SMART GROWTH FORUM RAISES CONCERNS ABOUT 40R DEVELOPMENT DOWNTOWN

Consultants recommended the area north of the Jones library to McClellan Street and east onto Triangle and Cottage Street.as the optimal location for a 40R overlay district. Photo: Art Keene.

A packed Town Room at Amherst Town Hall heard smart growth consultants, Karen Sunnarborg and David Eisen present their work on the possibility of applying 40R overlay zoning in Amherst.  For summaries of the first two public forums see here and here.  These presentations are also available on the town web site here and here.  40R is a State program that incentivizes denser development, but includes affordable housing and design guidelines to preserve the character of the town,  open spaces and farmland. The affordable housing must be affordable to those earning 80% of an area’s mean income, which in Amherst, is  $65,900 per year for a family of three. 

 At the June forum, small groups discussed whether this sort of development would be appropriate for downtown, North Amherst, Pomeroy Village and East Amherst.  The consultants compiled comments from the public and surveyed each area using various criteria. Based on their findings, they proposed the downtown area as most suitable for 40R development.  Specifically, they recommended the area north of the Jones library to McClellan Street and east onto Triangle and Cottage Street. There are many one story buildings which could accommodate housing if they were rebuilt as three to five story buildings with commercial space on the first floor and parking in the back.

The downtown area offers several advantages for growth, according to the consultants, namely that it is oriented to mixed use buildings, has property owners eager to develop or sell, and has good pedestrian traffic and access to public transportation and services.  The consultants did admit there were some traffic concerns and needs for design guidelines to avoid the “missteps” of previous development.

Architect Eisen gave examples of design guidelines that would enhance the appearance of new growth while in keeping with the character of the downtown.  These include 15 foot setback from the road, recessed ground floors containing commercial entities, requiring green roofs or solar panels, attractive landscaping with benches and trees and adequate parking behind buildings. Building heights would be staggered from five stories in the center of downtown, to four stories between Cowles and Hallock to three stories north of Hallock to McClellan and north of Triangle on Cottage Street.  In exchange for following these guidelines and providing affordable housing, developers will get streamlined approval of their projects by right.  This statute has worked well in Northampton and Easthampton.  As of now, developers of downtown projects have few design restrictions and no requirement to provide parking, sustainability, or affordable housing, raising the question of whether developers would see any advantage in pursuing development under 40R. 

A few questions were entertained regarding whether abutters would have any say in development, the effect of new construction on existing businesses in those one story buildings, and income coming to the town from 40R projects.  Abutters would not have any say once the guidelines were set, but presumably, community input collected by the consultants would play a significant role in shaping design specification. There is no protection for existing businesses (e.g. Bart’s, Zanna, Brueggers, Henion, the Toy Box, Ren’s) which would be displaced by development, though it was implied that they might find an interim location in town.  

After about 15 minutes of general discussion, Town Councilor Alisa Brewer (at large) suggested that most people were there for the small group discussions but when the meeting divided into breakout groups over half the audience left.  Three small groups were formed to discuss 1) the right balance between retaining the character of Amherst and increasing opportunities for people to live in a walkable downtown. 2)parking and the possible need for a parking garage or more of a shift to public transportation  and/or Uber/Lyft, 3) use of open space for outside dining, rain gardens, pocket parks, etc. and 4) the location and appearance of possible buildings. Reporting back to the general group, the small groups expressed concern regarding the need for more senior housing, avoidance of the downtown area being overrun with student housing, and the wish that the proposed design guidelines could be prescribed for all new developments in Amherst Center.

Some additional concerns were raised in an opinion piece in last week’s Indy . Results of this forum will be summarized and posted on the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust page of the town web site..  The consultants will produce a more specific plan based on feedback received at this meeting and will present it at  a fourth public forum, probably in February 2020.

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