Random Roundup: Plans for the Future

Posted on Monday, December 10 2007 by Heather Brandon

An article in today’s Springfield Republican describes an upcoming City Council vote tonight for a 55-and-up condominium project in the Outer Belt neighborhood. The city’s planning experts have all given this project a green light, but residents have protested based on some environmental and traffic concerns.

Those invested or otherwise interested may like to read the Springfield Office of Planning and Economic Development‘s two analyses on the project: one on the zone change request (PDF), and one on the special permit request (PDF), both of which were recommended for approval. The latter includes extensive documentation from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regarding wetlands, as well as site plans from Bukowski Construction, LLC.

In Hartford, there is the unfortunate news that the city has been found in contempt of court over a matter that reaches back decades to complaints about how the police department has handled citizens’ concerns. Such challenges are alive today in a variety of respects.

Tonight there will be a planned protest of the recent Immigrant and Customs Enforcement raids in the city’s Parkville neighborhood. Jerimarie Liesegang at Undercurrents reports that people will gather starting at 4:30 pm at South Green Park, at Park and Main Streets, and from there, march to the ICE headquarters at 450 Main Street for a 5:00 pm rally.

The matter of a comprehensive city policy in Hartford regarding immigrant status is still pending, but in New Haven, there is a degree of certain controversy over the city’s new municipal ID initiative. In New York City, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau recently announced the creation of an immigrant affairs initiative that will “encourage immigrants who are crime victims or are aware of illegal activity to come forward without fear of arrest.”

Incidentally, outgoing Springfield Police Commissioner Edward Flynn was questioned in some detail on this issue during a recent interview in Milwaukee, where a current police department policy prevents officers, in some cases, from “informing federal immigration officials of the whereabouts or behavior of any suspected illegal immigrants.” Flynn said:

I will draw a distinction about what we call repeat criminal aliens. There are people out there who are bad guys. If I’ve got you under arrest and you’re a bad guy and you’ve committed a serious crime. I’m happy to know if you’re an immigrant or not because I’m not so sure I want you around here. If I can make prison space….by sending you back to, I don’t know, fill-in-the-blank country, I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing.

So you know, If you’re going to be a crook, and you’re going to be a violent criminal, I wanna know your status, and I’m going to tell ICE, and I’m going to hope to kick you out. But if you’re just some poor guy going about your business and you get mugged or someone breaks into your house or your spouse abuses you or what not, I want you to know you can call us up ’cause we’re going to protect people.

The issue apparently hasn’t arisen in Springfield yet among traditional media outlets, but it probably will before long. Some people on the Springfield MassLive.com forum did seem to believe that reported vice squad jackets seen during a narcotics raid actually were ICE jackets, but it was hard to see the jackets’ lettering in full from the 22News exclusive early-morning footage of arrests.

In other news, Hartford is now said to be partnering with Spokane, Washington and Madison, Wisconsin to try to drum up convention business, and Springfield’s Bright Nights display made the online pages of People magazine.

11 Responses to “Random Roundup: Plans for the Future”

  1. NoPolitician

    Heather, thanks for making this information available. You are doing something important here, something the city itself should be doing, making this information available to the public.

    I’m curious as to some things.

    First, the project has been described in the Republican as an “over 55″ project, but if you read it closely, the developer says only that the units would “be marketed to people over 55″. That means there are no true age restrictions on these units, doesn’t it? Isn’t this more appropriately termed a “condo development”

    Next, I’d like to know what the philosophy is for zone changes. Zoning exists for a reason, right? As far as I can tell that reason is to give people a sense of certainty about the land they own. If you buy a house in a residential A neighborhood, you expect that there won’t be a smelting plant opened next door, as long as that lot is also zoned residential A.

    So operating from that point, what is a “good enough reason” for a zone change? Residence A is the most restrictive use (I’m deliberately omitting the less-dense A1), so that would mean that land would be worth less than one zoned at a less restrictive use, wouldn’t it? So doesn’t it seem a little strange that someone could buy a piece of property, and then increase its value via a zone change?

    I’m aware of the philosophy of “new urbanism”, centering on walkability, encouraging pedestrian traffic, etc. This project doesn’t seem to embody that at all.

    Is it wise to put a multi-family development down a side street rather than on a main street?

    How many units are “too many units”? 46 seems awfully high.

    These units appear to be planned awfully close to existing houses on Louis St. While I don’t have any sympathy for people opposing development to “keep the land woods”, I think that people there have the expectation that when they look out their back windows they won’t be seeing rows of condos very close to their property.

    A typical Residence A development has a buffer zone known as a “back yard” between houses — shouldn’t the setback on any new development be that traditional distance, at a minimum?

    Does anyone else find it interesting that on the site plans, the developer “whited out” the existing houses on the lots on Louis Rd? Could this be to obscure that those houses would be very close to the rear of those properties?

