REPORT ON PLANNING BOARD PUBLIC HEARINGS (7/24/19)

Architect's rendering of proposed South East Street Court housing project. Photo: Art Keene

by Maurianne Adams with the assistance of Hilda Greenbaum

After lengthy discussion by the planning board as well as comments from the public, three public hearings that were part of the July 24 planning board meeting were continued to later dates.

Bank of America ATM

The Bank of America ATM at 360 College Street requested site plan approval for better illumination and safety in accordance with bank policy. Planning board members had numerous questions, such as the temperature (color) of lighting; the necessity, color, and location of bollards (a short post used to divert traffic from an area or road); and the bank’s plan to remove the outmoded lighting already in place, none of which the bank’s representative was able to answer. The hearing has been continued to September 18. 

South East Street Court

Amir Mikhchi, owner of the properties at 133 and 143 South East Street, requested site plan review to construct a three-storey mixed-use building, South East Street Court, with 62 single-bedroom efficiency apartments and two units (1,358 square feet) of first-floor retail space. One elevator in the center of the building is planned. Three apartments will be handicap-accessible. The anticipated monthly rent is $1,200 and higher, and the owner said he has young professionals in mind for tenants, although in response to a question, he said, “We cannot discriminate against students, of course.” Rental management will be outsourced.

South East Street Court is proposed to be a brick building with a hip roof and “widow’s walk” fence at the top. The brick is two-toned, darker at the bottom, and there would be accent stripes around the façade. Awnings are proposed for the retail space entrances. Signage for the residential and retail areas has not yet been proposed.

The board and public saw architectural renderings with interior dimensions; a site management plan and survey with illustrative and parking layout; a stormwater drainage report; renderings of lot grading, drainage, plantings, and external lighting.  

The two rental houses currently on the property are empty and will be taken down. Wetlands near the center of the properties will be replicated with two catch basins and a filtration basin in a low retention area, with native trees where water already pools. The town had earlier received a letter of opposition concerning potential damage to a 42-foot catalpa tree and has scheduled a public shade tree hearing concerning the catalpa as well as apple, white oak, hickory trees, and arbor vitae. The southerly edge, on which brush is growing, will be surveyed to determine ownership.  

Mikhchi also requested a special permit to modify setbacks to the front (from 10 feet to 6 feet) and side (from 10 feet to 6.2 feet) in order to accommodate 67 parking spaces to the side of the building, specifically 62 spaces for residential units, 5 for the retail stores, including some handicap spaces and some electric charge station spaces. He acknowledged that this will be tight. The driveway will open onto South East Street to the south of the intersection with College Street (Route 9).  

The board appreciated Mikhchi’s installation of water and sewer stubs before the road was resurfaced, which was in 2011. His proposal includes widening both sides of South East Street that abut the development to accommodate an already-existing bus pull-off, as well as bicycle lanes and sidewalk improvement, with the possibility of a crosswalk. The parking area will not be fenced off from the abutting Amherst College preservation area.  

Mikhchi owns four rental properties across South East Street, and future plans could involve a second development there. Questions were raised about traffic to and from the service station and convenience store at the corner of College Street and to and from Colonial Village to the south.

Other issues raised by the board and the public concerned recreational, open, green space or outdoor amenities for residents; landscaped open space and landscaped islands, as required for parking areas of 25 or more; a second elevator for residents; street or parking delivery spaces for tenants to load or unload while moving and off-street loading or deliveries to the retail or professional spaces on the first floor; height and mass in proportion to surrounding buildings; sustainable energy, such as solar panels; basement or outdoor storage units for residents; reducing the number of residential units and providing more facilities for tenants within the building or less overall size and mass; sheltered bicycle racks to the rear of the building.

Considerable discussion focused on the need in Amherst for affordable rental units. Affordable units are not required for mixed-use developments nor for special permits based upon changes of setbacks as distinct from change of use. 

The hearing was continued to August 27, to allow the town engineer to officially review the project and the tree warden to officially respond to the letter of opposition about the catalpa and other trees (the town manager will make the final decision about the catalpa tree), and to allow Mikhchi to respond to the questions cited above.

Center East Commons 

This proposed mixed-use development, on property owned by John Wroblewski, is located at 462 Main Street, on the north side of the street. It would provide sixteen apartment units (four one-bedroom, ten two-bedroom, two three-bedroom) and one new, 550-square-foot office unit. The new property on the easterly side of the property abuts an 1820 building that will continue as office space (1,948 square feet).  A total of 32 parking spaces are proposed, with access by a single driveway curb cut to Main Street between Gray and High streets, opposite an existing driveway to the VFW Post 754. The development will require removal of a private garage. Housing will be marketed mostly to professionals, retirees, and graduate students. The planning board proposal from the owner contains an addendum that stipulates that there will be no undergraduate students; that the owner lives within fifteen miles of the property and will manage the rental property; and that tenants will abide by the lease terms and town noise bylaw regarding parties. Each residential unit has ample storage and closet space. The property was rezoned from General Residence (R-G) to Neighborhood Business (B-N) some years ago, so that previous special permits no longer are needed. Site management will be maintained by the owner.

Architecture of the proposed complex is wood-frame with clapboard siding and a gabled roof that matches the roof-line of the existing building, in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood. Lighting will be downcast “dark sky.”  The 32 parking spaces are considered adequate for daytime professional use and nighttime residential use. 

The board received architectural renderings including exterior materials and interior dimensions for existing and proposed site plans; grading, drainage, and utility plans; erosion, pavement materials, and sediment control plans; and a stormwater management report.  The board requested a written review from the fire department and posed several issues for consideration.  The hearing will be continued on August 27.  

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