Guest columnist Eric Cochrane: Welcome to neighborhood in Leverett

The Kittredge compound in Leverett

The Kittredge compound in Leverett

By ERIC COCHRANE

Published: 01-05-2024 9:04 PM

Two years ago, before I moved to Somerville, a neighbor asked my thoughts on development in western Massachusetts. I have pondered the question, and have concluded that mixed-use development, when built densely and with universal design in mind, is a benefit which our cities and towns should have prioritized years ago. This includes the proposed development of the Kittredge property in Leverett into new housing.

Should the development be approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals, the property, formerly owned by Yankee Candle founder Michael Kittredge, would allow as many as 700 homes and apartments to be built, keeping amenities like a gym and bowling alley for residents to enjoy. This proposal could benefit Leverett, as more homes means more places for people to live, and more people to raise young children and support Leverett Elementary School.

As Leverett debates the idea, opposition has sprung up. Opponents argue Leverett is not Florida, saying it would be wrong to create a whole new neighborhood. But the issue is not the creation of a new neighborhood in and of itself — rather, it’s that we have too few dense neighborhoods and housing.

Massachusetts has among the lowest housing vacancies in the nation, making the state unaffordable due to the small number of new homes being built. The Kittredge proposal would be a dense neighborhood, nothing resembling the sprawl of Cape Coral, Florida, a single-family-zoned city that struggles to attract businesses even as it grows rapidly. The Kittredge property, in contrast, would provide dense, mixed-use housing so people can move to and continue living in Leverett.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau report found states including California and New York risk losing congressional districts and Electoral College votes, and thus influence in policy, come the 2030 Census, whereas Florida, Idaho, and Texas would gain in influence from massive population spikes. We are fighting to retain democracy in this country; that fight must address housing. Florida, Idaho, and Texas have passed laws essentially criminalizing the mere existence of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Anti-housing policies in Massachusetts, New York and California, among other blue states, cause direct harm as well, making cities unaffordable for marginalized groups; residents say they support these populations but oppose new housing to allow living there.

We are not seeing an influx of Idahoans into California, or Floridians into Massachusetts or New York. People are moving away to these red states, despite their being run by far-right politicians, because they are much more affordable as they are building new houses, while we drag our feet on allowing dense development.

Boston is expensive, and people should be able to move to affordable communities in western Mass., but there aren’t enough houses to allow people to move here should they choose. Leverett may not be Florida, but for the wrong reasons. Opposition to new housing continues even as Gov. Maura Healey has unveiled a $4.1 billion proposal to build, improve and preserve roughly 65,000 homes in the state and decarbonize housing, universally praised by housing advocates.

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Massachusetts is also seriously discussing finally repealing the state’s racist and classist ban on rent control. Additionally, California’s Legislature is flexing its muscles to build denser housing, which San Francisco and Los Angeles urgently need. Progress is being made, but needs to speed up.

The Kittredge property already exists; what else would Leverett do with it? Let’s be open to dense, walkable, mixed-use developments, even in rural areas, so we can increase public transit capacity, allow our kids to live here and raise their children here, and support marginalized communities in practice. Embracing pro-housing policies helps Leverett and other towns be the inclusive and forward-thinking places we believe ourselves to be.

Eric Cochrane lives in Somerville.