Ever since I moved back to Northampton, I’ve been baffled by how sharply bounded the urban part of this town is. Downtown there’s a few blocks of dense, busy, pedestrian-friendly, expensive and, ok (I’ve come to terms with my bougieness) charming and enjoyable city streets, all solid three and four-story mixed-use brick buildings and sidewalks that, on a warm summer weekend, can’t accommodate the crowds. And then turn down King St., and you’re looking at parking lots, gas stations, empty lots, fast food places, more empty parking lots, and no one on the sidewalk at all.
There’s got to be a reason for this.
So why doesn’t Northampton’s successful downtown grow? It can’t be that unused parking is the highest and best use of land two blocks from one of the most successful commercial districts in Western Mass. As Atrios regularly and, rightly points out, land-use rules mostly make small-town downtowns like Northampton’s illegal to build today. But what are the specific legal obstacles here? Parking requirements? Zoning that prohibits mixed use? Floor-area ratio limits? People love downtown Northampton. Business loves downtown Northampton. Why can’t we have more downtown?
Turns out I’m not the only one wondering. Here is a proposal from the Northampton Chamber of Commerce to revise the zoning code for King St. And it looks like a step, if a small step, in the right direction.
For the Central Business Zone (which runs up to Trumbull St., for local folks), the Chamber wants to remove parking requirements; allow mixed uses by right; increase maximum building height from 55′ to 65′; eliminate the 5% open space requirement; and eliminate the minimum rear setback. All of this seems right.
Hard to say how important these specific regulations are in inhibiting dense urban development on King St. To be honest, as soon as one starts exploring this stuff in any detail, it’s hard not to be struck by how brutally complicated it all is. But the Chamber is clearly pulling in the right direction, which I suspect would not have been the case not that many years ago. The interesting question, now, will be who pulls the other way.