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

November 02, 2007

Developing The Round House Lots. Why Not Hampton Ave?

Alternatively titled, How Many Public Hearings Do You Need To Have Until You Get To The Middle Of The Lollipop? What if no one is licking?

Over at the Paradise City Forum Yahoo Group, people have been discussing the development and planning of Northampton, with the new Hilton Hotel project in the Round House an underlying theme.

I've asked those who were writing there if I could reproduce their commentary here, and some have agreed.
Joel Russell, a land use attorney and urban planner; Aaron Helfand, a student of architecture and urban design at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture; and Wayne Feiden, Director in the Office of Planning and Development office of Northampton. I have highlighted some of the commentary below, as I found it very informative and engaging, and wanted it to share it with those who are reading here.

The discussion started when someone posted to the group, referencing the North St. Neighborhood Association's commentary on Northampton's Draft Sustainability Plan,

Remember what they say about New York, i.e. "Its a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Many of us have moved here from New York and other cities, to escape the concrete and unaffordable housing they are known for. I hope we don't go down that road, as we deal with the need for more housing, particularly affordable housing; issues of flood safety; and designing sustainable development...
Aaron wrote in at this point, responding, [Ed.: Emphasis Mine]
Applying a 'new urbanist' planning philosophy to Northampton doesn't mean transforming it into New York city, or sacrificing its greenery. It means strengthening the qualities that we already like about the place. This fall, I've been studying in Rome, and traveling throughout Italy looking at some of the most admired towns in the world...The neighborhood where I'm living in Rome is similar, and is very much a 'real' neighborhood, not just a tourist destination.
Aaron continued,
So as wonderful as Northampton is right now, it is possible to make it even better, in ways that natives and visitors alike should welcome. There are a number of sites downtown that can be 'filled in,' and as long as it is done well, it will enhance the character of the city, not detract from it. I'm thinking in particular of the vast expanses of parking lots, most within a block or two of main street - if these could be consolidated into structured parking with commercial and residential buildings facing the streets, or perhaps fronting on new parks, we could greatly increase density and improve the aesthetic character of the town at the same time...To me, the recent projects on Strong Avenue and State Street are exemplary, and should be seen as a model for future development. It is amazing to see how those two streets have been transformed from shabby out-of-the-way side streets to handsome extensions of the downtown. Lets do more along these lines!
It was at this point that I wrote in with a some questions and concern about these very issues. Commenting on the choice of the Round House lot for development, as opposed to the parking lots on Hampton Ave, which seemed a more natural choice for development in my opinion, I wrote,
...why did the city choose the Round House lot as opposed to the lot on Hamden Ave? That expanse of parking, smack dab in the middle of our downtown, just seems so poorly thought out. But with all that said, what do I know? And I mean that sincerely. Can anyone here with with knowledge of planning, development, or the like speak to why developing the Hamden Ave lots might not be a good idea?
Joel Russell attempted to answer my question by writing,
I think the answer to Paolo’s question about Hampton Avenue is that the Roundhouse lot became available because it was a brownfield that needed to be cleaned up, funds were available for that purpose, and putting it to productive reuse became a priority of the City’s planners. I have no problem with that in concept - it’s all in the design and execution. As far as Hampton Avenue is concerned, the SDAT team, which helped get the Sustainable Northampton plan started, identified the parking lots there as prime sites for urban infill and I agree that this is a good concept for that area, as long as it is designed well and something is done about replacing the parking that would be lost.
After some comments from other members of the PCF Yahoo Group, praising the commentary and asking critical questions about the planning process and design proposals, Aaron responded to some thoughts and comments by Joel Russell,
For the most part, I've been pleased with recent developments, and so I had high hopes for the hotel project - I actually think that a hotel on that site, if done well, could be a real asset to the city, bringing more visitors to main street, and transforming Pulaski Park into a more lively focal point for the downtown (It would really benefit from an active 'third side' and a good architectural 'backdrop,' as it were). How disappointing to see such good intentions ruined by poor design. I actually met with the project architect this past summer (I was considering creating a counter-proposal as an academic project), and he showed no interest whatsoever in doing anything beyond the standard strip-mall hotel, no interest in aesthetics or in creating anything that will last beyond the next few decades. The developer was slightly more sympathetic, but still didn't seem to understand just how bad the building was going to be.
It was at this time that Wayne Feiden joined the discussion, to help answer the question I had as to why the City chose the Round House lot as opposed to the Hampton Ave parking lots. Wayne writes,
One more comment on the Hampton Avenue lot. It is also part of the same brownfields project (the Roundhouse Coal Tar migrated to this lot) and was looked at as part of this project. The 2005 architectural feasibility that we had done for the Roundhouse lot also included a quick assessment of this lot for reuse, and identified three possible approaches (like all of our major planning documents, it is posted on our website-- this is the Ford Gillen report). There are two reasons why the city issued an RFP for the Roundhouse lot and not the Hampton Avenue lot in last years RFP round. First, the Roundhouse reuse has greater development opportunities, given its frontage on a park and its easy pedestrian access to Main Street. Second, the Roundhouse reuse came out of several plans and extensive discussions over the years.
I am not sure I agree with the sentiment expressed by Wayne that the Round House lot has greater development opportunities than does Hampton Ave, but I am encouraged to know it is on their radar.

After I requested permission to reprint these comments, Wayne noted as an aside, in an email to me, that he thought it would be helpful to the discussion to note all the public meetings that have been held on this process, so that members of the community could have a better understanding of all of the public meetings that were held before any decisions being made. Wayne's suggestion resonated with me, as there has been much public griping about a lack of community involvement or input in this project. Specifically, many people feel they were not listened to, or alternatively, that the City rushed this project through with no discussion. That might be true, but it is also true that as far back as four years ago, I had discussions with people about the development of Round House lot, and specifically, the rumors that we might be getting a new hotel. I remember reading the articles in the paper about the RFP, and being excited about a new infill development in downtown Northampton. Did the City make any effort or requests to include the community in this decision? Did the community respond to those requests? If the answer to those questions is no, should the City have tried harder?

As food for thought, Wayne Feiden has provided me with a Roundhouse Lot Surplus and Redevelopment History document, which includes all the public hearings held on this issue reaching back to 1972. I will be posting that document later this afternoon.

LABELS: downtown, development, city government