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New Urbanism movement takes root in Mashpee

By Joe Burns | Thursday, July 8, 2004


Is this the rebirth or death of a small town? That's the question in Mashpee where developers Doug Storrs and Buff Chace continue to shape Mashpee Commons, the first and only New Urbanism project on the Cape.

Hailed as the answer to suburban sprawl, New Urbanism is a school of planned growth that challenges the model that emerged out of the post WW II era with one that is a based on the traditional neighborhood.

"It's an alternative to suburbia that takes into account the last 50 years. In other words, it is not like the old urbanism that did not have to compete with suburbia. The new urbanism is conscious of competition with suburbia," said Andres Duany, of Duany/Plater-Zyberk and Co., designers of Mashpee Commons and New Urbanism communities across the country. Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are considered leaders in the New Urbanism movement.

New Urbanists blame zoning laws that separate commercial and residential space, force stores to be set back behind large parking lots, and development patterns that have separated people into economic ghettos for creating the automobile-dependent communities we have today. The answer, they say is a return to the integrated, pedestrian-friendly villages and neighborhoods.

New Urbanism, which is also known as neo-traditional design, transit-oriented development, and traditional neighborhood development, doesn't attempt to simply resurrect the old neighborhood concept. New homes are created to meet modern needs. Stores and businesses must have adequate parking and modern floor plans. According to a story in New Urban News, with proper design, even big box businesses such as Wal-Mart or Home Depot can be accommodated. Duany said he doesn't see the inclusion of big box stores as inconsistent with New Urbanism's goals.

"Big boxes provide inexpensive daily needs, and it's not equitable to exclude big boxes, so we try to assimilate them," he said.

The first New Urbanism town was Seaside, Fla., built in 1981 along the Panhandle coast. The town, which was designed by Duany/Plater-Zyberk, was used in the filming of the Jim Carrey movie "Truman. The best-known example of New Urbanism is Celebration, the Disney development outside Orlando. Both Seaside and Celebration have been criticized for the rules and regulations imposed on its residents. In their book "Celebration USA: Living in Disney's Brave New Town," journalist Catherine Collins and her husband, New York Times correspondent Douglas Frantz, describe the continuous Muzak inundating the downtown area, making it seem less like a town and more like a theme park. They also write of rules requiring that window treatments must be white or off-white, that more than two people cannot share a bedroom, and that if neighbors complain about a noisy pet, it can be evicted from Celebration with or without the owner's consent.

Writing for CommonWealth magazine, Laura Pappano, a visiting scholar at the Henry A. Murray Research Center at Radcliffe, said: "New Urbanism is not democratic or organic.

"Who decides how a village should look?" she asked, referring to Mashpee Commons. "In this New Urbanist community, [Douglas] Storrs gets to decide."

Storrs said his inspiration for building Mashpee Commons is the historical New England villages.

"Those were always very enjoyable walkable neighborhoods for people to work [and live in]," he said.

The Mashpee Commons master plan, in the works since 1986, calls for the development of six interrelated mixed-use neighborhoods with housing, offices, stores, civic buildings and open space - all controlled by a strict design code. Twenty five-percent of the housing will be affordable housing units, which means that the residential portion of the developments do not need approval from the Cape Cod Commission.

"It's a very important project. It was the first project that took a shopping center and retrofitted it into a town center," Duany said.

Since a privately-owned shopping plaza will be the commercial center for this new community, it means that even though the Commons includes a U.S. Post Office and residential units, the freedom that one would normally expect to enjoy in public town square are not applicable there. A private security force patrols the grounds and picketing, leafleting and petitioning (with the exception of ballot petitions permissible in shopping centers under the Massachusetts Constitution) are permitted at the discretion of the management.

"We run it like a shopping center. Our ultimate goal is for our retailers to make enough money so they can survive," said John Renz, vice president in charge of leasing for Mashpee Commons, and whose duties include running the Commons. "If someone is in here passing out leaflets, I have the right to tell them to leave."

Mashpee Commons will not exercise the same control over the residential areas that will surround the center, but there will be regulations. Mashpee Commons will manage the developments at first, and then they will likely be governed by a homeowners association.

"It's no different from any other development. The developer maintains control for a period of time until a certain number of units are sold," Renz said.

Renz said that the regulations and limitations regarding the use and development of properties will remain in place after Mashpee Commons gives up control.