    Are these units proposed to be single-story? If not, then the “over 55″ thing should be very heavily discounted, because many people approaching retirement age are concerned with things like second-story stairs.

    I am by no means anti-development, and if the proposal was for single-family houses, I’d be as quiet as a church mouse. But I think that zone changes are significant events, in that they can “take” value from one group of people and “give” it to another. So shouldn’t we be looking at this from the approach of “why should it be done” rather than “why should it not be done”?

  2. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    The condos are intended to be single-story with attached garages. They will be in “small clusters containing a range of four to six units each.” Site plans show vegetation as a buffer between the development and the existing homes.

    A “jump” from Residence A to Residence C does seem striking, and the dense arrangement of the development is a huge change from its current status, especially considering that the neighborhood had planned to leave that spot alone completely, including the unfinished Holcomb Road. I can understand why this is hard on the residents.

    At the same time this denser style of living is potentially appealing to the targeted market. Sure, it’s on the edge of the city, which is arguably not the greatest place to put it, but it does increase the tax rolls and brings in more market-rate housing where it may well succeed.

    It would be nice to see the neighborhood(s) and the city work in closer partnership on the matters of how to manage growth and development like this, getting ahead of proposals a little if possible, and envisioning what change looks like where everyone can find something to like. It sounds like efforts were made, but the residents were not pleased with this and who knows if they can persuade city councilors that their opinions matter more than those of the many consulted experts. We’ll see tonight.

    If city departments push a developer for reasons why they should recommend an approved zone change, they get labeled difficult to deal with and accused of standing in the way and wrapping economic development in red tape. If they allow themselves to be steamrolled and don’t recommend any standards at all, they’re kowtowing to developers and letting best practices fly out the window. With respect to this project, I see city officials working hard to strike a balance, as evidenced by the conditions to the recommended approval for the special permit. It’s an unpopular balance perhaps.

  3. NoPolitician

    I guess my question boils down to, “shouldn’t a zone change be for a proposed benefit, rather than just because no liability is being proposed?” What are the standards?

    Is 46 units at $198k (annual tax revenue of $145k) enough of a benefit for a zone change? Wouldn’t 25 single-family homes (as quoted by the developer) be a better fit here, even if they have 3-bedrooms?

    Since the condos are merely being *marketed* as over-55, rather than deeded as such, how much benefit should be given to the argument that 46 is better than 25 because the residents will be over-55 and won’t consume services? Are 46 lower-priced units really better than 25 higher-priced units in Springfield? Is there really a need for lower-priced units in this city?

  4. Sheila McElwaine

    I wonder how this proposed development stacks up against the new zoning ordinance that’s been in the works for over a year. Does this project show us where we are headed or is it perhaps an attempt to slip something in under the wire before the new ordinance has been rolled out?

  5. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    Those are great questions, ranging from the practical to the “philosophical,” as mayor-elect Sarno might say.

    My take is that since the city planning staff came down pretty firmly on recommended design changes for the proposed CVS on State Street, with references to the zoning ordinance changes in the works, there’s no particular reason why there wouldn’t be a reference to the new ordinance for these two requests. It’s an opportunity for planning staff to inform others at the municipal level and beyond about the ordinance and what it will bring.

    Since that evidently didn’t happen when planning staff had the chance, it’s quite possible that the ordinance doesn’t necessarily apply in this case, and it’s more a matter of neighborhood master planning and environmental or traffic considerations (the latter two having been considered. The neighborhood master planning is what is at risk of being dismissed, which is what I have the most trouble with). But I’m guessing at all of the above, not having seen a draft of the revised ordinance.

  6. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    Updates this morning:

    In what some might call a major coup for the neighborhood, a rezoning protest petition presented last night to the Springfield City Council blocked an otherwise approved zone change by requiring seven votes instead of the standard six. A vote for the measure otherwise would have passed, at six to three. Mary Dionne of the Outer Belt Civic Association is credited for doing the research and making the petition a reality by appealing to property owner Joseph Bonavita, according to Mike Plaisance’s report in today’s Republican. From the article:

    The state and city laws can require there be a seven-vote minimum for a zone change if the petition is signed by the owner or owners of at least 20 percent of the land adjacent to the property proposed for development.

    In this case, Joseph S. Bonavita, of Hampden, who owns nearby Bicentennial Plaza on Allen Street, provided more than enough ammunition. Bonavita owns 40 percent of the land adjacent to the proposed development, Associate City Solicitor Michael E. Mulcahy said.

    Also according to the piece, developer Bukowski still plans to construct houses on the land, according to what’s allowed without the zone change – single family houses, 25 in number.

    Regarding the ICE protest and rally in Hartford last night, an article in today’s Courant is already being flooded with reader commentary, but doesn’t get online front page treatment.

    The event was also covered by Christine Stuart of CTNewsJunkie.com. A one-woman anti-protest protester was in attendance at the rally, draped in a Brazilian flag and telling people that ICE was “just doing their job.” She happens to be president of the Shaheen Brazilian Cultural Center on Park Street.

