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Hospital Hill: Not Mindless Sprawl

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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

UMass-Amherst

 

 

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