"There will be fairly strict architectural guidelines that will remain with the land even though you may buy a lot and own it."

New Urbanism has been linked with "smart growth," a term that has been used locally by those advocating the revitalization of main streets and preservation of open space. Duany said that two are related. While New Urbanism is market-driven and smart growth is policy-driven, they are essentially identical.

"The desired result is the same, Duany said,

Margo Fenn, executive director for the Cape Cod Commission sees the Commons' design as keeping with the Commission's goals.

"The style of development they're pursuing is consistent with what we've tried to encourage," she said. But the location for the project concerns Fenn, who cited traffic congestion and the impact the development could have on the Mashpee River watershed as issues that need to be addressed.

The Cape Cod Commission has not yet granted approval for the projects, but since Mashpee Commons intends to make 25 percent of the housing units affordable, Commission approval will not be needed for the residential developments. According to Massachusetts law, if at least 25 percent of the units in a housing development have long-term affordability restrictions, local zoning boards need not adhere to local approval processes, local zoning, and other restrictions in approving the development. Cape Cod Commission approval will, however, be needed for the commercial component, so creating a mixed-used development will still depend upon an approval from the Commission.

When completed, Mashpee Commons may turn out to be the marvel of the New Urbanism movement. But it doesn't mean that Mashpee will be escaping suburban sprawl, Already, construction of a typical suburban shopping center is under way right across the road from Mashpee Commons.

"That's part of the problem," Fenn said. "A town has to think through its zoning regulations. If all you have is more intense development in the growth center but it doesn't prevent continued sprawl along other corridors, you're going to end up with both."

It is here that smart growth and New Urbanism part company. Duany said that he's not concerned with mall sprawl abutting Mashpee Commons ,

"They're not properly connected, but the people can walk in," he said, noting that since the two shopping areas are in close proximity, as will be the residential areas, pedestrian-friendly intention is still in tact.

"I think people have the right to live with suburban sprawl if they want," Duany said. "All we wish is to compete."

From The Register

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Planning & Development

Building a Community

Mashpee Commons is sited near the geographical center of Mashpee, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. This area has been designated as the town's primary business district for over 30 years. In the 1980's, Arnold Chace and Douglas Storrs developed a plan to transform an existing strip shopping center into a traditional New England town center. This goal was a reaction to the "malling" of Cape Cod and reflected their sense of civic responsibility for appropriate development at the town's center.

The plan for the core of Mashpee Commons was created and permitted in 1986, and the transformation of the original shopping center began at that time. The first phase of the North Market Street neighborhood, adjacent to and north of Mashpee Commons, was permitted in 1993. Mashpee Commons and North Market Street are permitted for a total of approximately 265,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and office space and 100 housing units. These neighborhoods have been partially constructed in a phased manner to meet the needs of the community at a rate that reflects the area's growth.

The Master Plan has since been expanded to include a total of six interrelated neighborhoods. The plan for the neighborhoods of Whitings Road, Jobs Fishing Road, East Steeple Street, Trout Pond and the remainder of North Market Street includes 380 housing units and 462,000 square feet of retail, restaurants and offices. Approximately 65% of the land will be protected as open space. The intent is to build mixed-use neighborhoods with housing, offices, stores, civic buildings and open space -- controlled by a strict design code.


The firm of Duany/Plater-Zyberk created the Master Plan for the neighborhoods surrounding the center of Mashpee Commons in 1988. Most of the subsequent site and building design has been completed by Imai/Keller of Watertown, MA. Permitting is currently in process at the state, regional and local levels for the development of the neighborhoods surrounding the central village of Mashpee Commons.

Mashpee Commons


  • The Mashpee Commons neighborhood represents the commercial center of the community.

  • This central core is bounded by Route 28 on the east, Route 151 to the north, the Police and Fire Station, Town Library and Christ the King Church to the west.

  • This neighborhood consists of 29.9 acres of land. It is zoned C-1 Commercial.

  • The plan for the 3 block central core of the project was approved in 1986.

  • The permit provides for 36 mixed use buildings with a footprint of 255,000 square feet (many will be 2-story buildings) and up to 100 dwelling units.

  • To date, there has been 97,923 sf of retail, 24,505 of restaurant, 36,415 of office and 13,250 of theatre space. Approximately 42,288 sf retail space is currently under construction.

