Editor’s note: The following letter was sent to the Town Council, The Town Manager and the Planning Board on March 1.
Requests have been made by numerous people to Plan First and Zone Second. Much time and energy has already been expended on the Zoning portion, without an effort to answer the question of what is trying to be achieved, besides removing perceived barriers to housing construction.
Over the summer, the Planning Department stated it had roughly $40K for “downtown” planning. Suggestions to reinvigorate material from downtown forums* (see below) into Design Guidelines seem a logical next step. Design guidelines will give us a benchmark by which all these zoning changes can be measured. Without a sense of where we want to go with our Town Center, zoning changes are blind actions.
The Planning Department takes its direction from the Town Council/Town Manager. It is now neck deep in formulating the dozen zoning changes directed by the Community Resources Committee (CRC). This is a request for the CRC to redirect the efforts of the Planning Department, and subsequently the Planning Board, to the following:
- Establish Design Guidelines for the Town Center and surrounding Limited Business Districts first! Before 10+ zoning changes are implemented, establish visual and functional characteristics to benchmark or test the outcomes of any zoning changes.
The Master Plan states numerous times, equally with the desire for more housing in developed areas, that increasing density must be accompanied by strict design guidelines. This will help preserve Amherst’s “existing historic downtown, village centers and established neighborhoods” (Master Plan at 3.22-3.23) …and help garner residents’ acceptance of increasing density.
- Improve the Mixed-Use Building definition and dimensional requirements to reflect the Design Guidelines. In the B-G north of One East Pleasant building, most of the small storefronts are now vacant. More buildings of the size and scale of Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant are imminent. Since residential construction is the only economically viable construction type in Amherst, let’s get more of what we want and less of what we find objectionable.
- Improve the by-law to add to the appeal of Amherst with appropriate streetscapes and height setbacks for street-level daylight. Otherwise, we get the 40R images of featureless, mega-building blocks.
- Require a mix of unit types, as “Apartments” do today, to provide opportunities for other than individual students, to attract the mix of occupants we say we want in Amherst, especially families and working people.
- Require sufficient parking to support occupants who must drive for children and work.
o Note – One E. Pleasant charges occupants for parking in the covered and open lot below the building. Even with a fee, most spaces are utilized. An additional 30+ cars regularly park in the Summerlin lot, in front of the now vacant Cousins Market. There is a need for parking.
- Create neighborhood and community, not just minimally sized student warehousing units.
- Require support by the developer for active retail functions at the street level, to counter those businesses lost to the development (or prior to the development).
3. Update the Inclusionary Zoning by-law. Of the 1,011 DU’s permitted 2013-2019, how many contributed to our inventory of affordable units? Spring Street? Olympia Place? East Amherst Commons? Zero. We already know that Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant (~170 units combined) also contributed none.
Coordinate application of the Inclusionary by-law with other proposed zoning changes such that, for example, the application of Footnote (a) does not automatically allow added heights of buildings where otherwise limited.
4. Follow the Master Plan and Amherst Housing Plan’s directives and initiate a town-university process to work with UMass to have UMass build more on-campus student housing for the 4,000+ new students added in the last decade – and commit to housing all future new students. This on-campus housing can be privately owned. Increasing numbers of UMass students are the drivers of housing demand, as they compete for the same housing that middle- and low- income residents can afford. Without this commitment, our housing problem will endlessly repeat.
I appreciate any consideration of these ideas in the hopes for a Town Center that continues to attract visitors and residents alike.
Pamela Rooney was a member of the Amherst Planning Board from 2000 to 2006. She is a Registered Landscape Architect and Assistant Director of Campus Planning at UMass Amherst.