Notre Dame Graduate Students
Envision Northampton's Future
with Optimism and Intelligence
By Edward Shanahan
Listening to the intelligent presentation of the possible future look of Northampton by the Notre Dame Urban Design team last week, I recalled recent bruising planning battles that set the stage for this new debate.
Remember the fight to Save Old Main on Hospital Hill? City officials win. Old Main comes down to pave the way for Village Hill.
Remember the Battle for West Street by neighborhood residents who wanted to scale back Smith College’s plans for the humongous $60 million engineering building at the expense of dozens of living units and community loyalties. Smith and city officials carry the day, not only are housing units lost to allow for the center’s construction, but the college ends with long-term campus-wide zoning concessions to boot.
Remember the effort by those worried about the impact of the proposed new Hilton Hotel adjacent to Pulaski Park in the Roundhouse lot and its unfeeling, uncaring size and design? City officials win another round as hotel plans, only slightly altered, move ahead.
Remember the subsequent and related redesign and reuse plan for Pulaski Park? This time the critics gathered the strength in numbers and blocked the park redesign, but only for the time being.
Yet, finally, in the wake of all of these defeats and setbacks, a movement developed, driven in large part by those who talk to each other via the Internet on the Paradise City Forum. They proposed bringing in some planners and designers from outside the city to look at Northampton and turn a professional eye toward its current challenges and its possible future opportunities. The mayor and the planning board staff don’t have all the answers, these critics conclude, after so many frustrating encounters.
But, city officials, with some few exceptions (Councilor Michael Bardsley and Bob Reckman come to mind), are cool to outside help, and offer no financial or moral support for the proposed planning project, which is spearheaded by Joel Russell, Gordon Thorne and others who join forces and actively brainstorm on-line and, we assume, in person.
Money is raised privately and arraignments are made to bring the youthful student planners and future architects from Notre Dame University and their professor, Philip Bess, to spend a week getting to know the city and to make some tentative judgments about what steps might be taken through planning, zoning and development.
At working sessions during the week and in public discussions, the students begin to shape their “interventions” as Prof. Bess described them.
Other than Aaron Helfand, an exceptional young man who grew up here, all of the students were unfamiliar with the city, its history, geography, demographics and, most importantly, its politics, but it was clear at the final session on Saturday that they are quick studies.
Breaking the city into discrete subjects of focus—Main Street and downtown, upper King Street, Pleasant Street, Florence and the Hospital Hill/Village Hill area development—the students appeared to quickly identify problems and needs and to begin to outline planning and design remedies and their potential benefits.
Much of their analysis had to do with moving beyond the idea of zoning as limiting uses to fixed areas and, instead, encouraging mixed uses that foster walkability and livability, downplaying the automobile and parking lots, seeing housing as compatible with retail activities and promoting density in order to curb sprawl and underutilization of space, especially along King Street.
Of course, much of their specific renderings of proposed changes could be seen as pie in the sky, unmindful of the forces of the market place and the ‘sanctity’ of private property, but the planners and designers pressed ahead. They gave the challenge their best shot and for those of us who were on hand for the final presentation, many where struck by the optimism and intelligence of the presentation.
It was so easy to become discouraged during those endless hearings over Smith College’s intentions, and the totally unremarkable design of the inevitable construction of the new downtown hotel. But students, by their youthful nature, can take the long view, as the Notre Dame team did in its look into Northampton’s urban future.
This animating optimism was apparent by the expressions of appreciation by members of the audience who spoke glowingly about the students’
The early outlines of some long-term needs have come into focus as have various choices for addressing those needs, which might not always be those favored by the established planners and reigning city officials. They have charted the current direction of the city in major physical ways in recent months, not always successfully, but happily other ideas and directions have begun to emerge.
The planning genie is out of the previously tightly stoppered municipal bottle.
The students have gone back to South Bend, and will continue to work on the Northampton project. They’ll be back with their finished work in December. We await it with growing interest, even though we might not be around for the dawning of tomorrow’s Northampton.
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