Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blop Post No. 2012-14: What would possess us to outlaw...

...long-standing and generally satisfying built environments?

That's a question that's always begged when you see a graphic like this one, which my friend and fellow panelist Ted Brovitz included in a presentation at this past Thursday's Southern New England APA regional conference in Hartford:

Figure: Conformity/Non-conformity Map for Merrick Neighborhood,
West Springfield, MA. Credit: Ted Brovitz, Howard/Stein-Hudson.
The neighborhood shown here is the Merrick section of West Springfield, Massachusetts, which Ted described in his presentation as a typical turn-of-the-last-century mill neighborhood wedged between railroad yards on the west and the Connecticut River on the east. A substantial swath of the neighborhood was leveled by a tornado that swept through this and other parts of western Mass. a year ago last June. In addition to the tragedy of losing everything to the storm, the event also seems to have been a kind of "regulatory revelation" to the Town and the neighborhood's residents, who suddenly discovered the meaning of the image shown above.

Properties that are colored reddish-brown are non-conforming (i.e., they are currently in violation) of the minimum lot size requirement for their location as set forth in the West Springfield Zoning By-Law. Properties that are colored blue are conforming for lot size and properties that have been left white do not have sufficient information to establish whether they are conforming or non-conforming. In other words, the approximately 80-85% of the map shown in reddish-brown could not be legally rebuilt after being damaged by the tornado because the lots were too small. Without the changes to the zoning rules that Howard/Stein-Hudson has been helping the Town sort through, the owners of those properties would, in many cases, have to obtain zoning relief (possibly including variances, which would, according to the extremely strict standard in the state's zoning act, be both improperly granted and legally indefensible in virtually all cases) just to build what was there before the tornado. In other words, the Merrick neighborhood as it has stood for 100 years was quite simply outlawed by local regulation. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn't it?

Well, it isn't, at least if you understand the basic thrust of the vast majority of the zoning ordinances and by-laws that control development in our country. Put simply, almost all of these regulatory enactments were first adopted more than 50 years ago and were then premised indiscriminately and with almost no meaningful planning on auto-oriented suburban residential and commercial development. Neighborhoods like Merrick, with houses and business built in a traditional, pre-automobile form, close to the street and in a relatively tight pattern, were given the equivalent of death sentences by zoning. Whenever and however they finally succumbed, as the neighborhood ultimately did to the tornado, they simply weren't going to be allowed to come back. Luckily for Merrick (if anything in this episode can be called lucky), their calamity came after the discussion of this phenomenon has become widespread and well-understood and no longer tolerated without question. New Urbanists have long tried to raise consciousness about this issue, warning anyone who would listen that beloved places like Nantucket or Alexandria or [pick your favorite neighborhood] could not be built under today's zoning codes and were just one natural disaster away from extinction. The work in Merrick indicates that these warnings have finally made an impact.

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