August 9, 2006

Hudson TM Likely to Consider ‘Smart Growth’ Zoning

Town officials are likely to ask Hudson voters to rezone 13 properties for housing or mixed use, adding up to 551 new housing units in both old mill buildings and open space, the MetroWest Daily News reports.

The rezoning would follow the state's smart-growth initiative, which offers funding to towns that are willing to zone for denser development in downtowns near public transit. Michelle Ciccolo, community development director, told the News that one mill owner is ready to convert some of 34 Tower St. into housing if the plan is approved.

Mixed-use development can bring more vitality to a downtown, especially if it's accompanied by streetscape improvements that make residents want to walk around, as well as retail and commercial destinations people would want to walk to. The question facing voters is how dense the developments will be, and whether town services like water, sewer, roadways and schools can support the new units without spending more than state funding and taxes would bring in.

There is also the likely issue of whether residents want a more densely populated downtown, which brings advantages of vibrancy and critical mass to support more businesses, but also can change the character of a small-town downtown. In the case of existing buildings, though, it seems a good option for old mill buildings to include some housing -- the buildings are already there, and adding residential usage would bring more life to the business district, as long as that housing is designed well enough so people actually want to live there.

I see this issue as a curve, and each community's downtown has one. For part of the curve, denser development is better than sprawl, because it creates that critical mass which will support local businesses and a walkable retail area for nearby residents. This isn't just for urban areas; business districts in Concord and Wellesley manage this effectively.

At some point on the curve, though, development gets to be too much for a community. This point differs from place to place, of course -- midtown Manhattan has a different scale than downtown Framingham. Knee-jerk opposition to denser development doesn't make any more sense than blind support to all dense development. Good planning understands the overall goals of a neighborhood and how best to achieve them. Without understanding and agreement on those broad objectives, though, it becomes all but impossible to come to useful conclusions about individual projects or zoning requests. That appears to be the issue surrounding the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, N.Y., which might be a great stand-alone project on its own merits, but will have an enormous impact on a residential brownstown neighborhood (see Atlantic Yards: Through the Looking Glass in the Gotham Gazette). The Hudson zoning idea, however, seems at first glance like it will have a much lighter impact on downtown.

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