Monday, June 6, 2011

That House on Livingston...

Anybody who reads The Sun is well aware of the stink being raised about a house being "shoehorned" in on Livingston Ave. Essentially, under the state's Approval Not Required (ANR) permitting under the Subdivision Control Law, it is legal to subdivide a lot without the municipality needing to approve it as long as the new lots meet the town's zoning requirements and the homes will be on an existing public way. What is happening is that a large home with a large side-lot was bought by a developer, who is using ANR to cut the small side lot out and is squeezing in a small house. This is allowable because the zoning for Livingston Ave is Traditional Single-Family (TSF), allowing a house on a lot of the size in question. It just happens that the lots that exist on this stretch of the street tend to be far larger than TSF calls for. It's worth noting that a more restrictive zoning type exists, that being Suburban Single Family (SSF), which is what much of the Tyler Park neighborhood and essentially all of Belvidere east of Rogers/Nesmith is zoned as. This subdivided lot would be too small, was the neighborhood SSF.

To understand some of the issues, a little history is called for. This section of the Highlands was part of Lowell's original 1826 grant and part of Lowell's 1874 annexation of Chelmsford's Middlesex Village section. By 1879, we see that streets were being laid out in and around the estate of William E. Livingston. Improvements to transportation, namely street railways, were making the Outer Highlands/Middlesex Village a suburb of the smoky city a mile and change away.

By 1896, we see that street railways (black and white blocked lines) ran down Middlesex Street and Westford Street. In this period, contemporary to the new Lowell City Hall and Library (a very good economic time, as the architecture attests), the Victorians on the Princeton Boulevard end of Livingston and Harvard Streets had been constructed on large lots. The subdivision in question today is happening on the lot labeled as belonging to W.H. Bent and against the Swan house.

By 1924, we see something interesting happen: Many of the lots in the Livingston plan had been subdivided further, some new streets have been put in, and the denser middle-income Highlands neighborhood that we know today has leapfrogged over this area and marched straight towards Black Brook, bringing some industrial concerns with it. In fact, the new lot in question, part of property belonging to a Dixon in 1924, will be of a fairly typical size for the neighborhood. This period just before the Depression was approximately the apex of Lowell's 100-year population and industrial growth, and this small enclave of stately Victorian mansions was already becoming boxed in by a decidedly middle-class neighborhood. The trend must've continued up to and through World War II as the empty lots labelled as belonging to the U.S. Housing Corp are built on today (of course) with everything from fairly modest pre-war homes to post-war ranches (which, I feel, in an old city like Lowell, are an eyesore due to their lack of verticality).

This pattern of trendy neighborhoods being eclipsed by other neighborhoods is not unusual in Lowell or anywhere. Development pressure and changing economics ensures that - just look at some of the beautiful homes along Pawtucket Street and its side streets or along North and South Common. It's very easy to look through the three atlases I presented and watch the city march right into and through neighborhoods that were originally for the city's elite.

That said, of course this issue is more complex than I just made it sound. If it were easy to come down on one side of the debate or the other, I would've posted on this last week or ignored it completely. I'm going to jump here so I don't run over the front page.

Against this historical backdrop, I guess we have a few questions:

  • Where does one's rights to do what they want with their property end, and their neighbor's rights to maintain the value of their property begin?
  • What is the difference between snob-zoning and maintaining a neighborhood's integrity?
  • Is this a continuation of an old story, as I implied above, or is this fundamentally different?
  • Should this subdivision been stopped? Is it even really wrong or is it, as some are claiming, a mountain being made out of a mole-hill by the very connected in the neighborhood?
The first point is easy to talk about and hard to decide on. I have a personal anecdote (this is elaborated from me brain-dumping on Facebook):
My family, starting with my Great Grandfather, owned a house on three lots in South Lowell - on the very outskirts of the city. Essentially, the neighborhood feels uncompleted as it was built just as Lowell's fortunes began to change. My uncle almost sold it out to a developer who could've demolished the 100-year old house and put up probably six units of housing (the three lots are each zoned traditional two-family). Otherwise, duplexes were probably being built on either side of the existing house. In the end, a neighbor bought the house and her family did the necessary renovations. I was thinking - I'm not huge on gigantic yards. Had I wanted to buy the house, I don't have family contractors who could've done the interior work that needed to be done - and it NEEDED to be done. Might I have sold one of the side yards to afford the work needed? I certainly would've liked to have had the option. Without the ANR laws, would it have gotten through the zoning board? What would the neighbors think? Living next door, I'd have to consider that.
I guess the key differences here are that Livingston Ave, while zoned TSF, does have a certain character (big Victorians namely...for that one stretch in question) that this new house won't match. Like the otherwise nice homes that were built in various infill projects in Belvidere over the past few decades (Mansur Street immediately comes to mind), homes that don't fit in are not good for neighborhoods - or land values. My family's home was a very typical Lowell single-family. Anything that can be built in TTF would fit in there just fine. Also, unlike facing my neighbors had I moved to South Lowell, the developer on Livingston Street is absentee, living up on Christian Hill. He won't have to deal with irate neighbors - the family that buys this "postage stamp" house will. Conversely, it surprises me that even in a city the size of Lowell, that someone can do one unpopular project after another and not become a pariah.
So, like I said, I'm stuck on this point, as I believe are many people. This isn't a Lowell question or an urbanism question: it's an American question: individual rights versus collective good.

