Part 2: More economic development ideas

Below is a list I just sent to Councilor Stempel, the chair of the Economic Development Committee, outlining a few economic development ideas that emerged (mostly) from a recent deep dive into Greenfield’s zoning ordinance. These are heavier lifts than the previous list, but get at some more fundamental issues related to housing, commercial space, and the business development cycle.

I’m a proud YIMBY. Yes, I want change–affordable housing, sustainable businesses, density, diversity, new neighbors–and yes I want all of it in my backyard.

I welcome everyone’s feedback, and particularly those on the planning board and our mayoral and council candidates.


 

First a note on zoning in general: I have always advocated and will continue to advocate for a comprehensive overhaul of the zoning ordinance, preferably replacing it entirely with a form-based code organized along the urban-rural transect that defines Greenfield, rather than a use-based code. This type of zoning is allows for more flexible mixed-use development, allows us to talk, as a community, about what we actually want the the city to look and feel like, rather than just focusing on what’s prohibited in which spaces.

My understanding of the history of our 1950s style use-based zoning is that it’s rooted in two goals: enforcing segregation by race and income (which was an explicit policy throughout most of the 20th century) and keeping dirty, noisy, dangerous industries away from places where (certain) people lived. The former was never a good idea and constitutes a great American tragedy and injustice, and it’s incumbent upon us as town officials to proactively remove anything in our code that still has this effect. With regards to the latter, it was a noble goal but things have changed: the kinds of industry that we have in Franklin County now are mostly clean and safe, with toxic emissions heavily regulated, and our zoning should adapt to accommodate these on-the-ground changes. I’m not a planner or an urban historian and I’m sure there are nuances that I’m missing. I’m open to being corrected, but those are the assumptions I bring to conversations about zoning.

