Report On The Joint Meeting Of The Community Resources Committee (CRC) And The Town Council (9/15/20)
The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was recorded.
Present: Members of the CRC: Mandi Jo Hanneke, Evan Ross, Sarah Swartz, Steve Schreiber, Shalini Bahl-Milne.
From the Town Council: Lynn Griesemer, Dorothy Pam, Cathy Schoen, George Ryan, Andy Steinberg, Alisa Brewer, Darcy DuMont.
Planning Board: Jack Jemesek,
Staff: David Ziomek, Chris Brestrup, Benjamin Breger, Rob Mora
The CRC heard preliminary presentations on zoning priorities from the planning staff and the Planning Board. The priorities of The Planning board can be read here.
In the Planning Department’s presentation, it was noted that Ben Breger has been working on cleaning up the layout and the numbering of the Zoning Bylaws which are widely regarded as confusing.
Chair, Mandi-Jo Hanneke prepared a memo summarizing the priorities of members of the Council who are not also members of the CRC. That memo can be read here.
While the ensuing discussion focused mostly on specific needs and remedies several Councilors and members of the public cautioned that revising the Bylaws ought to be preceded by some general agreement on what kind of town we want to live in.
Dorothy Pam (District 3) spoke about the need for more family housing. Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) suggested that current zoning is inhibiting the kind of businesses that we want in town.
Steve Schreiber (District 4) suggested that all the shots of Amherst on postcards are of pre-zoning construction. He suggested that we tend to be unhappy with what has been built, post-zoning and that we ought to take that into consideration when revising the Bylaws. The challenge, he said, is to create zoning that will give us the kind of town that we want.
Pam said that we are losing children and we are losing young families. People are fleeing the cities, she said, and those people will want to come to a place like Amherst. “It’s a great destination and it would be nice if there was a place for them – for both renters and buyers,” she said. “What makes a town healthy in the long run are families and making the town attractive to them should be a priority.”
Evan Ross (District 4) spoke about the need for affordable housing and the need for diversifying our housing stock and increasing housing production. He asked, how we can concentrate development in already-developed areas and start thinking about moving toward being a post–carbon town (with an emphasis on the mutual impacts of housing and transit). Ross said that we need to revise dimensional regulations of the BL District (limited business) noting that nothing that is currently there could be built today. He suggested that we need to move away from single family zoning and eliminate caps on the number of units allowed in buildings. He said we also need to look at parking minimums. Requiring more parking is contradictory to our new climate goals.
Schreiber said he wants to encourage more mixed-use buildings in the central business district. He is concerned with the inability of UMass faculty to find housing that works for them – especially within walking distance of UMass.
Sarah Swartz (District 1) expressed concern about how we are initiating zoning changes. “I don’t think that this should be the job of town Councilors,” she said. “This ought to be the job of the Planning Board and the ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeals). I can see where this might make us a lot more nimble and able to change zoning more quickly but I can also see where this would go awry–and this is not to take away from the excellent work that some of the people on this committee are doing.”
John Page representing the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce commended the Council on undertaking this revision and said that he was looking forward to collaborating with Council on the Chamber’s zoning priorities.
Ira Bryck said the Town needs to recognize that there must be limits to growth. “We need to consider the other end of this anticipated influx into Amherst,” he said. “When are we going to consider whether we’ve become too crowded and have exhausted our resources?” Bryck said he opposes the 5 five-story “dorms” downtown and suggested adopting a 3-story model for downtown buildings He noted that the recent construction downtown may not be intended as dorms “but if you build them to look like dorms, that’s who you are going to attract.” He echoed other speakers who suggested that it is better to figure out first what we do want and work toward that.
Hilda Greenbaum raised concerns about the BL zone. She noted that there is a historic district there and it is the postcard part of Amherst. “Some of us feel the historic district is worth preserving,” she said. She warned that some people want to bring the east side of North Pleasant Street to the West and all the way to UMass. She said she opposes that. She said that we need to find a way to bring the young families back here if the town is to have any vitality. “If we’re going to have a Bylaw then it ought to be enforced and we should not be so generous with waivers,” she said.
Meg Gage lamented that we appear to be headed toward doing this piecemeal rather than developing a strategy. “ We need a strategy for economic development in Amherst,” she said. “I prefer a strategy that focuses on the arts with economic development coming out of cultural activity. We documented this when we were developing the cinema arts center.” She noted that this strategy worked well for North Adams until the pandemic, which has been hard on the arts. Gage pointed out that Northampton has invested heavily in becoming an arts center and that this is now happening in Easthampton as well. Amherst could become a magnet for this kind of activity she said.
Gabrielle Gould from the Chamber of Commerce echoed Gage’s thoughts on the arts being important to downtown development and pledged to work with the Council on the ongoing zoning revisions.
Following public comment, Councilors continued to share their priorities.
Andy Steinberg (At Large) said that he wanted revisions to support the following:
- economic development – recognizing the need for new growth as well as an economically stable base. “We need to increase revenue from property taxes, which is our stable source of revenue,” he said. “We need to think about what kind of growth we want.”
- climate and energy policies. “Zoning can encourage certain kinds of development that will help the Town decrease our carbon footprint,” he said.
- Housing. “We need a variety of housing including affordable housing,” he said.
“Student housing is gobbling up our neighborhoods. If we don’t create housing appropriate for students this trend will continue. PRP’s (Professional Research Park) have not created the kind of vision we thought it would. Cluster housing also has not resulted in the kind of housing we hoped to encourage with that provision. So these existing bylaws need to be examined to determine why they have not worked the way we intended.”
Cathy Schoen (District 1) noted the accelerating conversion of single family homes to student housing. She worries about what stops that trend from creating a monoculture downtown and said we need to get specific about our vision.
She pointed out that walkability is not built into our zoning very much and that the apparent trend of creating dark canyons with tall buildings on narrow streets downtown does not support walkability. She has looked at how other towns have promoted walkablility. One approach is to award extra stories as part of an incentive system in which developers may be awarded another story for meeting an energy target or some other desired outcome. “Some of this needs to start with the master plan,” she said. “We need to figure out what we want to be and what are the forces that are obstacles to that goal.” She also reminded the Council that new growth does not always yield net new income for the town. She concluded that we need to be thinking about green space lest we build up every square inch.
Pam echoed Schoen’s concern for green spaces. She noted how many towns in Massachusetts have turned their downtown fire stations into art centers. “But we need a good coordinated plan to do any of this,” she said. “A downtown filled with dorms will just not bring the vitality we seek and we need. We need a unified vision that we share and then a zoning code to reflect and support that.”
Ross said: “I’m a person in their 30’s who has chosen to live in Amherst and that makes me pretty rare,” he said. “If we want generational diversity we ought to try to keep some of the graduates from the University here. If we want to do that then we need to show students that they are welcome. There’s a lot of anti-student sentiment in the compiled list of priorities.”
Brewer asked for clarification on what the process will be moving forward.
Hanneke responded that a schedule of subsequent meetings would be set at the CRC meeting immediately following the joint meeting.
The joint meeting adjourned at 4:03.