Planning Board Hears New Proposal To Increase Housing In The Limited Business Zone

Proposed overlay district for the BL zone in downtown Amherst. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Planning Board Meeting Of February 24, 2021

The meeting was held via Zoom and can be viewed here.

Participating: All Planning Board members. From the Planning Department: Christine Brestrup, Nate Malloy, Maureen Pollock, and Pam Field-Sadler

Increasing Housing In The Limited Business Zone
The proposals passed by the Town Council, to change the Zoning Bylaw specified adding the Limited Business (BL) zone to footnote b on the Dimensional Table (Article 6). The purpose of including the BL in footnote b is to permit more residential units to be constructed. Most parcels in the district are small, and under current zoning laws, cannot accommodate additional residential units.

When the Planning Department and the Zoning Subcommittee modeled what it would be like to include the BL in footnote b, they found that the increase in density was not appropriate for the zone, which is “supposed to be an area for moderate density, office, commercial and multifamily dwellings. It is intended to be located in transitional areas between high density business districts and high density residential districts, or in appropriate areas along arterial or primary roads.” (Article 2.02 of the Zoning Bylaw)

As an alternative, Planner Nate Malloy presented a plan developed by the Planning Department for an overlay district in the 100 feet along the north side of Triangle Street, and the west side of North Pleasant Street north of Cowles Lane. This overlay would allow denser, three-story development along the main streets, but would retain current zoning, which is not as dense, adjacent to the residential zones. The proposed overlay zoning would mandate a front setback from the road of 20 feet and a minimum of public green space equaling 10 percent of the building area. 

Under this proposal, apartment buildings built to design standards to be specified in the bylaw  could be built by site plan reviews instead of more rigorous special permits, and as many units as desired by the developer could be fit into the available space, as long as the design guidelines are met. 

The Planning Department also recommended setting standards for mixed use buildings throughout town and mandating that all buildings with more than 10 residential units include 10 percent affordable units. Maps of these proposed changes can be found here beginning at page 15.

In discussion, Planning Board member Doug Marshall said he thinks that the wider area of downtown north of Hallock Street,where North and East Pleasant Streets diverge, could have four-story buildings without creating “too much” shadow on the street and that this would keep “the New England feel” of the rest of the downtown. 

Maria Chao said she agrees with Marshall and that the new plan would also work well on Triangle Street, which she called a transition area to UMass. 

Janet McGowan said that demolishing and replacing many of the old homes on the west side of Kendrick Park would harm the historic character of Amherst, and she hopes that many of those old homes could be incorporated into new building. She pointed out that Amherst College had done that when they remodeled and added to 75 South Pleasant Street . Thom Long cautioned that “historic character” is sometimes a “dog whistle”  used to exclude certain populations, though it is stressed in the Master Plan as an important component to planning.

Christine Brestrup said she considers the historic part of downtown to be the area around the Town Common and along Main Street. Some of the old buildings in the north part of the downtown are worth saving, but not all are.

Public Comment Less Enthusiastic
Public comment was less enthusiastic about the above plan than most members of the Planning Board and Planning Department. Several residents of the Triangle Street/ Cottage Street/ Chestnut Street area said they hoped that a “neighborhood” consisting, perhaps, of townhouses could be constructed in the BL area on  Triangle Street, not another apartment house (like Kendrick Place) that would probably be occupied mostly by college students. Hilda Greenbaum asserted that the small businesses on North Pleasant Street would be so severely impacted by construction that they probably would not survive. She noted that we have lost all of the small businesses formerly in the Carriage Shops due to construction of One East Pleasant and now the Summerlin Block (which contained Cousins Market and other small shops) is vacant and slated for new development. The businesses on the “Brueggers Block” could also be affected by new construction under the proposed zoning change, further reducing the reasons people might want to come to the downtown area.

Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) said she would want parking spots to be mandated if new residential units are built. Not providing parking, she said, would drive cars into the surrounding neighborhoods, where parking is already an issue. Despite the desirability of reducing automobile ownership and usage, families with children still need cars, she said.

Malloy said that, under the proposed changes,  the Historic Commission could still delay demolition of significant historic structures until they can be evaluated for possible preservation.  Proposed projects in the BL would also be subject to review by the Design Review Board. He said he thinks of the zoning change as being “flexible.” If we don’t like what we get, we can change it.

Resident Suzannah Fabing Muspratt cited the extensive and highly informative “Picture Main Street” website that Northampton has set up to keep the public informed and involved about all proposed changes in downtown zoning.

Increasing Density In The General Residence Zone
The Planning Department continued the presentation on the effects of removing Footnote m of the dimensional table for the General Residence (RG) zone. the residential area surrounding the downtown. This change would permit additional new residential units to be built with only 2,500 square feet of extra lot size. Currently, 4,000 square feet is required for each additional unit. (see here ). 

Planner Maureen Pollock continued to model the changes that would occur in the district if footnote m is eliminated. 

She said that there are 343 parcels in the district. There is one single-family home on most of them. Seventy-six have rental permits, which means they are not owner occupied. Forty-two have the 17,000 square feet necessary to accommodate three units without footnote m.  At present, without eliminating footnote m, 37 could have three units, 

However, when she looked at lots of about one acre, she found that adding the additional allowable units and required parking (two spaces per unit), would often exceed the 40 percent of lot coverage allowed under zoning guidelines. Although the parking requirements could be reduced by the Zoning Board of Appeals with a waiver, the lot coverage requirement can not. Therefore, removing the footnote could mean a “modest” increase in the number of units on medium-size lots; on larger lots, the maximum lot coverage requirement limits its utility to increase density.. 

There will be further discussion of zoning changes in the RG at the March 3 Planning Board meeting. The meeting was adjourned at 9:50 p.m.

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4 thoughts on “Planning Board Hears New Proposal To Increase Housing In The Limited Business Zone

  1. This business about increasing housing in the downtown is just a scam by housing developers who want to make some money on the student “MARKET” although UMass could easily build more housing on it its own land.

    No reputable Amherst Resident wants to mess up the downtown.

    You say “Christine Brestrup said she considers the historic part of downtown to be the area around the Town Common and along Main Street”.

    Christine Brestrup needs to get out of her office and walk around more. Has she ever heard of the historic districts close to downtown? One of them borders the length of North Prospect St.

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