MGM Is An Exception, Not The Trend

A couple of weeks ago, the MGM Casino opened in Springfield’s South End. This was a years-long billion-dollar investment, and represented for many the long-sought hope for the city’s comeback – a symbol of a resurgence and new life pumped into a community which for decades has largely known only disinvestment and struggle. Having gone there last week for White Lion Wednesdays, I can say that it is, without a doubt, an impressive urban space that provides many much-needed amenities to the city’s downtown (bowling alley, movie theater, restaurants, etc.).

MGM Springfield. I really like the nice urbanist design that blends with the rest of South End architecture. Source: NBC Connecticut

Looking around at derelict buildings in the region, I am forced to wonder if this was a weird outlier event. Will there be other MGM-scale investments in the region? Or maybe there are already and I just don’t know about them?

I was recently introduced to a new statewide dataset called MassBuilds, which tracks major real estate developments around the commonwealth. I’m sad to say that this dataset confirms what I already suspected – despite the fanfare and hubbub over MGM, the vast majority of new large real estate developments take place inside I-495 (the outer beltway of Boston). Don’t get me wrong, MGM is a huge investment by any measure (nearly $1 billion) and one of the largest in the state in recent years. But it is an exception to the overwhelming trend of where new large developments take place.

Using the MassBuilds dataset, I first took a look at major real estate developments by region since the year 2000. You might notice the same trend that I did.

statewide development chart
Statewide major developments since 2000. Source: MassBuilds

You can see in the chart above, Metro Boston totally dominates the commonwealth when it comes to major developments. You can also see this remarkable disparity mapped:

Statewide development map
Statewide Real Estate Developments. Sources: MassBuilds, MassGIS

Finally, I took a look at the top ten developments that had been completed or were in construction by total cost. The number one development is the new casino in construction just outside of Boston, coming in at a whopping $2.4 billion. MGM is number three at $960 million; the other nine developments are in Boston or a nearby community.

Top Ten Developments
Top ten large developments in construction or completed by total project cost. Source: MassBuilds

One caveat I would note is that the MassBuilds database was created and is maintained by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and so there might be an under-counting of projects outside the Boston region since they are the Boston-area planning commission. However, in absence of evidence to the contrary, this suggests that the red hot real estate market in the Boston region is fueling a development boom that’s largely not felt in the rest of the state.

It’s easy, as a knee-jerk reaction, to feel like the rest of the state (including the Pioneer Valley) is being left behind. I have to remind myself that being in a calmer real estate market has its benefits: fewer bidding wars and all-cash offers locking out many families from home ownership; less gentrification and displacement in low-income, majority people-of-color neighborhoods; fewer families struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table.

At the same time, as I look at the abandoned mill buildings, boarded up apartment buildings, and empty storefronts of Holyoke and Springfield, I can’t help but wonder – can’t we just get a small slice of that development bonanza going on 90 miles east of us? Just a taste, enough to get a few restaurants and a refurbished mill building (without needing slot machines to make the project pencil out)? Can’t we have our cake and eat it, too?



Where Thoreau Isn’t Welcome

I meant to post this a while ago, but life got in the way (AKA going out of town and then doing what feels like a Sisyphean amount of housework). Back in early May, I was very frustrated to hear that yet another relatively affluent town voted to block more affordable housing options through its zoning laws. This happens all too frequently (no fewer than three times while I was on Town Meeting in Belmont) and deserves examining.

A Tiny House on a Farm

The story went something like this: A young woman named Sarah Hastings built a tiny home in Hadley while in college at Mount Holyoke, the whole thing costing about $15,000. A truly tiny house, at just 190 square feet everything in the home is designed for space efficiency. As she describes on her website

The simple lifestyle is attainable.  Before graduating from college in 2015, I designed and built my tiny home in order to open my world to opportunity and freedom.  My surroundings are engineered to accommodate natural processes and conscious daily decisions.   Because tiny homes are still a grey area between codes, my journey is paving the way for a more accessible way to live lightly. [emphasis mine]


tiny house
Sarah Hastings (lower right) and her tiny house. Source: MassLive

Unfortunately, that gets to the crux of the matter – Hadley zoning code does not allow for what Sarah’s home technically is, what’s called a detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). Sometimes also called in-law cottages, ADUs are a really easy way for a town to allow for a modest amount of new housing development that tends to be much more affordable than the typical half acre lot McMansion development done today.

