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Three More Housing Projects Prepare to Start at Village Hill Northampton

March 31, 2012 : Daily Hampshire Gazette, by Chad Cain

NORTHAMPTON - The long-planned redevelopment of the former state mental hospital is expected to surpass 100 homes this spring, as three more housing projects are preparing to break ground at Village Hill Northampton.

MassDevelopment, the quasi-public state agency overseeing the redevelopment of the 126-acre campus, is also exploring building a co-housing community on the north campus. If it comes to fruition, it would be the third co-housing project in the city.

"I think it's going very well, particularly in a time when the rest of the housing market is still emerging from the doldrums," said Elizabeth Murphy, vice president of real estate development at MassDevelopment and the agency's project manager at Village Hill.

But even as the new projects break ground, a revamped master plan for Village Hill has generated concerns from a few members of a city committee charged with reviewing plans for the site.

At least three Citizens Advisory Committee members said the new drawings show less density - about 80 fewer units than the 327 allowed - noting that more single-family homes on larger lots are depicted instead of townhouses and apartments approved in the 2009 plan.

Harriet Diamond, who represents the Grove Street neighborhood on the CAC, called it odd to show less density given that the city is moving toward an overall vision of sustainability that calls for more density, particularly for projects close to downtown.

"It seems out of keeping with our original plan and the city's attitude toward sustainability," she said.

Francis Johnson also expressed concerns about the density for similar reasons.

"This is an area that's ideal for greater density," he said in an interview. "We shouldn't even on a conceptual basis reduce the density."

Although the plan shows fewer units than approved by the CAC and the state, Murphy said MassDevelopment still plans to build out the maximum number of units over the next several years.

"That has not changed," she said in a telephone interview this week. "We want to keep with offering a variety mix of homes."

Those units will vary in price to ensure a mix of residents, but will also be driven by what the market demands, she said. If townhouses or cottages are more popular, then more of those types of housing will be developed.

To date, about 95 units, or about a third of the total, have been constructed and occupied.

Couple that number with construction of 34 more expected to begin this spring, and Murphy is optimistic about the project's long-term success.

Despite the concerns from some, the CAC approved the updated master plan at a meeting earlier this month by a 5-3 vote, with one abstention.

Seven of the expansive committee's 16 members were absent.

Voting against the revised plan were Johnson, Diamond and Martha Ackelsberg, who represents the Housing Partnership. Ackelsberg voted no because the availability of affordable homes seems "uncertain," according to the meeting minutes. She also questioned why MassDevelopment wouldn't start with more homes and more affordable units and pull back if needed.

Diamond expressed similar concerns. "Every time you decrease the density, the number of units for affordable housing and housing for the mentally ill go down," she said in a telephone interview.

MassDevelopment officials say the master plan changes maintain the general mixed-use feel of a village while more accurately reflecting the realities of the site.

North campus changes

All of the changes to the plan approved by the CAC are envisioned on the north campus, where most of the residential units are being constructed. Among those are demolition of a former residence for hospital employees at the far north end of the development.

Murphy said MassDevelopment brought in engineers to study in detail the layout for the upper north campus, particularly the number of planned roads. That report showed that one of those roads cut too close to the employee building.

"It just didn't work from a planning and engineering perspective," she said.

At the same time, would-be developers balked at the idea of refurbishing the building into live-work space, as MassDevelopment originally envisioned. The building's layout only lends itself to eight such units, far below the 30 to 40 units developers would need to make such a project feasible.

Additionally, securing low-income tax credits to help offset the costs would prove difficult given that two previous projects at Village Hill already secured such credits from the state.

"There were just too many insurmountable objects," Murphy said.

Some members of the committee questioned this proposal, but in the end most accepted the rationale behind the decision.

The new master plan eliminates one roadway in the upper north campus and replaces the employee's building with single-family homes, though Murphy stressed the master plan as a whole is conceptual in nature.

"Even though single-family homes are shown, it could be townhouses or smaller cottages on smaller lots," she said.

Plans now show the live-work units moving south to the former male attendant's building off Village Hill Road, near the entrance to the north campus. Murphy said that's a better location in the heart of Village Hill's commercial area.

MassDevelopment is working with Community Builders Inc. to develop a market study for those units.

The Springfield company is familiar with Village Hill, having previously developed two apartment complexes, Hillside Place and Hilltop Apartments.

Other master plan changes include:

  • A 16-unit co-housing complex, originally slated for the northeast corner, would now be constructed in the northwest portion, just north of a new bungalow development slated for construction this spring.

Murphy said this location makes more sense for many reasons, including better views of the open space to the west.

There also is room to construct a new community meeting space and parking lot to the south, similar in size to the nearby former Coach House. That space can be used by the co-housing community and rented out to the larger community.

  • Creation of a park off Orlander Drive on the east side of the north campus, instead of the in the northwest corner.

This Memorial Park will give a nod to the site's history as a state hospital, and the new location will enable the fountain from the state hospital's Old Main building to be reinstalled in its original location after it is refurbished.

  • More single-family homes on both sides of Ford Crossing, a road that this spring will be extended from the west and connect Musante and Orlander drives.

Murphy said when Ford Crossing was pushed 100 feet north, it opened up an opportunity to construct houses with a common driveway facing Beechtree Park at the intersection of Ford Crossing and Orlander Drive.

Meanwhile, some of the townhouses originally planned for that location have moved to the west side of Beechtree Park, in place of a tennis court and some parking.

Plans to build townhouses north of Ford Crossing have changed to feature single-family homes, but Murphy said MassDevelopment is not married to that, especially if townhouses become more desirable as the project is built out.

© Copyright 2012 Daily Hampshire Gazette.