Northampton planners detail zoning overhaul

  • The former Hampshire Probate Court building at 33 King St. in Northampton.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The former Hampshire Probate Court building at 33 King St. in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/28/2022 8:52:48 PM
Modified: 1/28/2022 8:51:30 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council in the coming weeks will consider a planned overhaul of zoning ordinances in downtown Northampton and Florence Center, a rethinking of design and form standards as well as allowed uses for commercial space.

The Planning Board held a virtual public forum Thursday night to present the proposal, called a form-based code, that officials have been working on for four years. The forum was the final step before the plan is submitted to the council for review.

Carolyn Misch, Northampton’s assistant director of planning and sustainability, said the city’s “zoning is stale. It’s not meeting the current market trends.” She said the new code would “create predictability, yet flexibility” and “define expectations” for development, setbacks of buildings and uses of frontage while streamlining the approval process.

The new code is designed to promote the different neighborhood characters of downtown Northampton and Florence Center. It will allow for more multifamily housing on side streets and on the ground floor of some commercial buildings in each neighborhood, but residential units are not required.

The city hired the consulting firm Dodson & Finkler in 2018 to organize focus groups and public forums to identify residents’ desired zoning changes. The firm compiled a 102-page proposal that Misch presented to the public on Thursday. “We’re going to do kind of a final cleanup, code review, and pull this all together into a package” for City Council review, Misch said.

“I wouldn’t say it would be fast” to implement, she said, though under the new code, more renovations are likely to occur than new construction.

“What’s great about a form-based code is that it’s based on what you have there already,” Joel Russell, a Northampton resident and executive director of Form-Based Codes Institute, said at the forum. “The whole idea is to unite the public realm, as it affects individual buildings on the street and the street itself. I hope those two things are brought together successfully.”

A forum participant who identified himself as Eric B. said he was concerned about “a reluctance to narrow car lanes” and about the use of concrete for sidewalks, which he described as a “high global warming potential material.”

Despite those concerns, “it’s definitely great to see this moving forward,” he said. “Hopefully it will prevent the imposition of corporate designs.”

Misch said the city plans to use concrete and not paving stones for sidewalks because it’s easier to maintain concrete as an even surface in line with Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.

The 102-page proposal, available online at northamptonma.gov/plan, contains about 20 ordinances. Comments can be emailed to cmisch@northamptonma.gov.

Planning Board chair George Kohout said the current ordinance is “a little hard to interpret sometimes” and called the new plan “great.” He asked for comments from the public on the form-based code, saying, “It’s really, really helpful to have those extra eyes on it.”

‘One of ugliest buildings’

Planning and sustainability director Wayne Feiden provided an update on the city’s efforts to evaluate the former Hampshire Probate Court building at 33 King St.

“Perhaps you know it as Probate Court, or perhaps you know it as one of the ugliest buildings in the city,” Feiden said. The state transferred the site to the city last year for $1 with the understanding that the city will sell it; the state and city would then split the proceeds.

But environmental concerns and the presence of asbestos have delayed the process and the city has not taken ownership yet.

“We can’t take title until we understand hazardous materials,” Feiden said. At one point in the past, there were four underground gas tanks on site, and the state has no record of what happened to them. “We will not take the property until we know about potential leaks.”

The city is working to determine the conditions of sale, which would guide the eventual development. Feiden said those conditions could include insulation and heating standards and a ban on fossil fuel use.

He said that the city might consider an affordable housing plan, but there are drawbacks, includin the steady traffic of 15,000 cars per day in the area.

Feiden said that using 33 King St. for the city’s long-desired Community Resilience Hub “is one of the options,” but “we assume, most likely, the building is coming down.”


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