Northampton by the Numbers
Cars, Homes, Jobs and Schools
By Edward Shanahan
Barely surviving a weekend of nightmarish traffic during a 24-hour visit to the Boston area to attend a wake and memorial service, we were relieved to arrive back to the streets of Northampton, where the traffic, by comparison, is in a state bordering on repose.
As veterans of the Northampton scene, we complain about what seems to be a huge increase in traffic here at home and the delays and inconvenience it entails.
Going east to the Boston suburbs only makes a return all the sweeter. It took us more three hours to slog through rain-lashed Friday afternoon stop and go traffic from Dedham to Quincy and back, a round trip of about 35 miles. How can people put up with that kind of highway madness, we ask.
Still, don’t be lulled into believing that traffic in our small city is trouble-free or, in any sense, idyllic.
If you, too, are beginning to believe that Northampton has its own traffic problems, you are right - at least based on information provided by city planners at a recent public meeting held to sift through the findings coming out of the year-long Sustainable Northampton study.
One of the reasons, it turns out, is that in the last 10 years the number of registered vehicles in the city has increased by 23 percent from 19,756 to 24,367.
And these cars, the planners project, traveled some 441,602 miles on an average weekday in 2000 and that figure increased to 640,321 vehicle miles in 2004 and is expected to reach 773,399 miles by 2010. At that point, we are talking about serious traffic issues, something now experienced by major metropolitan areas.
The abundance of cars locally also creates the perception, if not the reality, of a parking problem, especially in the downtown area. Of the total of 1,797 public parking spaces, both on-street and off, the planners say that between 88 and 95 percent of the on-street spaces are occupied between 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., while 85 percent of the off-street spaces are used as well.
By adopting various strategies learned over time, I can usually find a space rather easily, but it takes a little time and some creativity, not something visitors or strangers to the city are prepared for. Thus, the planners see a need for some 200 additional public spaces, especially north of Main Street.
Of course, traffic issues were only part of the statistical and anecdotal information that had been mined by the sustainability study.
Some of the other nuggets of data and opinion – which often were contradictory - that struck me as worth knowing about Northampton (pop. 28,978) had to do with aspects of the local economy, housing and living conditions, education and population diversity and environmental and cultural matters.
For example, on the economic front: the median household income in 2000 in Northampton was $41,808, compared to $50,502 in the state as a whole. The city’s labor force in 2004 was 17,259 with 61 percent of city residents working in Northampton.
The average annual wage in Northampton in 2004 was $35,071, compared to $48,934 statewide. Health care and social assistance accounted for 27 percent of the jobs and paid an average wage of $38,278, educational services provided 15 percent of the jobs and paid $39,889. The lowest wages ($23,788) were earned by the 13 percent employed in the retail trade and $15,097 paid to the 11 percent who worked in the “accommodation and food service” sector.
The best average annual wage - $53,087- was earned by the small number (6 percent) employed in manufacturing, which underscores the need to lure additional manufacturers to the city.
Meanwhile, for local wage earners the much-heralded popular restaurants and small shops and boutiques that attract visitors to Northampton seem to be a labor of love rather than providing a robust livelihood. Nearly of quarter of the local workforce toiling in this sector earns wages at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Yet, the owners of downtown commercial properties apparently feel they are sitting pretty: average downtown first floor rents range from $18 to $30 a square foot, compared to $10 to $12 in Holyoke; $7 to $10 in Greenfield; and $4 to $8 in Easthampton.
At the same time, fragmentary figures provided by the planners suggested that while Northampton accounted for almost a 35 percent share of Hampshire County retail sales in 2002, that share had been trending downward over the last several years. The unknown factor was the growth of ret\ail sales in Hadley because figures for the two shopping malls there were unavailable.
In the area of housing, opinions voiced in the survey strongly supported the proposition that there is not enough affordable housing for all residents, including those with low income. Nor was there sufficient middle-income ($150,00 to $250,000) housing, nor enough smaller housing units and apartments.
The actual figures presented by the planners confirmed some of these citizens’ views; for example, the median single family home sale price in 2005 was $289,900, compared with $348,500 statewide. But, the household income needed to purchase such a home was $88,000, more than double the median household income of $41,808 for Northampton residents.
In fact, according to the planners’ statistics only 21 percent of the households in Northampton had sufficient income to purchase a home at the average sale price home
Of the housing units in the city in 2004, 53.5 percent were owner- occupied, 46.5 percent were rental units, somewhat above the state average of 38.3 percent. A total of 11.8 percent of the units were subsidized, again slightly higher than the statewide figure of 9.3 units.
Despite the perception that the city is undergoing a home building and development boom, the planners say while 63 residential building permits issued in Northampton in 2004, the figure for Belchertown was nearly double at 114, and in Easthampton it was 55, and in 2005 Easthampton issued another 95 permits. Figures more recent than 2004 are not available for Northampton. The low point for new home building in Northampton was 2001 when only 18 permits were issued.
Although the precise year was not identified in the planners’ presentation, figures showed a total of 88.7 percent of Northampton residents completed high school; 46.1 percent earned a college degree and 25 percent earned some form of post-graduate degree. The drop-out rate for the Smith Vocational School is 5.2 percent as compared to 3.7 percent statewide; for city’s K-12 population the rate is 3.0 percent compared to the state figure of 3.7 percent.
In 2005, 26.3 percent of the school enrollment was classified as low-income and in a survey question about “equity issues,” 75 percent of the respondents agreed with the view that there is an “achievement gap” between minority and white students in the public schools.
In terms of diversity, the city’s population as a whole is not particularly diverse: 90 percent of it is white, 5.24 percent Hispanic/Latino; 2.08 percent African American, 3.13 percent Asian and 2.41 percent other. However, in a survey question the community’s cultural and/or economic diversity, 71 percent of the respondents agreed that it was indeed diverse.
In the area of culture, the statistics indicate that there are some 500 arts, cultural or recreational events or performances in Northampton annually and that non-profit cultural activities have a large impact on the city, providing 384 jobs and direct and indirect non-profit spending of $12,250,876.
Some of these numbers probably are little hard to nail down, but clearly arts and culture add to the quality of life in Northampton and certainly to its perception of the city by others.
Yet, many survey respondents and focus group comments agreed that the city was in danger of losing artists and arts and arts organizations because of the lack of affordable space and other financial barriers.
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