As for my second point on snob-zoning, that one is easier for me: I don't believe in exclusive communities because I believe a community should be as self-contained as possible. It should have its own jobs and its own workforce. It should be able to deal with the issues it generates. It should be cohesive and identifiable and proud of itself. One should be able to live their entire life in a single, strongly self-identifying community.

This is one of my favorite things about Lowell: Diversity. It's something that nearly entirely homogeneous cities like Lawrence and towns like Westford lack. That said, I'm less certain about exclusive neighborhoods. None of Lowell's neighborhoods (if we only say there are the eight or so major ones) are truly exclusive, and I consider that a good thing. Belvidere, from the triple-deckers down by the Concord River to the mansions on the hill, houses just about everyone. That said, "Lower" and "Upper" Belvidere are talked about for a reason: I am completely for exclusive sub-neighborhoods. Like likes like, and that's OK. Tenements on Andover Street make no sense, and ranches in the working-class parts of the Acre don't work, either. Again, the beauty of a city like Lowell is that the streets are well connected and almost all public. There are public buildings and parks and stores just about everywhere: I can go anywhere I like, as can anybody else, and feel mostly welcome. That allows us to appreciate the city's diversity while being able to simultaneously appreciate the somewhat homogeneous character of our individual blocks and neighbors.

The third point - is this growth of the city or something else, I feel has a disturbing but clear answer: This is in fact fundamentally different. In 1896, Lowell was a great center of manufacturing, annexing sections of neighboring communities at a good pace and growing very quickly. Building dense near less-dense areas caused new exclusive sections to be built further out. At the same time, it also put upwards pressure on the values of existing properties as their closeness to the inner city while having a lot of land became a greater and greater asset. In other words, if you now wanted out of your neighborhood because you had too many neighbors, you could do that, turn a profit, and still remain in Lowell. In 2011, Lowell is a largely residential community well past its economic prime, hemmed in by suburbs that we don't own and often want very little to do with us, look very different from us demographically, and have built suburban-style developments, many of them containing the shopping and jobs people want to be near, right up to our borders. Therefore, character and history, not location, are the greatest assets of Lowell's neighborhoods today. The Highlands, or even Belvidere, are not Cambridge's Brattle Street area, though the houses may look similar. Owning a house that size on that much land that close to Boston is far more valuable than living in a huge, expensive-to-heat house near downtown Lowell.

Therefore, continuing to increase density in historically less-dense neighborhoods in Lowell is highly counter-productive because it adds nothing of value; in fact it does quite the opposite. It's causing Lowell to become a homogeneous city, and destroying the full-service city character we need to remain interesting (and a place with reasonable property values). I would argue that re-upping density (and restoring mixed-use zoning) in Lowell's historically denser sections would be far more beneficial. In fact, people seem to pan the suburban-style de-densification, de-mixed-use projects Lowell's inner neighborhoods were plagued with for the entire second half of the last century because they sucked vitality out of neighborhoods. We've since come to our senses and have done a great job adding urban-style housing and stores in the Acre to keep it interesting: let's keep the dense housing out of the Upper Highlands because it will make it decidedly un-interesting.

Look at it this way: I live downtown. I would *love* more neighbors. The added density would translate into more customers for more stores, entertainment options, maybe even places to find work. They don't have to even be at my income level. Above or below, within limits and in the right proportions, is fine as well. This is NOT true for a neighborhood like Livingston Ave. It's been a suburb, and a somewhat exclusive one, since it was built. Jane Jacobs astutely pointed out that the problem with suburbs is they are not diverse enough to function as urban areas without serious re-working...trying to do it anyway just causes blight. I don't think that suburbs (in the pre-war neighborhood sense) are inherently a problem because of this fact, but a fact it remains. Just be glad that it is within our city limits, that these people are proud and active Lowellians, and keep it as it is. If Lowell's economics change and there is a lot of economic pressure to increase density there and not in places that are currently asking for more density, then consider more houses. And when they are built, as anywhere, build them well, keep them architecturally sensitive to the neighborhood, and people should be happy enough.

I guess that brings me to the final point. There isn't really a lot to say: the rules are the rules. This home is allowed under current zoning code, ANR isn't entirely bad, and it won't be the end of the neighborhood. The neighbors could very well turn around and buy this lot before it's built on and nip the whole thing in the bud. Put up a gazebo or an orchard or something. Meanwhile, Lowellians should read their zoning maps, find out what can be built in their neighborhood, and take it to city hall if they don't like it. This could've been stopped long ago if the neighborhood had been put into a historic district and re-zoned SSF. There are certainly, as Adam Baacke claimed and Rita Mercier seemed to disagree with (she proposed getting rid of TSF entirely and re-zoning it all SSF), plenty of nice neighborhoods that look and function like TSF...that short stretch of Livingston Ave and Havard Streets just aren't among them.

1 comment:

  1. I've been reading your blog from its beginning, and following you through the city for as long as you've been posting pictures. For me its now official. From now on "Corey Sciuto" will be my 9th vote for Lowell City Counsel. yea, yea, I know your not running, doesn't matter to me I'm writing your name down anyway. Thanks, as always, I find your point of view "Dead-On"