  7. NoPolitician

    Wow, what a huge win for the neighborhood, and for the city in general. Unpopular zone changes will be harder to pass with this weapon in the arsenal and 3 city councilors sympathetic to neighborhood concerns.

    It seems to me that the developer was trying to extract more value from his property at the expense of the neighborhood. If it’s zoned Residence-A, I think there should be a compelling reason to change it, one that benefits everyone, not just the developer. Otherwise what is zoning for?

    Given the presence of wetlands on that parcel, I can’t believe that 25 single-family houses will be built there.

  8. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    According to the Power Point presentation (PPT) by consultant Chris Eaton way back in April 2006, zoning accomplishes the following:

    Establishes Districts
    Considers uses, impacts and scale
    (Height, density, and intensity)
    Establish relation to public streets and adjacent buildings
    (Setbacks, lot size, landscaping, location of parking)
    Design and construction of buildings
    (Building codes, historic architectural features, signage)

    Springfield’s particular “vulnerabilities” were listed as follows:

    Zoning uses and districts may not provide direction to development community
    Lack of certainty about land use and permit process may inhibit investment
    Commercial districts have little design consideration to match existing qualities
    Little design guidance for “infill” redevelopment

  9. NoPolitician

    From that description, it seems as though the purpose of zoning is to classify the land according to an overall plan, so that a free-for-all doesn’t ensue. The whole concept was developed in the 1920′s, and the lack of zoning is pretty apparent in some of the city’s older neighborhoods, where you will see large apartment blocks deep on side streets sitting right next to single-family homes. I’ve seen this in the Boston area too.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to apartment blocks in single-family neighborhoods — I think there are, and if this city could ever get rid of the prevalent poverty, I think that neighborhoods that offer a mix of housing are an advantage — people could upgrade their housing while continuing to live in the same neighborhood, strengthening their ties.

    However, there should still be some rules governing this kind of development. Perhaps less-strict than our current zoning, but only slightly more so, and with concessions required. For example, maybe it’s permissible to build a small number of multi-family dwellings in a Residence-A district, but maybe they have to meet certain design requirements.

    I still don’t see how a 46-unit condo development deep inside a single-family neighborhood is ideal. I don’t see how this would benefit the city or the neighborhood any more than the 25-unit single-family development currently permissible under existing rules.

    I also still don’t understand the rationale for a zone change. I guess if I was voting on it, I’d go by the “does the change in zoning substantially benefit the city or neighborhood, or just the developer”. If it’s the latter, then the city is essentially creating additional wealth for a single party, getting nothing in return (because the value goes up as restrictions on the property fall). That seems wrong.

  10. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    This is a bit tangential, but I can’t help but be reminded of parenting techniques recommended by Barbara Coloroso, an author and speaker. An approach she advises for parents of teens and older children who are pressing for privileges is to come up with an alternative to an outright “no” under some circumstances, in order not to wear it out and make saying no seem meaningless (if you’re saying it all the time). By choosing very selectively when we say “no,” it becomes clear that it’s only for the very important things. And there are times when “no” is totally appropriate.

    Suggested alternatives:
    “Yes, later.”
    “Give me a minute.”
    “Convince me.”

    These work beautifully in the home, and could work for the city, too. (As well as for states and nations.) What I understood from the planning staff analyses, the zoning change was approved with a yes, but the special permit was approved with a “yes, later” – still not a no exactly, but at least with some contingencies, like the formation of a condo association, so as to hold the developer to his promises (paving, sewer upgrades).

    However, in this case, I think a “convince me” would have been good, and who knows; maybe some of the prior discussion included just that. Maybe planning staff were totally convinced this would be good for the neighborhood! But the neighborhood wasn’t convinced.

    Maybe zoning ordinances and parenting approaches don’t exactly flow perfectly well together in the eyes of some, but personally speaking the parallels help to lend a little grip to an otherwise slippery set of concepts.

  11. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    Mike Dobbs covered a community meeting on the Holcomb Road project for the Reminder, in an article that ran just prior to the City Council vote but wasn’t available online until later.

    It includes the developer’s statement that the proposed condos would have been sold at an asking price of $189,000 per unit, and that 25 units would have been built initially, followed by more according to market demand.

    A lawyer for the developer is quoted saying he believed that single-family homes on the same property would have a “greater impact” on the city’s resources, perhaps implying more strain. A denser arrangement of housing is sometimes viewed as less of a strain for a variety of reasons.

    Dobbs also wrote, “The project had its proponents in several people who said Springfield needs this category of housing that would help stem the flight of middle-aged and elderly people from the city.” Those specific people were not named, however. It is not clear whether condo living would stem this flight or if perhaps single-family housing would also do the trick. Further, there was no affirmation of the lawyer’s claim that single-family housing would have any “greater impact” on the city’s resources, so it’s hard to know if his comment carries meaning as the developer looks to move forward with single-family housing instead.

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