Guest columnist Bill Ryan: More big buildings in Northampton’s backyards

  • Created by Bill Ryan, this projection aims to show what could happen at 14 Garfield St. in Florence should zoning changes before the City Council get approved Thursday night. Submitted photo

Published: 3/16/2021 2:46:44 PM

I volunteer for Save Bay State Village, a group seeking to stop aggressive, out-of-control development that is densifying and gentrifying our Northampton neighborhood.

Last week the Gazette reported that Northampton’s City Council advanced an ordinance to encourage building more two-family houses throughout Northampton. A final council vote is pending this Thursday.

The story put a fine face on the proposal. It failed to mention, however, the developer-friendly provisions that could be called “more big buildings in Northampton’s backyards.”

The “fine face” storyline, based on quotes from the City’s Assistant Director of Planning Carolyn Misch, had four points.

1. Single-family-home-only zoning is exclusive.

2. Two-family homes will create more equitable housing opportunities.

3. More rentals will be provided.

4. Some two-family homes must be heated without fossil fuels.

I’m all for this. I’m definitely not for “more big buildings in Northampton’s backyards.” I think most residents would agree with me.

If you are an aggressive developer, however, you may really like this aspect of the “two-family package,” which has two points.

1. Abolishment of a longstanding zoning provision that regulates building of “accessory dwelling units,” such as attached and stand-alone backyard dwellings. These units cannot be bigger than 900 square feet. Only owner-occupants can build them, and not developers.

2. Creation of a new category of use through most of the city with the tongue-twisting name of “two single-family dwellings per lot.”

This use requires approval by the Planning Board of any project. It allows anyone who owns a house with a big enough lot to add a new home in their backyard, built as tall as is allowed in their zoning district and as big as the open space on the property allows.

In the URB Zoning District that includes Bay State, Florence and other neighborhoods surrounding downtown, neighbors could, with enough open space, build a 35-foot-tall house in their backyard. Downtown (URC), such backyard houses could be 50-feet tall.

To be accurate, unlike all other parts of the city, current URB and URC zoning already allows a homeowner to add another full-size home.

What isn’t already allowed anywhere in the city, and will be in most of the city if this proposal passes, is for an aggressive developer to buy a deep enough property, demolish any existing house, split any wide-enough lot into multiple lots and build two new full-size-allowed houses on each lot — one at the street and one in the backyard.

For example, John Handzel of Nu-Way Homes is snapping up properties in Bay State and Florence. On one property he already has built multiple houses and at four others is angling do so.

He’s demolished, or has permits to demolish, existing lower-priced houses (around $250,000) on three of those properties, houses that a starting homeowner could restore with ingenuity and sweat equity — a Bay State tradition.

He’s dividing the lots into two or three little lots (as small as 50-by-75 feet) and using a developer-friendly provision called “zero lot line” to put some houses only 10 feet apart.

He’s building houses which sell for nearly $600,000. He’s planning to put them where lower-priced houses stood or now stand and in the side yards of homes he’ll resell.

Now the city wants to give him — and other developers who will follow this gravy train — easier access to the backyards of properties as well.

In our URB District, a lot just 50-feet wide and 150-feet deep could have two $600,000 houses, one in the front and one in the back. Organized in a condominium type of arrangement, each could be sold separately.

A similarly deep lot 100-feet wide could end up with four such houses, and a 150-foot wide lot, six.

Many properties in the URB District throughout Northampton fall into one of these lot sizes.

What prospective home buyer can compete with developers who see current homes as commodities to be razed and yards as something to be monetized for tremendous profit margins?

To be fair, the package of amendments require new construction of “two single family homes on one lot” to be heated without fossil fuels. This may slow developers down, but eventually they’ll comply because their prospective buyers can afford to pay any extra costs needed to meet this requirement.

The council is poised to give their final approval this Thursday. If you feel like I do, please let your city councilors (at-large and ward representatives) know two things: Yes for the two-family provisions. No to the developer-friendly “more big buildings in Northampton’s backyards” provisions.

Bill Ryan holds a master’s degree in technology and policy from M.I.T.
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