East Steeple Street


The East Steeple Street neighborhood will reflect the vernacular established in the existing neighborhoods of Mashpee Commons and North Market Street. Two-story buildings will front on the extension of Steeple Street and a commercial street forming the connection to Donna's Lane. These streets intersect at an internal village green which will be enclosed by buildings with first floor retail, restaurant and office space and apartments on the upper floors. A combination of on-street parking and off-street lots behind buildings will support the uses in this neighborhood.

  • This neighborhood is bounded by Route 28, Great Neck Road South and Donna's Lane.

  • The Local Comprehensive Plan designates this parcel as being in the Growth Center.

  • The property has 19 acres zoned C-1/SV allowing for commercial development.

  • This neighborhood will be developed using the Town's Commercial Center Bylaw.

  • The plan calls for approximately 35,000 s.f. of office, 135,000 s.f. of retail and 10,000 s.f. of restaurant space. The plan includes a 120-room hotel and 40 apartments.

  • The buildings will be a combination of one- and two-story structures.

  • East Steeple Street terminates at the entrance to the Boch Center for Performing Arts.

Job's Fishing Road


The Jobs Fishing Road neighborhood will provide for a true mix of all types of commercial and residential units interspersed throughout the neighborhood. This neighborhood will be connected to the adjacent neighborhoods of Mashpee Commons, Whitings Road and East Steeple Street via a series of interconnecting streets. The neighborhood consists of a mix of fee-simple townhouses, apartments, retail, office, restaurant and civic space. Internal pocket parks are provided throughout the neighborhood. Apartment buildings and residential units over shops will enhance the character of the neighborhood.

  • This property has 25.5 acres of land and is zoned C-1 commercial development.

  • The Town's Open Space Incentive Development Bylaw will be used to develop this parcel.

  • Commercial plans include 63,000 s.f. of office; 8,600 s.f. of civic; 30,500 s.f. of retail; and 10,000 s.f. of restaurant. There are 20 bed & breakfast rooms proposed.

  • Residential plans include 142 units ranging from one-bedroom apartments to three bedroom townhouses.

Whitings Road


Whitings Road will be developed primarily as a single-family residential neighborhood. It will be designed to promote a sense of community through clearly identifiable blocks around which the houses will be oriented. Houses of various types and sizes (some with accessory units) will front on the street with front and side yards. Several parks and significant open space will be set aside to provide the residents with visual and functional access to natural areas. Significant dedicated open space conservation land will be set aside along the Quashnet River and behind the Christ the King Church.

  • This parcel has 40 acres of land zoned R-3 and R-5 residential development.

  • The Open Space Incentive Development (OSID) Bylaw will be used for Whitings Road.

  • Approximately 11.5 acres along the Quashnet River will be protected as open space.

  • The plan calls for 90 single-family units and up to 30 one-bedroom accessory units.

  • Development rights will be transferred from the Great Neck Road South parcel.

North Market Street


The North Market Street West neighborhood focuses retail uses around a small village green. This neighborhood will be centered on the existing Picabo Street which parallels Route 151 and will connect to the Fire and Police access road at the west end. One- and two-story buildings with offices and apartments on the upper floors will front along this internal street with parking located to the rear and sides of the buildings. Connections to existing neighborhoods will occur at signalized intersections at Market Street and Jobs Fishing Road across Route 151.

  • The North Market Street neighborhood totals 19.9 acres. It is zoned C-1 Commercial.

  • Primary frontage is along Route 151.

  • Phase 1 includes 12.38 acres governed by a Special Permit and DRI approval granted in 1993.

  • Phase 1 consists of 92,000 sf of retail, bank, and office space. 82,000 sf has been constructed.

  • Phase 2 is approximately 7.5 acres that are currently undergoing permitting.

  • Phase 2 includes 85,000 sf of building footprint in a variety of smaller buildings. There will be a mix of retail, and restaurant space. A number of the buildings will be two-story.

Trout Pond


The Trout Pond neighborhood includes a mix of residential and neighborhood office and retail uses along a series of internal roads. Dedicated open space around Trout Pond will allow visual and interpretive access. This neighborhood will be enhanced by the Boch Center for Performing Arts at the terminus of East Steeple Street.

  • This property consists of 52.7 acres and is zoned C-1, allowing for commercial development.

