Two important city planning moments happened to me last week. The first was a major heartbreak. The draft Springfield Zoning Ordinance was ONCE AGAIN not passed by the Springfield City Council. The second one was an epiphany of sorts. I was asked by someone why some neighborhoods in Springfield consist of only single family homes and strip malls- and really little more. Because we do not have strong neighborhood commercial centers- I replied.
Let’s tackle the first issue. If we are going to aspire to be as great as the places we choose to vacation in, the places we admire, then we must have a a modern zoning ordinance to guide the momentum of that growth. Springfield has no growth- you say? Funny, I’ve seen multi million dollar facilities proposed and underway in the past few months.
Zoning, and what it can do for a community’s character, can be an abstract concept to some. However, in communities where land use planning is discussed on a community-wide basis- zoning is less abstract. In Massachusetts (and in states all over the country) a comprehensive plan for development is created by the community and is reflected in the zoning map and in the zoning regulations.
For example, someone says, I think there should be a stronger and denser neighborhood commercial district in 16 Acres at the intersection of Parker Street and Wilbraham Road. This would be a walkable district with much of the same mix the intersection has now- but it would feel more like a neighborhood and less like a gas station show place with a CVS that nobody can find the entrance to. It might be further imagined that this district would have some housing over the shops and some stand alone housing units. Neighborhood commercial districts thrive on the density around them because people can walk out their door and stroll the district. Maybe this is an extension of Western New England…who knows.
Once a vision for this is adopted, the zoning map and regulations that would make it possible are put in place. Transit links are considered, park links, bike trails, access to schools and community centers, etc. Makes sense right?
What is that- you want to know if Springfield has a comprehensive plan for development? One that by State Law is adopted by and guided by the Planning Board? One that is updated every five years to make adjustments for new conditions? One that City Council can refer to when making its land use decisions for things like power plants or restaurants that sit on kettle lakes?
No- Springfield has no such thing. Rebuild Springfield is not a comprehensive plan. Elements of it are comprehensive plan ‘esque. But it is not a comprehensive plan. It does recommend that the draft Zoning Ordinance be passed- but the outcry for that from their board was absent when it mattered.
So what do we have instead? We have a zoning ordinance and a zoning map that are the same age as me (41). Does anyone think that 1971 development was a good thing? I look at that era of development and gag. Parking lots and concrete.
You might wonder why the new zoning ordinance was proposed instead of a new comprehensive plan. Good question. It was because the mechanics of the current ordinance are so out of date and so loose, it is like every window in the house being open in the dead of winter. We (I was on staff at the time) thought that if we could stabilize the legal side, then we could do a comprehensive plan and fine tune a really solid zoning framework- make it better, reflecting the vision of the community.
To my epiphany, we need neighborhood commercial districts. They anchor a sense of community- something Springfield is losing. Zoning, which seems so abstract, is important. The passage of the new ordinance has been hijacked for 6 years by the same private interests that have been gutting the remnants of our neighborhood commercial districts for years. Neighborhoods they do not live in. Neighborhoods they do not want to live in. Residents who are fighting for their own quality of life spoke in favor of the ordinance, several times. Yet, it does not pass.
I know that without being involved in a Comprehensive Plan process, being involved in a zoning overhaul process seems odd. The new zoning seems out of context. But it would be good for all of us living in Springfield if we try to understand this process, let your City Councilors (especially Bud and Tim) know how important this is for our City. If you have questions about it- ask me (I am Chair of the Planning Board).
We have a few neighborhood commercial districts in Springfield that remain intact but need some rebuilding. These are: South End, North End, and Indian Orchard. There are many more that need to be re-constructed such as the X at Forest Park, Sumner and Harkness in East Forest Park, St. James in East Springfield, State Street in Mason Square…there are more. Many are former trolly stops. Here are some links to good commercial districts that have zoning as their underpinnings.