Northampton planners detail zoning overhaul

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NORTHAMPTON – City Council will consider in the coming weeks a planned overhaul of zoning ordinances in Northampton town center and central Florence, an overhaul of design and form standards as well as permitted uses for commercial space.

The Planning Council held a virtual public forum on Thursday evening to present the proposal, called a form-based code, that officials have been working on for four years. The forum was the last step before the plan was submitted to the council for consideration.

Carolyn Misch, Northampton’s deputy director of planning and sustainability, said “the town’s zoning is outdated. It does not correspond to current market trends. She said the new code would “create predictability, yet flexibility” and “set expectations” for development, building setbacks and frontage uses while streamlining the approval process.

The new code is designed to promote the various characters in the downtown area of ​​Northampton and Florence Center. It will allow for more multi-family housing on side streets and on the ground floors of some commercial buildings in each neighborhood, but residential units are not required.

The city hired consultancy Dodson & Finkler in 2018 to conduct focus groups and public forums to identify zoning changes residents want. 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, a code review and put it all together in a package” for city council review, Misch said.

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

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

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

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

Misch said the city plans to use concrete and not pavers for the sidewalks because it’s easier to maintain concrete as a uniform surface per Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.

The 102-page proposal, available online at northamptonma.gov/plan, contains about 20 prescriptions. Comments can be emailed to [email protected]

Planning Council chairman George Kohout said the current ordinance is “a bit difficult to interpret at times” and called the new plan “brilliant”. He asked for public feedback on the form-based code, saying, “It’s really, really helpful to have those extra eyes on it.”

“One of the ugliest buildings”

Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden gave an update on the town’s efforts to assess the former Hampshire Probate Court building at 33 King St.

“Maybe you know it as Probate Court, or maybe you know it as one of the ugliest buildings in town,” Feiden said. The state transferred the site to the city last year for $1 on 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 yet to take it up.

“We can’t take the 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 of the potential leaks.”

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

He said the city could consider an affordable housing plan, but there are downsides, including the regular traffic of 15,000 cars a day in the area.

Feiden said using 33 King St. for the city’s much-desired community resilience center “is one of the options,” but “we assume, very likely, that the building is falling apart.” “.

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