Sunday, September 17, 2017

New England Villages: Storrs Center CT

As noted in recent posts, I have been working on a project which looks at the viability of using historic New England village centers as a framework for supporting 21st rural development.  The idea is that the village model can be updated to support sustainable development in the countryside and to serve as a counterweight to large-lot, exurban sprawl.  I did some field visits recently and thought I would share some highlights.

I have written about the Storrs Center “new town” project in Mansfield CT a number of times, most recently when the town was officially built out (here).  The very short version is that a new, village-like, mixed-use development has been built across the street from the University of Connecticut campus in rural eastern Connecticut.  Now having had a chance to revisit Storrs, I have to say that using my eyeballs and legs confirmed what I had seen online.  It is a first-rate piece of urban design, with human-scale architecture, a great mix of activities (including the only state puppet museum in the US!), and a welcoming vibe.  Storrs is a great working model that I – and I’m sure others – will continue to follow closely in the years to come.






Thursday, September 14, 2017

New England Villages: Storrowton Village Museum

As noted in recent posts, I have been working on a project which looks at the viability of using historic New England village centers as a framework for supporting 21st rural development.  The idea is that the village model can be updated to support sustainable development in the countryside and to serve as a counterweight to large-lot, exurban sprawl.  I did some field visits recently and thought I would share some highlights.
Storrowton Village is a recreated village, located on the grounds of the “Big E” exposition in West Springfield MA.  It was created in the 1920s by philanthropist Helen Storrow, who organized and funded the purchase of nine historic New England buildings, dated from the late 18th and early 19th century, and their relocation to the fairgrounds, where they stand today as a living history museum.  Her intent, as stated in the museum’s current literature, was to recreate “a village such as our forefathers built on hills, crossroads and along rivers. Although Storrowton’s buildings come from different states and are of different periods of construction, together they form a typical New England Village and include a Meeting House, Schoolhouse, General Store, Blacksmith Shop, Tavern, Law Office and historic homes all surrounding a traditional village green.”
The museum is at its most active during the Big E fair (in 2017 from September 15 – October 1), but also hosts educational programs for children and a year-round restaurant (Storrowton Tavern).  (See the museum’s website here.
So what does Storrowton Village teach us about the possibility of a 21st Century “New” New England Village?  It displays, in three dimensions, the archetypes of ideal village buildings and, to a lesser extent, the archetype of a village layout (around a very geometric “green”).  These archetypes resonate over time and are powerful still.

If you like fairs (especially if you have younger kids), the Big E (website here) is terrific.  The Storrowton Village Museum is worth a visit any time you are in western Massachusetts.






Wednesday, September 13, 2017

New England Villages: Collinsville CT

As noted in a recent post, I have been working on a project which looks at the viability of using historic New England village centers as a framework for supporting 21st rural development.  The idea is that the village model can be updated to support sustainable development in the countryside and to serve as a counterweight to large-lot, exurban sprawl.  I did some field visits recently and thought I would share some highlights.
Collinsville CT is a classic New England mill village, located in the town of Canton, in the lovely Farmington River Valley, about 15 miles west of Hartford.  Canton has a   population of about 10,000, while the Collinsville census area has about 2,700.
Collinsville was a “company town” serving the Collins Axe Company, which finally went out of business in 1966.  The village has survived and even thrived.  To quote the town’s master plan:  “The business district of Collinsville is a wonderful mix of small retail shops, quasi‐industrial service businesses, restaurants, offices, arts culture, and residential units.  The residential housing includes single family houses, two family units, multi‐unit residential buildings, and residential housing above business establishments.  Most of the area is very pedestrian friendly. In many respects, Collinsville represents the mixed‐use vision that many communities are looking to re‐create in their own village centers.”

So, Collinsville has a lot of the ingredients we are looking for in a 21st-century New England village.  What it could really us now is redevelopment of the beautiful (but dilapidated) mill buildings.  There are some antique shops there now, but one can envision loft housing, incubator businesses, craft shops, etc.  Know any buyers/developers?






