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Hospital Hill: Not Mindless Sprawl

Comments (2)
Thursday, June 26, 2008

In principle, I agree with Mark Roessler's point in "No 'Village' at Hospital Hill" (June 12, 2008) that it is unfortunate that the primary commercial occupant of the site will be a defense contractor moving from elsewhere in town. As a member of the CAC (who was away for the May 22 meeting), I am in sympathy with the goals of the project to attract new commercial investment, jobs, and tax base on the South Campus to offset, and ideally exceed, the fiscal costs of mixed residential uses on the North Campus. But sadly, the economy being what it is today, keeping Kollmorgen and its jobs in town is a pragmatic necessity; presumably they would move elsewhere if this site is not available.

There is, however, an air of neo-pastoral unreality in the term "village" as applied by New Urbanist designers like Peter Calthorpe, an early design consultant on Hospital Hill. Just because a design envisions a mix of land uses and building types, and includes sidewalks, bike paths, and green spaces (all important elements, to be sure), does not mean that a site like Hospital Hill will in any way resemble "Florence, Leeds, or Bay State" as asserted by Roessler (leaving aside the many differences among those neighborhoods).

New Urbanism is a development marketing strategy appealing to nostalgia for small town settings, neighborliness and sense of place. It thrives on the fallacy that "real" villages like Florence, where I live, can somehow be replicated in brand new development by providing front porches, neo-Victorian window and doorway treatment and other design gimmicks. Such places may prove to be useful and habitable new homes, especially if affordable in price, but they do not ipso facto comprise a "village." Indeed, the term has become an all-purpose buzzword as in "Global Village," "It Takes a Village . . ." and as such is almost meaningless. Falling short of the hype, therefore, is hardly a surprise and not evidence of a municipal sellout.

Hospital Hill is indeed one of the prime development opportunities in Western Massachusetts. Years ago I argued as a Planning Board member against siting the new Hampshire County jail nearby as a blight on desirable future uses of adjoining state property (at least the prisoners have a view!). But I was perhaps too pessimistic. We are fortunate to have Jonathan Wright as a residential builder on the North Campus, and Kollmorgen should be required to provide state of the art design for their proposed building, parking lots and traffic management. The results of these and other construction projects still to come will not create a "village" because villages don't happen like that. But the outcome should still be more attractive and beneficial than mindless sprawl.

