"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

October 18, 2007

Northampton's Blurred Vision On King Street Development

"Exactly who is acting unfriendly to new business?"

The headline and question above, and the following quoted text comes from Daryl Lafleur, who moderates the Paradise City Forum Yahoo Group, and writes the Northampton Redoubt blog for the Valley Advocate. In a recent post to the PCF Yahoo Group, where a discussion was being held on the development, or lack thereof, on the King St. corridor, Daryl offered a well thought out and critical assessment of why some developments there have been shelved, and who might bear responsibility for that. Looking at a long held myth the the City of Northampton is unfriendly towards business, Daryl sheds light on an open secret in the business community of Northampton. Namely, that it is not the City of Northampton who is standing in the way of the redevelopment of King St. On the contrary, Daryl lays out a case that clearly shows that it was the lobbying and lawsuits of current properties already on King St. who, in fear of truly free market competition, have sough the protection of a powerful nanny state to help prevent said developments from moving forward. It is an argument that bears repeating, and Daryl agreed to allow me to reprint his words here.

The following is Daryl's original post from the PCF Yahoo Group, verbatim.

As a supporter of the Big Box retail ordinances about five years ago, due to concerns about traffic proliferation in the city, it is disturbing that few proposals have materialized under this zoning. The new owners of the former Hill & Dale Mall are rumored to be considering re-using their existing building, a component of Smart Growth by the way, instead of tearing it down and complying with the new zoning. So be it. Perhaps though, it is time to rethink our collective goals for the King Street corridor. Consider the dichotomy in allowing big boxes near the downtown area with the advent of Smith College's Ford Hall and the Hilton Garden Inn, two projects drastically impacting existing neighborhoods in grand ways, but limiting retail big boxes on King Street, an area paved over long ago with fewer residents located nearby. Who does this zoning protect on King Street, Willard's gravel processing and Kollmorgen? Lia's car dealerships?

Perhaps it is time we better qualified and quantified for would-be developers the rationale behind the retail ordinances, along with providing the evidence that similar zoning works well elsewhere. Developers must be convinced that the financial risks they undertake will be somewhat mitigated by the local community, be it formally through zoning and informally by
where we choose to spend our dollars. We need our Economic Development Coordinator and our Committee for Economic Development, Housing, and Land Use to re-address these precisely crafted rules. If they aren't working quickly enough, let's consider making adjustments that will still protect smaller local businesses while providing more flexibility for new proposals. The community conversation has now shifted to a focus on passing a new meals tax, which could marginally stunt economic development. In my opinion we need to refocus on King Street and pursue a mixture of larger scale and smaller scale local establishments that complement one another in order to grow our economy. Relying absolutely on either component while excluding the other will likely bring with it difficulties and unintended consequences.

At the same time, also disturbing is the role commercial entitities have played in helping to quash the King Street re-development proposal at the former Honda dealership. Exactly who is acting unfriendly to new business? The Gazette of October 18, 2007 outlines briefly that Cooley Dickinson Hospital's plans erased a medical component to this proposal (read
competition) and also reminds us that Florence Savings Bank [FSB] sued the planning board once it was learned that a bank (also read competition) was planned, citing the lack of adequate traffic studies.

Let's revisit our recent history shall we, as the facts speak for themselves. (Some of you are going to love this irony, others I'm sure will not.) Note that FSB did not contest the state hospital re-development as planned, a development that promises to bring with it 8,616 new vehicle trips daily as well as new mortgage clients. I speculate that many FSB customers will be negatively impacted by this traffic, but where was the self proclaimed community bank when that issue was being debated? Rather, the president of FSB sits and/or sat on the board of the Northampton Development Corporation, a corporation that contributed to the Committee for Jobs and Housing on Hospital Hill in 2003 thereby supporting the demolition
of Old Main and a poorly designed (in my view) and ever-changing site plan. Some of us in the community feel the evidence presented by the Hospital Hill traffic studies was basically ignored by some of the same people who have now moved to prevent a nearby King Street development due, ironically, to traffic concerns. Moreover, it would be interesting to research what kind of traffic studies FSB was required to perform when they placed their building at the Finn Street-King Street intersection. Are they now asking for new development proposals to meet a higher standard than what they were required to meet? I don't know the answer to this.

This seems suspiciously like a case of commercial NIMBYism if you ask me, but where are the ordinarily-vocal Smart Growth advocates pointing this out? Moreover, if FSB is committed to "serving our community" as their advertising campaign asserts, why move to inhibit a new commercial, somewhat mixed-use, infill development project proposed within walking distance to downtown and adjacent to a future bike path? Where are the critics who quickly label residential neighborhood organizers as NIMBYs when they act in order to protect their residential quality of life from infill development?

As well a few years ago Stop & Shop, a corporate entity I frequent and once worked for, blocked the new food cooperative, of which I'm a member, from building a facility in the Potpurri shopping plaza, another infill project struck down in order to limit nearby competition. The local cooperative would have been located nearby a bicycle path and nearer to in-town neighborhoods. Stop & Shop's move resulted in the cooperative moving to an
outlier site on North King Street, a street lacking sidewalks and crosswalks, and a site that had been re-claimed by forest and undergrowth. Almost everyone who frequents the new store will need to utilize a motorized vehicle for access. More commercial NIMBYism, but where were the vocal critics when this was occurring? I suppose naming and criticizing modest groups of residents as NIMBYs is easier than doing the same for local corporate officials who perform similarly when protecting their business interests.

Best Regards,

Daryl G. LaFleur
LABELS: city government, development, king st corridor