Joel Russell: Get Roundhouse project right in Northampton
This computer model by David Pesuit shows one design for a mixed-use building at the rear of Pulaski Park in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — The Oct. 1 public meeting about the future of the Roundhouse parking lot was a step in the right direction for a key site in our downtown. I am confident it will produce better results than the ill-conceived Hilton Garden Inn proposal.
However, I had concerns I hope the ad hoc committee will consider:
• I had thought that this first meeting was to solicit input before design work was undertaken. Instead, the consultants from Utile in Cambridge presented design concepts before there was any public comment about goals and objectives for the site, other than a few small focus group sessions. The public was put in the awkward position of having to respond to detailed conceptual design work, which we were seeing for the first time and had no chance to think about before responding.
Although the work was an improvement on the Hilton Garden Inn, it came to many premature conclusions about what would and would not work and gave the impression, despite disclaimers, that decisions had been made. This could undermine public confidence in the openness of the process.
• Two fundamental assumptions should be examined before moving forward.
The first seemed to be that the consultant would create a project design that would be discussed with the ad hoc committee and the public, approved by the City Council and then offered to prospective developers through a request for proposals. While this is one way to proceed, there are others that might be more effective and should at least be discussed. I have seen and been involved in projects where a public process was first used to determine the community’s vision and goals for a project.
The next step was the designation of a preferred developer with the experience and track record to work collaboratively with the community, a developer with a reputation for developing a project design through an open and inclusive process. This assured that the project was economically feasible, publicly acceptable and carried out by a credible developer who understands the community.
The second assumption was that parking would drive the design. I recognize that this is a parameter laid down by the City Council up front. But it should not go unexamined. Many of us believe that Northampton is special not because of its parking but because of its urban fabric, walkability, liveliness, arts scene, special people and design quality. Parking is critical to the economics of a project, but should not drive our vision or decision.
Parking should be viewed in context. Every successful downtown has a perceived parking problem. If it doesn’t, then it has a real economic problem. There are lots of dead downtowns with plenty of parking.
“Happening places” never seem to have enough parking on a Saturday night. And that’s OK. It is actually an indicator of success. Some cars may have to park a few blocks away on Elm Street or in the Smith College garage a few times each year. We are lucky we have this kind of parking problem.
• At least two Northampton design professionals, and possibly others, have done thoughtful studies of this site on their own time and at their own expense.
Several months ago the Gazette published a concept created by David Pesuit, a local businessman and engineer, who envisioned an attractive housing/mixed use development on the site, with a seamless connection to Pulaski Park.
Architect Tristram Metcalfe circulated a plan of his own with more of an emphasis on large open spaces and a Route 66 bypass. My view is that Pesuit’s plan was more realistic and better suited to an urban downtown that needs housing, pedestrian connections, compatible architecture and intimate public spaces.
This would make Pulaski Park into a true town square, a worthy goal. But my personal opinion on this is beside the point. Many local designers have given careful thought to this site. They should have a chance to present their ideas in an open public forum. Rather than just selecting among options prepared by an out-of-town consultant (and I am an out-of-town consultant myself by profession), we need to have an ongoing public process that allows the best thinking among our well-informed citizenry to be aired and to help shape the project.
I hope that the Oct. 1 meeting was just a first step to get the ball rolling, and that the ad hoc committee overseeing this process will open it up in a structured way to allow citizens and local experts to have a meaningful say over the future of this site.
It is not too late to do that, and a truly open discussion will lead to a design that does justice to the site and enlivens the heart of the city. It is more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly.
If Utile’s recommendations were intended only to start a discussion, then they have done a useful service. But if we feel that we are bound by their assumptions and recommendations, we will miss the opportunity to create a place that resonates with who we are, what our city means to us and why we love Northampton.
Joel Russell is a planning consultant and land use attorney with a national practice based in Northampton.