Longtime Northampton planning director Feiden stepping down

  • Wayne Feiden, the director of the office of planning and sustainability, at the Pulaski Park bus stop with an electric bike. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Wayne Feiden, Director of Planning & Sustainability for the City of Northampton, discusses a proposed Animal Control Facility in front of neighboring residents, Saturday morning at the Moose Lodge site in Northampton, MA. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2022 8:37:42 PM
Modified: 5/24/2022 8:35:43 PM

NORTHAMPTON — One of Northampton’s longest-serving municipal leaders — a man the mayor described as “among the most influential government officials in Northampton history” — has announced he is retiring.

Wayne Feiden, who has served as the city’s director of planning since 1997, will be stepping down at the end of the month. The 64-year-old Feiden has served under five mayoral administrations during a 33-year tenure, beginning as an environmental planner in 1988 before advancing through the ranks to eventually become planning and sustainability director.

“I’ve loved, really, every moment of working here,” Feiden said Tuesday. “But it’s also time.”

In a statement, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said that the city owes Feiden “endless gratitude” for his approach to conservation, climate change, housing and “putting people and equity at the center of planning government projects.”

“Wayne must be counted among the rare Americans who built a career putting public service over self in service of a vision of a better community for everyone,” Sciarra said.

Reflecting on a quarter-century as Northampton’s planning director, Feiden recalled that King Street had been fully rebuilt shortly before he took over as planning director.

“It was built without a single pedestrian signal,” he said.

So Feiden got to work on “the least sexy thing you can imagine” — fundraising for a pedestrian crossing near the Stop & Shop. And as he watched people chip in their hard-earned dollars to make a street that they didn’t live on — and didn’t walk on — more walkable, he said, it was a wake-up call for city officials. The community had changed and wanted a more pedestrian-friendly city, he said.

“I always think about the paradigm shift,” he said. “I cherish those paradigm shifts of people waking up.”

And Feiden has been part of many of those paradigm shifts over the years. During his tenure, the city has quadrupled the amount of protected open space, which now accounts for a quarter of the entire city. The city has also expanded shared-use bike paths and other bicycle infrastructure, boosted grant writing, transformed regulations to encourage sustainable development and made the city a more walkable place.

Feiden explained that when buying open space over the past two decades, it has become a practice to carve building lots out of the plot in order to build affordable housing. He explained that the first time he went to the City Council for one of those deals, there was some skepticism.

“The last time, they said, ‘Hey, you are just doing four of these lots? Why not eight?’” he recalled. “Those are the fun things.”

There have been challenges too, of course. Feiden said that when the city puts together a comprehensive plan, everybody seems to want the same things: quality neighborhoods, affordable housing, open space and bike paths. At that big-picture level, he said, planning is “sort of easy.”

“But then a specific project comes forward. Affordable housing is a good example,” he said. “As soon as a project is proposed, people say, ‘Affordable housing is great but’ — fill in the blanks — ‘this is the reason this particular place isn’t the place for it.’”

But Feiden even gets joy out of that part of the process, figuring out how to do it all.

Going forward, Feiden said the city will continue to move toward greater bike and pedestrian access. And downtown will increasingly move from a place where you have to come for a job or to buy a hammer, for example, to a place you want to come.

“Main Street will die in 10 years or 20 years from now if we don’t make it a fun place,” he said. “And I think we’re totally on the right track.”

Feiden, though, won’t be a part of that work as a city employee.

His last day on the job is June 29, after which he plans to travel and work as a consulting planner on projects around the world. He’ll continue to teach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he has worked as a lecturer during his tenure with the city. Sciarra has named Carolyn Misch, the department’s assistant director, to serve as the interim director of planning and sustainability while the job is posted and an open search is conducted for the position.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com

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