Rutherford H. Platt

Professor of Geography Emeritus




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Not quite. In the second paragraph Prof. Platt agrees to New Urbanist principles (such as walkability, which is what Calthorpe's all about) but in the 3rd contradicts himself by implying they're not part of New Urbanism. Contrary to Prof PLatt, 'village', 'city', and 'town' have all been fairly flexible and inexact words for a long time now, 'city' in particular---the differences in growth between NY, Detroit, and Washington, DC come to mind. Platt's appeal to local pride of history is inappropriate and misleading because there are plenty of places, Old World and New, that went up almost overnight and with a great deal of central planning (DC in particular, was planned and built over a swamp.) Civic design, at the heart of New Urbanism, has much to teach us when it comes to living free of the constraints GM and Ford have worked into our society. Or perhaps it's disregard for manufactured, tract products that Prof Platt is expressing--in which case I think it misplaced, because that's just how houses are built nowadays. It just means that plans (or development without plans, one type of sprawl) can be executed that much more quickly. The problem is not the house per se, but how and what land is developed, because without planning houses will go up willy-nilly or in subdivisions far from anywhere. Organic development like what was accomplished in early New England cannot proceed naturally under the influence of a petrochemical-powered economy. This challenge of appropriate growth at the appropriate site has been the challenge of New Urbanism, to develop and leave plenty of arable land to families who want to farm, graze animals or garden (previous projects, such as Seaside, sometimes became like summer resorts, with owners leaving during the off-season, or like little towns dependent on other places for food, much the same way Boston used to depend on other places for livestock because of its limited grazing areas); as such, the separate agendas of planners such as Arendt, the eco-village movement and New Urbanism are coming together. And remember, the original project had its own downtown, with retail stores that could fall back into the hands of local business-owners should the retail fail. The same can't be said for KollMorgen. What with oil peaking, one can only wonder how long we'll need periscopes (I guess about 10, maybe 15 years tops. Then we'll have an empty big box building.) In fact, as gas prices continue to climb skyward more people will crave car-free. Indeed, as people pay an ever higher percentages of their income towards fuel (11% right now) this would've been the cheapest way for people to own a home---the touted affordable "lower-income housing" the Mayor claims she wants? Prof Platt's off-the-cuff regarding "state-of-the-art design for proposed building, parking lots and traffic management" does nothing to allay my fears regarding traffic flow across town. Further, the initial design of the project as a self-sufficient enclave has been abandoned in favor of a housing development. These people will necessarily add more cross-town traffic, and traffic-dependent development is the hallmark feature of sprawl.
Posted by n on 6.28.08 at 14:24
It Takes More Than A Village Mark Roessler and the Valley Advocate deserve great thanks for this series on Hospital Hill. But I also agree with Professor Platt that the plans for Village Hill would not mean it would become a village. It was a "Village" for marketing. What is more unfortunate is that decisions made had nothing to do with good city planning. Northampton like all of Massachusetts is struggling to restore a lost economic base. Massachusetts plans the devotion of enormous resources to restore it with Life Sciences.There are real plans for bio-tech in Springfield. Biotech initiative may aid WMass- They would also be interested in Northampton if they had known the site "Available". Yet marketing to new business like research firms was minimal while the residential "Village" was over-hyped. Firms, like research firms, could have retained much of the historic architecture of Old Main, had sympathy for a suitable memorial, had minimal impact on congestion and generated a profound economic boost to the city. And followed the model "The legislation seeks $500 million for capital projects, including equipment and buildings that could be used jointly by academic centers and biotechnology companies." And Smith College could have been allowed and encouraged to build their Science and Engineering Complex there also. Mayor Higgins appoints the Office of Planning and Development, Planning Board, and chairs the CAC. Positioning herself as city planning director she has personally pushed through every development decision she preferred over the public's objection. While Northampton struggles for a plan to sustain its downtown business, she made the planning decision to sacrifice the Green/West St neighborhood that supported downtown business to the Science and Engineering Complex and instead chose and promoted a "Village on Hospital Hill" that would not. The mayor claimed she wanted "affordable housing" to be a "hallmark of her administration." And for people who worked for the city, she said like policeman and firefighters, to be able to buy a first home in Northampton. This of course was then being made recently possible because the sub-prime mortgage market had banks throwing money at previously under-qualified buyers and the state was supporting this boom in construction with tax subsidies for the developers and builders, many of whom also live in town. It was a fast feast for the mayor and her would-be supporters but, as could be expected, had nothing to do with good city planning. Village Hill might become attractive but it was still going to be a suburb and Kollmorgen's move from downtown to take the most valuable new development site are the definition of "mindless sprawl." Mayor Higgins continues to teach her citizens "not to waste time looking in our rear-view mirrors" the day after her decision is revealed. She and her Office of Planning and Development have invited citizens to offer their suggestions to improve how Kollmorgen will look after its unfortunately required move to Hospital Hill. We were offered the opportunity to say how we wanted the Green/West neighborhood to look after the unfortunate Ford Hall had to be built there. And we could offer our ideas on detailing for the Hilton Garden Inn wall ten feet from some resident's porch. These siting decisions are represented by the mayor as inevitable and regrettably "a done deal." Mayor Higgins tells us Smith would "sue the city,"and the Hilton people would "sue the city,"and Kollmorgen would "leave town" but I've never heard them say it themselves. I also never hear any evidence or any record or report that the Office of Plannng and Development worked with those developers in trying to find alternate sites to support the mayor's allegations that there was nowhere else for them to build. The mayor knows the stories at least a little more than half our citizens like and there's no need to look back on yesterday's development story because she has the same one ready for tomorrow. It's the kind of lullaby people would hear from the village chief. It is fortunate for Northampton that it has such concerned citizens to sponsor Notre Dame's urban design studio with personal contributions to create a plan that can realize the potential of Northampton, but there has been a lot of damage already done and we are still not sure how it will stop.
Posted by kenneth mitchell on 7.2.08 at 9:55



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