston”.

A separate issue is the prospect of the loss of trees in streets rezoned from URB to URC. These trees are a major amenity, prized by residents, that beautify the neighborhood, cool the air, absorb stormwater, and boost property values.

When changes to a neighborhood are rapid and unpredictable, there is a risk that many residents will move away in a sprawl-like fashion, heading for places where they can get more space, a more natural environment, and more predictability in local land use.

Consider the example of Prince William County in Virginia. John K. Carlisle of The National Center for Public Policy Research tells the story. “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:

Joel Russell Explains Resignation from Zoning Revisions Committee; Comments on King Street Rezoning (9/22/10)
…As a consultant I always start a project with a review of the existing zoning ordinance and any relevant community plans. In Northampton’s case, the City had recently adopted the Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan, which serves as the basic guidance document for reviewing and revising the zoning. My review of Northampton’s zoning ordinance, done with the able assistance of two professional volunteer colleagues on the ZRC, led me to the conclusion that a comprehensive revision of the frequently incomprehensible Northampton zoning ordinance was needed, and that a piecemeal revision would not work because of the highly interrelated nature of many sections of the document. I arrived at this conclusion not only from my own analysis and that of my colleagues, but also from interviewing some of the most knowledgeable professionals in the community who have tried to understand and work with Northampton’s highly obscure zoning code. (Interestingly, the recently formed Charter Commission reached the same conclusion about the City Charter.) I reported this conclusion to the ZRC early on. The ZRC concurred with the first part of my conclusion (i.e. that a comprehensive revision was necessary) but disagreed with my second conclusion that it was not advisable to try to work on the zoning in a piecemeal fashion. The Planning staff also thought that the piecemeal approach was appropriate and stated that it had worked in the past. We respectfully disagreed on this point.

I thought that many of the problems with the current zoning ordinance were caused, at least in part, by this piecemeal approach, involving incremental changes to a fundamentally flawed document. The current zoning was adopted in the days when promoting suburban sprawl was the main objective of land use regulation. Adding layers of more regulation and exceptions to exceptions made the document more complicated, incomprehensible, contradictory, and opaque. I had observed exactly the same problem with incremental zoning revision in every other community I advised as a professional consultant. Having been down this road several times before, I could see what was coming. When a community did not want to face up to the need to do a comprehensive revision and struggled, often for years or even decades, to patch what was essentially a broken document, it finally realized that a comprehensive overhaul was necessary. In many cases, I was retained because of a community’s frustration with trying to do the task piecemeal. I was generally able to give them a viable working draft of a completely revised zoning ordinance within 4 -6 months. This draft then became the starting point for a revision process which varied in length, but solved a whole range of problems all at once, and sometimes in as little as two years.

As it happens, my concern about piecemeal revision was inconsistent with the charge to the ZRC, which was essentially to look at the zoning section by section, in a piecemeal fashion. In hindsight, I see that I should have resigned at that point, when I realized that my own professional judgment about how to go about the task conflicted with the explicit charge to the Committee from the Planning Board and with the majority sentiment of the Committee itself. Instead, I thought I should do my best to fulfill the committee’s charge as written, despite my misgivings about the approach.

Hazards of Mixed Use: Residents Clash with Noisy Bars and Restaurants  

Videos: Zoning for King Street, 9/29/10; Sussman, Horton, Budgar

Videos: Zoning for King Street, 9/21/10

Chamber Plans to Take King Street Proposals to Planning Board if Zoning Revisions Committee ‘Bogs Down’ in Process (6/25/10)

Video: Chamber Presents “Rezoning King Street” to Planning Board (6/13/10)

Video: Zoning Revisions Discusses Making Core Urban Neighborhoods More “Conforming”, More Dense (4/22/10)
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.

Houston Chronicle: “Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage Grove…”
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.”

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…

“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 (such as areas with R-2 or R-3 zoning), it is essential to neighborhood stability that new apartment buildings be designed in scale and context with the early architectural features of the neighborhood…

EPA: Urban Heat Islands
Heat islands form as cities replace natural land cover with pavement, buildings, and other infrastructure.

Bay State Village Visioning Project: Survey Results