Guest columnist Dorrie Brooks: New homes in Bay State are different by design

  • New construction at 8 and 12 Warner St., formerly part of the home lot of 170 Federal St., the white house seen at left, in the Bay State Village section of Northampton. Photographed on Friday, Feb. 19. Gazette file photo

Published: 3/4/2021 9:42:16 AM

I want to acknowledge the importance of the concerns raised by Bay State residents about recent infill development, including Mary McKitrick (“Runaway development has one goal,” Feb. 26).

As a resident of Bay State, I agree that the new construction in our village is impacting the character of our neighborhood. What Bay State lacks in architectural consistency it makes up for in unexpected pockets of open space. The new homes at Warner and Federal streets represent a departure from what we are used to. But that is by design.

Amendments to our city zoning bylaws enacted in 2013 loosened restrictions on density and buildable areas. Recent projects along Hinkley and Winslow avenues took advantage of these new rules, but with far less controversy. The construction on the corner of Federal and Warner streets is more irritating and I believe it is mainly because these new 1,800-square-foot homes are on a sloping site that creates the impression that they are looming over the street.

As an architect, I wish they had been designed with more sensitivity. But I don’t agree that this project or others should be halted; and I strongly oppose any movement to reduce the buildable area rules in the urban residential (URB) district.

Bay State has never been static. Current land use patterns are the result of 400 years of evolution in planning (and non-planning). Our lovable, if motley, assemblage of homesteads owes its character to previous decades of existence as a woodland, a small group of agricultural estates, and a water-powered mill housing district. My neighbors two doors down live in what was once the manor home of the area until that parcel was subdivided in the 1940s, enabling our home to be built. The same parcel was divided again in the 1970s. I am sure the previous owners of our house were put out when a new house popped up 20 feet away from their living room, but I can’t imagine the world without our current neighbors.

My point is that at any moment in time any resident of Bay State would have had good reason to complain about changes on the horizon, and if Bay State political culture is any indication, they probably did.

What we know and cling to today as our defining land-use pattern is most closely identified with the zoning bylaws that predominated across Northampton in the 1970s. In that era it seems to have been assumed that no decent American would dare to live in a house without a generous front yard and respectable setback from one’s neighbor. From this era we inherited not only miles of suburbs, but also the roads, cars and fossil fuel emissions that were its inevitable consequence.

When the City Council amended zoning bylaw changes in 2014, they did so to promote infill development with the intent of reducing suburban sprawl. It was a progressive environmental decision. I moved to Northampton because it is a community that has the courage to tackle complex problems and this is a great example of Northampton doing just that.

That said, I share Ms. McKitrick’s concerns about the lack of affordable homes in the city and would love to see private developers find ways to take advantage of our zoning bylaws to create more starter homes. But I also know firsthand that the cost of land, labor and materials today make it infeasible for private developers to build small, one-off, code compliant, high performing and affordable homes without the assistance of public subsidies.

In Bay State there is a small, undeveloped lot for sale for $150,000. The average cost of construction in the city to meet current code requirements is around $225 per square foot. A modest 1,200-square-foot single-family home on this site would have to sell for $420,000 to cover costs, which does not begin to be affordable for a first-time, low-income home buyer.

The problem we have is not a zoning problem, it is a poverty problem. Rather than attacking Nu-Way Homes for their work, we should work as a community to generate affordable housing and environmental policies that maintain the economic diversity and health of our city. As a society as a whole we need higher incomes, alternative financial instruments, better regulation of the rental market and more public investment in Chapter 40B housing.

But we can also do our part locally by re-establishing a community housing land trust to provide qualifying buyers access to home ownership and the opportunity to build equity in a home.

What we do not need is to flinch in the face of predictable opposition that overstates the city’s power over private development and understates the importance of zoning reforms that protect our environment.

Dorrie Brooks of Northampton is an architect at Jones Whitsett Architects in Greenfield.

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