Public forum set for zoning changes in downtown Northampton and Florence Center

  • 33 King Street in Northampton.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • 33 King Street in Northampton STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An image shared by the city shows design standards for a business district side street using a form-based code. CITY OF NORTHAMPTON

  • Downtown Northampton, which now has three zoning districts, would become one business district with several sub-districts within it. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2022 11:22:33 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Planning Board will host a public forum next week on proposed zoning changes in downtown Northampton and Florence Center that would allow for additional multifamily housing, expand the possible uses for existing and new buildings, and set architectural design and form standards that promote the character of each neighborhood.

After the virtual forum scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m., the proposed zoning changes that have been in the works for the past four years — called a form-based code — will be introduced to the City Council for review.

The Planning Board will take public comment at the forum and provide an update on plans for the former Hampshire Probate and Family Court, a state-owned building at 33 King St. In September, the City Council passed an order that authorizes the mayor to accept the property as surplus from the state and enter into a profit-sharing agreement for an eventual sale, but the city is conducting due diligence before taking ownership.

Carolyn Misch, the city’s assistant director of planning and sustainability, said the goal is to use a form-based code for zoning in the downtown area and Florence’s business district. A form-based code sets design and form standards for how buildings relate to the surrounding streetscape, focusing on the interaction of public and private spaces with less of a concern for how buildings are used.

“You’re creating a space for people,” Misch said. “In particular, the goal was to create pedestrian and bicycle spaces so people feel like they want to be there.”

Multifamily housing would be allowed on more side streets and for a longer stretch of the Pleasant-King Street corridor, while first-floor housing could be added to existing structures such as the industrial-zoned former mill building at 34 North Maple St. in Florence, now home to businesses including Maple and Main Realty, Artifact Cider Project and Sohre Turbomachinery.

“Right now, we want commercial to occupy the first floor of buildings,” Misch said, but in recent years, office and retail space are in less demand than housing. “There’s a high demand for new residential, and residential in and around downtown. … We need to be flexible in allowing the reuse of these buildings.”

Downtown Northampton is composed of three zoning districts. The changes would create a single central business district with sub-districts in which more uses — including first-floor housing — would be allowed, and set standards for the appearance of new construction and the use of frontage.

Ward 4 City Councilor Garrick Perry said he is “excited about the prospect of using” a form-based code. He said the city needs to “revitalize downtown” Northampton, which is in Perry’s ward, and the proposal shows that the Planning & Sustainability Department “is willing to use every tool in their arsenal.”

“Flexibility is kind of what we need,” Perry said, adding that a form-based code “might help” to alleviate the city’s housing crisis. The city of Hartford, Connecticut uses a form-based code, and “it seems to be going well.”

The form-based code also merges standards set by different boards and by the city ordinance so that they are easier to find and follow, such as requirements for digging up and then repairing sidewalks.

A final written proposal will be made public within days, Misch said. Maps of the proposed zoning districts are available on the city website, along with a detailed table of uses that would be allowed in each district.

To attend the online forum, visit https://bit.ly/3Ag8dqs.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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