New Report Summarizes New Jersey Transportation Dilemmas

The Fund for New Jersey has been publishing a major series of issue papers ahead of next year’s state elections and has now taken on transportation.  “Transportation Must Again Be the Backbone of New Jersey Economy” crisply outlines the key dilemmas facing state policymakers (full report here, two-page summary here; full disclosure, I contributed to the development of the report).
The four main issues:
First, although New Jersey enacted a 23-cent (!) increase in the gas tax in 2016, there are still major funding shortfalls and misallocations.  The funding influx staves off bankruptcy for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund but doesn’t solve long-term problems.  Operations and maintenance are starved for funding on both the highway and transit sides, made up for in part by transfers from capital to operating and by damaging fare increases. 
Second, the massive Gateway rail projects connecting New Jersey to New York are in desperate need of more funding and an accelerated schedule.  These projects are needed not just to cope with the massive growth in rail traffic but to prevent a transportation nightmare.  While our attention is understandably and appropriately concentrated on the human misery and costly damages caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, New Jersey and New York are still dealing with the effects of Superstorm Sandy.  To quote the report:
“Corrosive salts left by Superstorm Sandy’s flooding are eating away at the concrete walls and electric-traction and signal systems in the tunnel. Engineers project that, in the next 10 to 20 years, each of the two tubes will have to be taken out of service for overhaul. If either tube goes out of service before a replacement is operational (estimated to be in 2026), today’s peak commuter and intercity service of 24 trains an hour (21 NJ Transit and three Amtrak) would shrink to six.”
Third, the governance structures of New Jersey’s transportation agencies (NJDOT, NJ Transit, the toll authorities) have lots of tangled inefficiencies, often a result – as the report notes – of politicians focusing on the perceived “optics” of government at the expense of actual good practice.  At NJDOT there are chronic staff shortages in key areas, and the management structure has been hollowed out by years of salary compression.  The report makes several recommendations for better governance.
Fourth, New Jersey – like other states – needs to catch up with rapidly evolving transportation technology.
If you read the transportation report and wonder: where is a discussion of land use?  and climate change?  The answer is that those discussions are in an earlier report in the series, “Climate Change Adds Urgency to Restoring Environmental Protection” (see my posting, with links, here).

Congrats again to the Fund for New Jersey for taking on this daunting task!


Monday, September 11, 2017

Scotland goes electric

The Scottish government, which has control over the roads on its own turf within the United Kingdom, has announced plans to accelerate its support for electric vehicles (stories here and here).  The main steps are (1) phasing out the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2032 (ahead of the overall UK target) and (2) greatly expanding the installation of electric vehicle charging stations.  The current project to dualize 80 miles of the A9, the main road between Perth and Inverness, will include new chargers – enough to make it the “first fully electric-enabled highway” in Scotland.  More details on the EV plans and broader climate change initiatives will be announced in the near future.

Can someone remind me why we can’t do this in the US?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

New England Villages: Washington Depot CT

I have recently been working on a project which looks at the viability of using historic New England village centers as a framework for supporting 21st rural development.  The idea is that the village model can be updated to support sustainable development in the countryside and to serve as a counterweight to large-lot, exurban sprawl.  I did some field visits recently and thought I would share some highlights.

Washington Depot is the main village center in Washington, Connecticut, a town of about 3,500 people, located about 50 miles west of Hartford.  What first drew my attention to the town was a reference in David Owen’s Green Metropolis.  That book (available here) mostly talks about the (counterintuitive) environmental virtues of New York City, but contains a fascinating discussion of Washington:
Among the most picturesque and locally cherished sections of my town are the old village green and the oldest of our three small business districts.  Both arose long before cars or the concept of zoning, and both have numerous fundamental features that standard zoning regulations explicitly forbid in new construction: the lots are small, the buildings are close to each other and close to the road, public parking is scarce, and commercial and residential uses are mixed, seemingly arbitrarily.  These features—which are among the defining characteristics of the village centers of all picturesque old New England towns…are the ones that make visitors stop their cars and take photographs.  Yet nothing remotely resembling either neighborhood could be built in our town today under our basic regulations for business or residential districts, because as is the case in most towns, our standard rules regarding lot coverage, building setbacks, parking spaces, and the separation of uses, among other things, prohibit them. (page 112)

Washington Depot is today a charming, compact village center nestled in the Shepaug River valley, with an excellent mix of shops and services, although few residents.  The upscale nature of the place is exemplified by an excellent independent bookstore and a J. McLaughlin shop.  Could it become a mixed-use, walkable/bikeable, sustainable village center, modeling rural density in a beautiful, green setting?  Absolutely it could.  The town’s master plan recommends adding infill development, building out the street grid, and providing sidewalks, traffic calming, and other measures to fulfill this goal.  And the town has commissioned a preliminary study (map follows) of potential sites for infill development.

Unfortunately, there are also real obstacles:
·      The zoning issues that Owen mentions are at least in part a result of NIMBYism led by upper-income transplants from the city who want to keep their version of a rural lifestyle, which means large-lot development,
·      There is no public sewage system, and
·      The village center is in a 100-year floodplain.

The master plan indicates that under current zoning the town’s population could more than double in the future – most of it in large-lot, single-family homes, weighing heavily on the environment.  Hopefully, the Washingtonians will choose a better future for their charming town.

Following are a few photos of the village and the conceptual infill development map.