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

 Amherst’s third and final “Smart Growth” Forum will take place at 6:45  p.m. on Thursday, December 19 in the Town Room of Town Hall. Consultants Karen Sunnarborg and David Eisen will present  recommendations on how to incorporate 40 R smart growth 

 in Amherst.  This state and federal program permits overlay zoning to increase the density of housing , while assuring that 20 percent of units are affordable housing.    The program stipulates design standards to make new buildings compliment existing architecture. 

 The consultants were hired with a $40,000 state grant and have been working with the town for the past year. Their  findings were previewed at the December 12 meeting of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust. The single-story buildings in the downtown  area between Main Street and Triangle Street were deemed most appropriate for 40R zoning. Suggestions for design guidelines included a 15-foot setback from the road, “stepped back” upper floors, commercial space on the first floors, parking spaces behind  buildings, enhanced landscaping, and a maximum three-story height near residential areas. 

There are pros and cons to the 40R proposal.  First, there are currently few restrictions to development in the downtown area.  Inclusionary zoning and parking requirements do not apply, and height restrictions and setbacks have been waived for recent construction.  As Town Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy pointed out, there may be little incentive for developers to accept the restrictions for affordable units and the design specifications stipulated by 40 R zoning in order to achieve increased housing density.

There also appears to be limited  prospects for growth of brick and mortar retail under 40 R as evidenced by the vacant commercial spaces in downtown Northampton.  The Amherst properties recommended for “smart growth” now house some of the more vibrant and successful downtown business such as Brueggers, Henion Bakery, Zanna, the Toy Box, Ren’s Mobil, and Amherst Optical.  Would these businesses survive an interruption in operations of up to two years, due to construction in order to reopen in a mixed-use building?  

It would be nice to have more affordable housing in town and to be able to stipulate that new construction would follow design standards to make it attractive, but there are many additional aspects to consider.  A lively discussion is expected at the meeting on Thursday.

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