  • Approximately 7.2 acres are water or wetland comprising Trout Pond.

  • The Open Space Incentive Development (OSID) Bylaw will be used for this neighborhood.

  • The Mashpee Commons Wastewater Treatment Plant is located on this parcel.

  • 9 +/- acres will be donated for the Boch Center for Performing Arts.

  • The plan includes approximately 45,000 s.f. retail, 40,000 s.f. office, 52 apartments and 26 townhouses.

  • 21+/- acres will be placed in permanently protected open space around Trout Pond.

From MashpeeCommons.com

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earlier this year, when i was still at Brown, i had the pleasure of meeting two of the developers involved in mashpee commons. one was an architect, and the other was one of the prinicples in the development firm (it might have been storrs, but i just can't remember). in any event, a couple of things struck me about their presentation on mashpee.

- they are primarily concerned with the retail/commercial aspect of the development. the residential is definitely important to them, because they want to be mixed-use, but their overall focus and concern is disproprtionately leveled toward the sucess of the retail district. this brings them in stark contrast to many (if not most) other new urbanists, who focus primarily on the residential offerings and add a neighborhood retail strip as more of an afterthought. perhaps this is because mashpee is located in a relatively populated area already, whereas many other new urbanist developments are basically "enlightened" green-field suburbs. in this respect, i think mashpee is particularly "cool" because it is, in effect, attempting to create a downtown from scratch.

- i was also struck with how much the local government was attempting (and seemigly suceeding) at utterly screwing up the developer's urban vision. first of all, mashpee is apparently well over a decade behind schedule, thanks to mountains of red-tape. also, if you look at the maps, you can see several mammoth suburban monstrosities located on the fringes of mashpee, completely destroying the urban feel (the developers are apparently not nearly as polite about that in person as they are with the media). most of these suburban developments were built buy the government, and did not even pre-date mashpee commons. i think they are a school a post office and a senior center. yet dispite this great new urbanist masterplan, the local govt totally ignored it, and built their sprawl anyway without even attempting to design these things in an urban fashion.

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Buff Chase who is one of the principles of Mashpee Commons is also a key player (The player really) in Downcity Providence's restoration.

A few things may be driving Mashpee Commons focus on retail. First, the development springs from what was a strip mall at the Mashpee Rotary. A supermarket and a strip of stores built in the late 70s or early 80s (I'm not sure which, I think late 70s) is what the site evolved from. Second, Mashpee doesn't really have a traditional downtown. It is the youngest town on the Cape, historically a part of the town of Barnstable. It was primarily populated by Wampanoag Indians through much of the 19th and into the 20th century, so it did not develop a traditional New England village centre. The town is much in need of a downtown. Lastly, Mashpee is the fastest growing town in Massachusetts. There is really no need to worry about the residential sector, when they get around to developing it, people will come.

A lot of the red tape comes from the Cape Cod Commission. The 15 towns on the Cape are part of this Commission that has authority to review and change developments of 'critical impact.' The Mashpee Commons development applies. The Commission does have the authority to encourage zoning that differs from the towns plans, but there is a lot that goes into. Mashpee also has a critical water problem caused by pollution to the acquifer by the military reservation at Camp Edwards. Parts of the development also sit very close to the Mashpee River Watershed, protecting the watersheds is critical because all the Cape's water comes from the ground. The water has to be protected, and they need to be sure there will be enough to support the development.

I think a lot of the sprawlish development you are talking about is situated on Route 151. Plans call for a lot of it to be incorporated into new developments, it would have been nice for them to locate the Public Safety Complex and the Senior Centre in the current Mashpee Commons centre, but they didn't, coulda, shoulda, woulda. There is however the possibility that town government will move to Mashpee Commons. Like I said above, the town has no downtown, they have done stupid things that went counter to the developments objectives, but the town very much wants the project to owrk and to have a viable downtown for the first time.

I was down there recently, and a couple of phases of the project have been moving along. And the town has done some things right. They have installed sidewalks on Route 28 (the main road along the South Cape) from the town line, to the Mashpee Rotary in front of Mashpee Commons. Also new traffic lights include pedestrian signals, nearly unheard of on the Cape.

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Philip Langdon: Horrors! Mashpee is so American!