Of course, in addition to affordability, Sarah was interested in the idea of “living light.” Tiny homes, beyond being cheap, also tend to be much lower impact than the typical house. Heating costs alone are dramatically lower, and she designed her home to conserve water and electricity, and minimize the amount of waste produced.

Ensuing Controversy

Needless to say, many in the town hated it. Because the home was at best in a gray area when it came to zoning, the town decided to allow the home to stay until a bylaw was passed making her house expressly sanctioned. The packed Town Meeting on May 5th was one of the more rancorous, poorly moderated town meetings that I’ve ever seen. Ultimately, after about half an hour of discussion, they voted 2/3 against the amendment. Sarah had to vacate the next day.

The arguments against legalizing tiny homes went like this:

  1. Town character – As usual, the “rural character” of the town was brought up as a reason to oppose the bylaw change. Of course, if 1700s New York City had “preserved town character” through zoning, then Times Square would still be farmland.
  2. Flouting the law – Many residents spoke out against the bylaw because Sarah broke the law by building the tiny house in the first place. However, the whole point of civil disobedience is that you break the law in order to change it – a point that seemed to have been lost on the Town Meeting members.
  3. “Student Stuffers” – One of the planning board members got up to oppose the development of tiny houses because he was sure they would end up turning into student housing. I don’t know what evidence there is of that happening, and even if it did, why that would be a bad thing (I used to be a student, and thought I made a fine neighbor).

Is Town Meeting Inherently Flawed?

I am beginning to wonder if the Town Meeting form of government is even capable of responsibly handling questions of zoning. Town Meeting members tend to be older white home owners, regardless of the demographic makeup of the town. In my experience, this makes a Town Meeting especially resistant to change, particularly one that could impact home values. These exclusionary zoning practices are a big part of what’s leading to the current national housing crunch.

Hadley is a relatively wealthy town by Pioneer Valley standards, ranking in the top third for all communities in the Pioneer Valley for household income. This makes their decision to illegalize this form of more affordable housing even more egregious, since the segregation of lower-income households from higher-income communities is a driver of the opportunity gap. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t embed the interactive map I made because of WordPress limitations, but you can check it out here. Below is just a screenshot.)

income map
Hadley is a relatively wealthy community, voting down affordable housing. Interactive map found here.

What Hadley voted to do was to exclude those who wanted to live light, who wanted to live a little different – those who couldn’t afford to live otherwise. Were this the 1850s, Hadley would have kicked out Henry David Thoreau because his tiny home in the woods violated zoning code. Our local laws today, especially in wealthier communities, are stifling innovation, penalizing the young and the poor, and are hurting the commonwealth and the country. I hope we can fix it, though I don’t know if the town meeting system is equipped to do so.


The Geography of Somewhere

The inevitability of moving to the Pioneer Valley was by no means a given. My wife and I knew that we wanted to leave the Boston area (for a variety of reasons, the cost of housing being first and foremost among them), but there were a lot of different places we could go.

My wife grew up in New Mexico, and I was born and raised in Kentucky. We have lived in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and so had experienced many different parts of the continental US. Each part of the country has something to offer: climate, or culture, or affordability, or agreeable politics. But in the end, a crucial factor for both of us is something lacking in a lot of the country: place.  Continue reading “The Geography of Somewhere”

Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City

Lewis Mumford, that grandiloquent titan of the urban planning field, detailed urban development in his magnum opus, The City in History. In it, he wrote about the transition from Neolithic villages into the modern day human settlement, the city.

Neolithic villages, Mumford wrote, were architecturally rounded, or womb-like – essentially feminine. Replacing those settlements, the modern city brought:

. . .male symbolisms and abstractions now become manifest; they show themselves in the insistent straight line, the rectangle, the firmly bounded geometric plane, the phallic tower and the obelisk. . .

In Mumford’s view, the feminine design of the neolithic village was a vessel for life. This was overtaken by the masculine drive for dominance and power, as expressed through the ziggurat, or bell tower, or modern day skyscraper.

My daily bike commute takes me from the North End of Springfield up through Chicopee and then to where I live in Holyoke. Along the way I ride past two city halls, and am not too far from a third. Mumford’s words echo as I whoosh past. Continue reading “Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City”