Video and Slides: Rezoning Northampton for a Sustainable Future; Citizens Debate Proposals at Forum

Here is a complete video of the 2/15/11 public forum, “Rezoning Northampton for a Sustainable Future”. The Zoning Revisions Committee (ZRC) presented proposals and alternatives for comment. This video is 1 hour 49 minutes long and was recorded by Adam Cohen. A similar forum will be held at Bridge Street School tonight at 7pm (details).


Several citizens said they found some current zoning regulations confining. For example, some wanted to convert garages into living quarters, but can’t because under today’s rules those structures are too close to their lot lines. Others, such as Barbara Dubeck in the first YouTube excerpt below, expressed concern that the changes being contemplated by the ZRC are substantial, and that the current balance of natural space in Northampton’s urban areas might be changed in ways current residents won’t like.

In its presentation, the Zoning Revisions Committee asserts some debatable claims as fact. These include:

Claim: Infill makes public transit more viable
Alternate opinion published in The Age:
In a paper for the journal Australian Planner, Dr John Stone, of the University of Melbourne, and Dr Paul Mees, of RMIT University, argue that many city dwellers have been presented with a false choice – live in apartments and enjoy good public transport or retain the house and land and rely on cars.

”Many planners, and other commentators on urban issues, appear to believe that getting significantly more people on public transport will not be possible until massive changes in suburban densities are achieved,” they write.

”The evidence challenges this view.”

“…we…argue that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.”

The keys to increasing public transport use in outer suburbs are more frequent buses, running at least every 10-15 minutes, and not just in peak hour; better co-ordination with rail services; more convenient transfers; and fares that allow free transfers between modes.

Claim: Infill reduces the need for new infrastructure
Alternate opinion from Randal O’Toole (PDF):
Another argument that smart growth advocates often use is that cities cannot afford to subsidize the sewers, water, and other infrastructure needed to support low-density suburbs. In fact, as noted by Harvard researchers Alan Altshuler and José Gómez-Ibáñez, it costs far less to provide infrastructure to new developments than it does to augment the infrastructure of existing areas to support the higher densities demanded by smart growth. Older studies that purported to demonstrate the “costs of sprawl”–which were based entirely on hypothetical data–seem to have gotten it backwards: An analysis of actual urban service costs by Duke University researcher Helen Ladd found that the costs are higher in higher densities.

Claim: More people makes a community more vibrant and increases safety through more “eyes on the street”
Alternate opinion from Oscar Newman, author of Defensible Space:
“I am not very impressed with the work of the New Urbanists,” Newman wrote shortly before he passed away in April 2004. “It is nostalgia–a throwback to the past, with little thought about what made those environments work then (long-term occupancy by an identical economic class and ethnic group), and unworkable today. The residential environments they are creating are very vulnerable to criminal behavior, unless, of course, these environments are exclusively occupied by high-income groups.”

And consider “CNNMoney: Single-Family Homes Part of Turnaround for South Bronx Neighborhood”:
Brook’s and [urban planner Ed] Logue’s vision was to go to the rotted core — Charlotte Street — and work outward. But most everyone advised them to rebuild starting from the healthy fringes. They wanted single-family homes; critics wanted density and multi-family dwellings, saying it would promote a lively, safe neighborhood and attract merchants…

Homeownership was made possible by discounting the houses: Each property sold for between $50,000 and $59,000 even thought it cost an average of $110,000 to build. The difference was funded through federal dollars, but the City of New York and various foundations also helped subsidize buyers…

…succeed it did. Original buyers invested and stayed; fewer than a dozen homes out of the 92 have ever been sold. Plus, while the rest of the country is being wracked by foreclosures, Charlotte Gardens has lost just one home to the plague…

Property values, too, have soared. Homes that originally went for $50,000 now sell for ten times that — when one is available…

None of this is to say that everything the Zoning Revisions Committee is proposing is bad, but it does imply there are more variables that go into a successful city than the ZRC may be considering. In the light of such complexity, we urge a slow and cautious tread.

Here are the slides shown at the forum (click for a summary of the measures proposed by the ZRC):

Here are notes taken by ZRC member Jim Nash of the public’s comments at the forum:

See also:

Letter to Gazette: “Northampton zoning change deserves closer look” (2/14/11)
“Sustainable for whom?”

We’ve considered this question a lot lately as we watch our neighbors undergo an extensive home addition. The construction meets all the green building standards, but in a heartbreaking twist, has eliminated our “green,” blocking our sunlight, sky and views.

Take the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association Survey on infill, zoning, and design (2/14/11)