Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Development distress...

Today, I spent some time touring my old hometown (Grafton, MA) in preparation for a new job I'm starting 9/6. Although I already knew about it, it never ceases to amaze me how much development is going on there and in other communities around central Mass. What really stood out, though, were two things.

The first and most obvious: how cookie-cutter most of the subdivisions are becoming -- one development had dozens of townhouses that were almost exactly identical, every one of them huge and beige. Blech.

It must take a certain mindset to buy such a place, one I don't share, but that unfortunately seems to be widespread. While I was in Arizona (1997-2001), I remember seeing a story about this neighborhood that totally blew a gasket over one family's painting their house a different shade of stucco by accident. They claimed the paint they bought dried into a different color than they expected, one that wasn't very far from the typical beige everyone else had. IIRC, the color turned out yellowish; it wasn't like they selected bright red, blue, pink, or even white.

Here in Mass., you CAN find all of those colors side by side except in some newer developments... and nobody complains. It's your house, paint it however you like. There's also something called variety in styles: colonials beside Victorians beside capes beside duplexes beside Spanish villas, and I realized I missed it when I came home. Down there, whole blocks of the map are covered with identical Spanish style-homes#, each of them walled off from its neighbors as if the neighbors were planning a seige. In Mass., even though we coined the phrase "good fences make good neighbors," a large percentage of houses here have no fences at all, and most of those that do have fences that are no more than decorative.

The second point was a little more subtle... and that makes it that much more annoying. I am sick of people who build subdivisions and name the damn streets after themselves, their kids and their dog. Sure, some of that has happened for a long time, but it's become epidemic since 2000 in almost every town. When I went to high school, there were about a dozen first-name streets in Grafton; now there are about 50 of them. Just a look at the J names says it all: Janet Cir., Jay St., Jodi Ln, John Dr., Jordan Terr., Joy's Rd. Janet, Jay and Jordan were around when I lived there, the others are new. Or imagine how easily emergency services can confuse these names if spoken in panic: Ann Dr., Anthony Dr., Alana Dr., Mary Ann Dr. All but the last one are new.

It's long overdue time for some creativity in street names. What about tapping the volumes of mythology (other than Greek and Roman) for new names: Ceredwen Road (Celtic), Sedna Ave. (Inuit), Brahma Terr. (Hindu), etc? Or astronomy (except planets and Zodiac signs): Rigel Road, Antares Dr., Mizar Terr., Centauri Dr. Or oddly-named characters from books -- fantasy and scifi have thousands of them. Any of those would be easy to remember and interesting and might even prompt curious folks to find out what they actually mean. A handful of developers do this, but the majority don't and many local planning boards don't encourage thought about such things.

That's not surprising, since most towns haven't really thought about what they want in development since the 1970s or earlier. It shows in how the subdivisions form: lots of curving &/or dead end streets, garages, and cookie-cutter homes that take up as much space as possible, usually with the most beautiful lots built upon first... rather than left open as parks for the entire community to enjoy.

Again, there are exceptions. Some, like Woodstock, CT., are following a more eco-friendly path. In my day job, I recently wrote about the fact Woodstock's planning folks approved subdivision regulations that promote cluster development, in which all of the actual building is done in one section of the property near an existing road. Their regs had some other interesting features that other towns could duplicate, where possible:

* Developers must build with preservation of existing and future agricultural use in mind.

* A minimum of 50 percent of the buildable acreage must be set aside for conservation to be "protected in perpetuity." (They were talking about a 30 year plan to develop a trail network linking these lands.)

* "Streets shall be laid out with an east-west orientation so as to facilitate the use of solar collectors" whenever possible.

* Developers can get extra building lots if they include affordable housing or accessory apartments.

That sounds like a step in the right direction.


# The area these pictures depict is a particularly egregious example of corporate development run amok. Called Anthem, it was built where it is -- about 15 miles north of anything else in the Phoenix valley, in the middle of nowhere -- specifically because it was outside the city's jurisdiction and thus could avoid even the minimal development control Phoenix has. It's totally corporate-controlled; as far as I know, the place doesn't even have an elected government even though around 70,000 people live there. Of course, the developers expect the public to ultimately pay for extending things like water & sewer lines, to deal with the increased commuting traffic on I-17 & the subsequent increase in air pollution, and to accept further degradation of the desert. (That's unfortunately not unusual there; while I lived there, government in AZ was a corporate lackey, especially of developers and mining firms, and I doubt it's changed much.)

To be fair, though, I did find one of my favorite street names in AZ (not in Anthem, but Mesa) -- Magic Canyon Dr. Their naming issues don't involve using first names; what they overuse are numbers, but that's not unique to the Phoenix metro area.

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I wonder what it says about society that conformity in colors is so important about moving into this kind of housing.

8/27/2005 4:00 AM  
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