Here’s the list:
  • Tax abatements for improvement of residential properties. I’d have to do more research to remember what the mechanism is, but it’s possible to grant temporary abatements for the value of improvements to a property–in other words, people can invest in properties without fear that their taxes will go up. I advocate for this in both owner-occupied and rental properties.
    • Rationale: Greenfield’s housing stock, and particularly its low-cost rentals, are in bad shape. A measure like this will help encourage private investment.
  • Overhead lighting on Main Street. A lot of work has already gone into this idea, and I’m hopeful that we can make it a priority for the new mayor.
    • Rationale: Anything we can do to give Greenfield a distinctive feeling as an urban space is a positive, and this idea is popular and relatively inexpensive. See Santa Monica’s Colorado Esplanade or Burlington’s Church Street for successful examples.
  • Comprehensive review of town boards and commissions. This is an expansion of my previous idea, related to the Common Victualer’s License. For every decision that a board or commission makes that relates to businesses, I would like to see: 1) the language (MGL, ordinance, or town regulation) empowering that particular board to make that particular decision; 2) a rigorous set of criteria by which the decision is made; and 3) evidence that those criteria are being applied fairly and with at least a degree of impartiality. If a board or commission can’t provide these three basic pieces of information, then they shouldn’t be making the decision–it’s as simple as that.
    • Rationale: I’ve heard a number of complaints about town boards and commissions from local business owners: that meetings are unnecessary, that the process needlessly slows down business development, that decisions are made capriciously, that procedures aren’t clear, etc. These boards need a basic level of oversight and accountability, which I don’t think they’re getting.
    • Examples: obviously not every board deals with economic development issues. Here are some examples of those I’d like to review: Board of License Commissioners, Cultural District Committee, G-M Transportation Area, Historical Commission, Cultural Council, Parking and Traffic, Planning Board, Public Safety Commission, Recreation Commission, Redevelopment Authority, SGIC, Youth Commission, and ZBA.
  • Three-family and attached ADU by right in all zones. See Minneapolis as an example of a city that has implemented this kind of multi-family zoning by right–the sky in Minnesota has still, to the best of my knowledge, not fallen. I initially thought of proposing multi-family and detached ADU by right in many zones, but eventually decided that an additional level of oversight for 4+ family units is appropriate given Greenfield’s small-town character.
    • Rationale: Density is a basic tenet of new urbanism, with sociocultural, environmental, and economic benefits. As noted in the preamble, while I’m very pleased that Greenfield doesn’t practice single-family zoning, which is a racist zoning policy devised to keep Black and low-income people from moving to particular neighborhoods, that discriminatory legacy is still apparent in our zoning code. We can be even more inclusive and encourage dense neighborhoods by making these changes.
  • Revise minimum lot sizes. These are currently set at 50,000 square feet for lots with town sewer (pg. 53 of the zoning ordinance). My lot on Hope St., in contrast, is 3500 square feet, and it’s a perfectly reasonable place to live–even desirable for a younger generation looking for small, affordable, low-maintenance housing. 
    • Similar to above, minimum lot sizes are a discriminatory zoning practice designed to keep certain people out. This is an example of how our current zoning keeps housing unaffordable by design, and not by accident.
  • Reduce off-street parking minimums. This will require a comprehensive review and a lot of thought, but the numbers in the table on page 62 of the zoning ordinance are greatly inflated. I believe they could all be cut in half, at least, without significant negative effects.
    • Rationale: Again, creating parking is expensive, and requiring more parking spaces than are actually necessary is a factor that makes new construction cost-prohibitive, and keeps housing unaffordable. Donald Shoup, in his class book The True Cost of Free Parking, documents both the process by which parking minimums are inflated, and the consequences of this phenomenon.
  • Review the standards for home occupations as laid out in 200-6.3. I’d ultimately like to see an expansion of the uses that don’t require a special permit, and I’d also like to review the special permits that the ZBA has granted and denied in the past, and what specific criteria they use to evaluate applications. In particular, the standard in the ordinance of ‘visual unsightliness’ seems subjective, and I’m curious how it’s been applied.
    • Rationale: This is a direct response to concerns raised at the August meeting. Small scale, home-based businesses help create a local economy that’s resilient to changes in particular sectors, and are also an onramp to the kind of mixed use that I would like to see. We should, as a city, be encouraging residents to run small businesses and do small-scale production in their homes to the greatest extent possible.
  • Rethink and rezone the French King. I’d like to see a series of community conversations or charrettes to talk about how we, as a community, should balance the needs of industry, commercial space, open space, and historical preservation in this politically fraught area. These conversations should be structured carefully to focus on a conclusion and a course of action, and avoid the kind of deadlock that frequently occurs. Not everyone is going to be happy with any solution, but that doesn’t mean that the status quo is a good answer.
    • Rationale: A lot of ink has been spilled about what the community doesn’t want along the French King Highway, but we’ve talked very little about what we’d like to see. I personally believe that the land in that stretch is too valuable to waste with more sprawl development.
  • Review the Planned Development Overlay.  I propose eliminating it, and replacing it with a larger, more comprehensive Deerfield St. redevelopment zone or overlay. Rather than looking for one large developer, this zone would encourage flexible, form-based, mixed use development to tie Deerfield St into downtown. The results of the UMass charrettes and design study could be used to create design principles. Lowell’s Hamilton Canal District Form Based Code might be a close analog.
    • Rationale: I’m not sure what the history with this overlay is, but it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much at the moment.
  • Take a more aggressive stance with relation to problem landlords. This is ultimately a mayoral responsibility, but I think the committee has a role to play. In addition to the vacancy tax, at the least, I’d like to see: 1) more health and building enforcement for landlords keeping substandard properties; 2) a more active and less lenient tax title procedure for rental properties, to make sure that landlords lose their properties when they don’t pay their taxes; and 3) a streamlined means of transferring properties that the town comes to own to a community land trust with the capacity to repurpose those properties as long-term affordable housing.
    • Rationale: We need to stop pretending that everyone who owns property is a pillar of the community, and start holding landlords accountable to the regulations that are already on the books. Let’s recognize that Greenfield has a landlord problem, and that said landlord problem constitutes an economic development problem.