Monday, December 13, 2004


ON OCT 12, The Providence Journal published an essay portraying Mashpee Commons -- the best-known example of New Urbanism on Cape Cod -- as a fancy, auto-dependent shopping center that masquerades as a traditional town center. Editorial-Page Editor Robert Whitcomb, in "I can get it for you retail" (Commentary), scorned Mashpee Commons for its conspicuous complement of upscale chain retailers, such as Gap and Talbots; for its lack of the "raffishness" found in many "real" village centers; and for being marketed as "pedestrian-friendly" while in fact relying on automobiles to bring customers to and from the center.

"What Mashpee Commons and other such avatars of 'The New Urbanism' evoke is a sense that they are one unified product, poured out of a can, to be consumed by Americans searching for the warm bath of familiar brand names," Whitcomb wrote.

Criticism of this sort is misleading on several counts.

-- Is New Urbanism a "unified product"? Not to my eyes. I travel the United States to conduct interviews in and report on New Urbanist developments. What has struck me is how much distinctiveness the various centers possess, despite the tendency of the developers to favor traditional architecture.

Mashpee Commons is quite different from Market Square, in the Kentlands-Lakeland section of Gaithersburg, Md. -- which is different from Harbor Town, in Memphis, which is different from Orenco Station, in Hillsboro, Ore., and so on. The materials, building forms, street networks, and public spaces are remarkably varied. All of them offer relief from the sameness of roadside commercial strips: environments that really do seem "poured out of a can."

The character of New Urbanist development is even more pronounced in dense city settings, as in Providence, where the Johnson & Wales University campus fits stunningly into Weybosset Street, and where Arnold "Buff" Chace and Douglas Storrs (Mashpee Commons's Providence-based developers) have produced more than 200 downtown apartments. New Urbanist ideas -- such as creating walkable places in which residential, retail, and other activities intermingle -- generate a distinctiveness and local flavor that conventional development typically lacks.

-- Is New Urbanism overwhelmingly aimed at affluent shoppers? The great analyst of American cities, Jane Jacobs, wrote more than 40 years ago that offbeat start-up and low-profit enterprises can rarely afford new buildings. Since town centers such as Mashpee Commons have arisen only within the past 15 years, it's not surprising that most of their retailers are mainstream and that many of them feature well-advertised national names. If some of the real estate becomes less high-priced as it ages, however, it's possible that New Urbanist town centers will become less mainstream. Diversity is partly a function of time.

-- Should New Urbanist centers be dismissed because of their chain retailers? It's worth noting that by the 1940s New England already had an abundance of chains: F.W. Woolworth, W.T. Grant, A&P, Stop & Shop, White Tower, Howard Johnson's, to name a few. If chains seem conspicuous in Mashpee Commons, it's partly because they can afford the largest or most prominent buildings. Developers Chace and Storrs have actually built a number of small retail spaces, so that start-ups can co-exist with the big boys. About a third of the retailers at Mashpee Commons are independents -- a considerable accomplishment, given America's proliferation of chains.

-- Is nothing sold at ordinary prices? Some visitors willingly pay a premium for small treats, such as hand-squeezed orange juice. But at Mashpee Commons they don't have to go far to find retailers that meet routine needs, at everyday prices. Many of those retailers, such as the pharmacy giant CVS, occupy buildings more handsome and congenial than the corporate standard.

-- Are New Urbanist centers automobile-dependent? On Cape Cod, yes. By themselves, one or two developers cannot reverse regional patterns of development. But New Urbanists deserve credit for developing a genuine mix of uses -- offices and housing, as well as stores and restaurants -- and for encouraging civic and religious uses within walking distance of retail. Developers such as Chace have required the chains to occupy buildings that cluster together and front on sidewalks -- an arrangement that makes bus transportation possible. At Mashpee Commons, you can go to the bank, the post office, the library, restaurants, stores and other destinations without making an extra car trip.

As long as Americans want to shop at national chains for "upscale" merchandise, New Urbanist town centers will tend to have a substantial number of retailers of the sort that Whitcomb finds dismaying. New Urbanism is not and cannot be immune from America's dominant tastes and lifestyles. Utopia has not arrived. Nonetheless, centers such as Mashpee Commons are a step in the right direction.

Philip Langdon, of New Haven, is senior editor of New Urban News, a national newsletter on New Urbanist planning and design.

From The Providence Journal

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