PRESENTATION TO PLANNING BOARD ON 40R ZONING GENERATES MANY QUESTIONS

Village Hill, A 40 R Development in Northampton. Photo: Mass.gov (Northampton, A 40R Community).

REPORT: PLANNING BOARD MEETING (5/6/20)

The meeting was held virtually via Zoom webcast. The meeting was also simulcast on Amherst Media’s channel 17. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here

All Planning Board members participated. Also participating were Planning Director Chris Brestrup, Town Planner Nate Malloy, and Planning Department Assistant Pam Field Sadler. At least 28 members of the public attended on Zoom, and several others watched on Amherst Media’s Channel 17. 

Highlights:

  • A public hearing on the Kendrick Park Playground reviewed design changes and produced several comments from residents.
  • The Presentation on 40R zoning attracted at least 28 members of the public and produced much commentary and questions. The Board will continue its consideration of 40R at its meeting on June 3.

Kendrick Park Playground
The meeting began with a Public Hearing on the Site Plan Review for the Kendrick Park Playground. The town received a $400,000 Parc grant from the Commonwealth and the Town Council allocated $260,000 of Community Preservation Act funds to complete the funding for the playground. Malloy presented updated plans . Preliminary plans were presented at the April 15 Planning Board Meeting and were presented to the Design Review Board on April 22. In addition, the Planning Department has received online comments from the public. This led to several modifications of the original plans. The playground was moved several feet away from North Pleasant Street to accommodate possible future changes to the street, such as angle parking or a sidewalk along the west side of the park. Also, the hill slide was removed, as it was expensive and required steps because the slope wasn’t steep enough. Instead, grassy mounds were proposed for the higher ground to the north of the play area. Other changes include a continuous loop of walkways with permeable paving and an agility area with upturned logs of various heights. There is also an amphitheater in the hillside with Goshen stone and granite seating. The paved East–West walkway would have streetlights and benches, and would be plowed in the winter. The western end was moved southward across from McClellan Street to avoid the Tan Brook, which runs under the park. Two large trees will need to be removed but most of the trees will be retained in the present design. The area with the play equipment will have a rubberized surface cover and the rest of the site will have wood chips, sand, or pea stone. 

Planning Board member Michael Birtwistle gave a favorable site visit report. Board member Doug Marshall wanted to know the life expectancy of the play equipment and the cost to the town of maintaining the area. Malloy answered that the play structures were meant to last 20 to 25 years. Since the town already maintains the park, he said he does not think there would be much additional cost. Several members of the Park Design Committee are in the Department of Public Works, and chose materials that would minimize the need for maintenance. Planning Board Chair Christine Gray-Mullen suggested an increase in the size of the sitting area in order to accommodate several families. Board member Jack Jemsek questioned whether fencing would be necessary to prevent children from running into East Pleasant Street. He and several members of the audience voiced the need for restrooms since the nearest public facilities are at the Bangs Center, which is several blocks away. Malloy stated that basic restrooms would cost $150,000 to $200,000 and are out of the scope of this project. Bruce Wilcox of Lincoln Avenue suggested that if any more buildings are approved for construction on the other side of East Pleasant Street, perhaps they could be mandated to provide a public restroom.

Several other members of the public weighed in on the design. Karin Winter of Elm Street expressed her wish for play structures made of natural materials, not plastic and steel, but Malloy said such structures are no longer available, and that design and safety standards in the U.S. have become more stringent so many features of European playgrounds would not be allowed here. Constantin Plashakov of Triangle Street also suggested a fence to enable the area to be closed off in the case of a future pandemic.

The public hearing will be continued until May 20. The Planning Department is continuing to accept feedback on the design. The final plans must be approved by the Town Council and submitted to the Commonwealth by June 1.

40R Zoning
The second half of the meeting consisted of a presentation by housing and planning consultant Karen Sunnarborg and architect David Eisen of Abacus Architects and Planners. This was their fourth presentation before the town, but the first before the Planning Board (although several members of the Planning Board have attended the previous public meetings). After the Town was awarded a $40,000 grant to study the applicability of 40R zoning to Amherst, Sunnarborg and Eisen began interviewing residents in the summer of 2018. They held an informational session on the state of housing in Amherst and the attributes of 40R zoning in April 2019, then a public forum to suggest appropriate sites for 40R in June of 2019, and finally a public meeting to present their rationale for selecting the downtown area as the most appropriate. These meetings were covered in the Indy and can be viewed here, here, and here

40R is an overlay zoning program. In exchange for expedited approval to build “by right” and to allow an increase in density, developers must satisfy design guidelines set by the Town and provide at least 20 percent affordable units. Design guidelines can include number of stories, setbacks, parking, landscaping, and articulation of facades.

 The consultants suggested three zoning designations near the center of Amherst:

* General Urban along North and East Pleasant Streets;

* the areas along the perimeter of the West Cemetery; and

* a “Sub Urban” area along Triangle and Cottage Streets, on Hallock and Cowls Streets, and on parts of South Prospect Street (see here for presentation and map).

The delineations of zones and design guidelines suggested by the consultants may be modified by the Town if the Commonwealth does not consider the modified guidelines to be onerous to developers. 

As of now, buildings erected in the downtown area do not need to provide either parking or affordable units, and setbacks have been waived for Kendrick Place, One East Pleasant, Boltwood Place, and the Spring Street building under construction. This could be changed under 40R zoning.

The presentation generated much discussion. Board member Janet McGowan expressed disappointment that the consultants did not get feedback from those living near downtown. 

Sunnarborg replied that the downtown area was not selected as most appropriate until the December 2019 meeting. She is now eager to hear feedback. 

The proposed development area is close to several local Historic Districts. Janet Keller of Pulpit Hill Road stressed the historic character of many buildings in the area and said she hopes any developer would consider reuse of the structures or at least maintaining some of the facades. Brian Thompson of Salem Place pointed out that 40R does not provide for any workforce housing, as new units would be either high-end market rate or affordable units for people making less than area mean income.

Board member David Levenstein asked about the presumed advantages to building under 40R. Sunnarborg stated that developers receive $3,000 per affordable unit created, and that communities with 40R zoning could be more competitive for state funds for some projects, such as infrastructure and schools because the State is inclined to reward communities that adopt 40R zoning.  Former Planning Board member Rob Crowner of Spaulding Place said he is enthusiastic about the overlay zoning and mentioned that it could be a way to encourage desirable development downtown and the construction of a parking garage behind CVS. 

But Maurianne Adams of Beston Street submitted a letter to Brestrup questioning inconsistencies between the material in the Planning Board packet and what had been presented at the December public meeting with regard to building heights and setbacks, especially near residential neighborhoods. There was no time, however, to address these questions at the meeting. Brestrup and the consultants stressed that any decisions on 40R would require a change in the zoning bylaw and would hence require approval of both the Planning Board and the Town Council. There is no timeline for these decisions. 

Bestrup encouraged interested members of the public to submit suggestions to her at planning@amherstma.gov. She will forward appropriate questions to the consultants. The Planning Board will discuss the topic again at its June 3 meeting. Comments should be sent to Brestrup by May 27 to be considered at that meeting.

The meeting adjourned at 10:40 p.m.

The Planning Board will next meet on May 20 at 6:30 p.m.

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