Cottage Street Neighborhood. Photo: Google Maps

The Cottage Street downtown neighborhood is slated for significant development if the 40R Smart Growth Overlay District is imposed on it. Pam Rooney, a resident of Cottage Street, arranged a public meeting over zoom for her neighbors with Town Planning Director, Chris Brestrup, and Planner Nate Malloy who acts as Town staff liaison to the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust.  John Hornik, Chair of the Trust, solicited and was awarded  a grant to hire the consultants who produced the report: Planning For Housing Production In Amherst. In addition to Town staff and Ms Rooney there were 13 other participants in the meeting.

The meeting began at 3 PM. Brestrup began by describing the process to date, namely, what happened at the three public meetings held in April through December of 2019 and offered an overview of the proposed Smart Growth Overlay District maps before opening up the meeting to questions from the participants.

Questions and Comments Posed By The Neighbors
(note: questioners are not identified below because, for the most part, they did not identify themselves during the Zoom session.  Questions were answered by Brestrup and Malloy).

  1.  A Lincoln Avenue Historic District house owner said that “neighbors don’t want this [high density in the downtown] and don’t like five-story buildings in the downtown. [there are] . . .lots of things here we don’t want to happen.”
  2. A Cottage Street resident (#1) asked:

What are the next steps for Cottage Street neighbors? This proposal for five-story structures on Cottage Street “has wheels” that won’t stop rolling as there are neighbors who want to develop. The residents would like a “stroll” with the Planning Board to see what we want to preserve and would like a priori input to any zoning not have to react to a fait accomplish when a document is already written. A big concern is “the tendency to provide exceptions to the rule”—referring to Kendrick Place, presumably.

  1. A Cottage Street Resident (#2) asked how to learn about public meetings, what will happen to letters from the public to the Planning Director, how can people without computers or access to Zoom participate in planning/zoning discussions. She opined that it is totally inappropriate to engage in such momentous discussions during the COVID-19 quarantine since public participation is so limited.

ANSWER: Mr. Malloy keeps an email list for all the folks who want to be alerted to events of the Affordable Housing Trust. Also, there is a Subscribe function on the Town website.

  1. Janet McGowan, member of the Planning Board, said that the Town has to make a greater effort at reaching out to the public. There are many neighborhood groups, especially in the downtown, who meet regularly over brunch to discuss neighborhood issues. Three years ago the zoning subcommittee of the Planning Board was discussing better development in stronger neighborhoods.

ANSWER: Ch. 40R is very rigorous and rigid. The Town tells the developer what we want and he is obligated to do it. The rules are much less open to interpretation than the existing bylaw. Also, it was noted that developers won’t go the route of Smart Growth if conventional development is easier.

  1. A Cottage St. resident (#3) asked what efforts are made by committees to find out how neighbors feel?
  2. McGowan stated that the Town can adopt Form-Based zoning without adopting Ch. 40R and we don’t need Ch. 40R to require affordable housing units. She asked: What is our goal and how to we get there?
  3. Rooney asked how we control form-based codes instead of Ch. 40R. She is concerned that the Limited Business district on Cottage Street is a buffer zone and should not be developed as densely with five-story buildings as downtown. 

    ANSWER: Staff answered that the requirement could be four stories with the option of adding a fifth as an incentive to the developer. 

Rooney countered that there should be no waivers for buildings taller than three stories on Cottage Street.

Brestrup explained the State incentives for building affordable units under Ch. 40R. The Town gets $3000 for each additional unit built under Ch. 40R that wouldn’t  be built under conventional Ch. 40A zoning.

Malloy reported that the Affordable Housing Trust discussed the consultant’s report at their May 21 meeting.

8. A North Prospect Street neighbor, who could be heavily impacted by high-rise development and a parking garage to his east, asked what is affordable, why can’t all the units be affordable, and who do I contact in Town Hall if I have questions or comments?

ANSWER: Call or email the Planning Department. The Town can’t require that all the units be affordable because it is too expensive with no net profit to the developer. The Northampton Road units are being constructed by a not-for- profit entity, Valley Community Development Corporation

9. A Cottage Street resident( #4) wanted to know if anyone talked to residents of other towns re their experience with the results of Ch. 40R development. 

ANSWER: there are two projects in Northampton (and many towns in eastern Mass.) built under Ch. 40R, Affordable housing on a Pleasant Street parcel and redevelopment of Hospital Hill. There were no developers interested in Hospital Hill before Ch. 40R was adopted by Northampton.

10. A Cottage Street resident (#2) asked what is the housing trust? What is its role? How is it related to Planning? What is wrong with the current zoning? What does SMART mean? She is concerned about the aesthetics of our downtown and adding more cars, leading to more accidents on Cottage Street which connects the Regional schools to the downtown. (Note from The Indy: The Affordable Housing Trust is an town committee which promotes affordable housing in Amherst. It receives Community Preservation Act funds among other sources.  Members are appointed by the Town Manager)

Several of the participants expressed their view that the meeting had been productive.

The meeting adjourned at 4:40.

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  1. Form based zoning died in Town Meeting and should not be reconsidered. Do we need more development further compounding climate change woes.

  2. Though I understand little about form-based codes, they do not relate to whether or not development will happen.
    They do not have any relation to climate change. Form-based codes, as far as I know, relate to design and massing of buildings–what new construction will look like. Yes, Town Meeting turned it down in North Amherst because abutters were not consulted about what we wanted North Amherst to look like and were not happy with the urban designs being imposed on a country village.

  3. Once again developers are musing about what zoning needs to be changed so they can proceed with their plans. I am always displeased that the town lets this happen without reminding them, and others, that zoning is there to protect us, not to be modified to provide ideal economic situations for developers. The town should think long and hard about zoning modification and changes.

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