Planning Board Considers Archipelago’s Application For New Building Downtown

Architect's rendering of proposed apartment building at 11 -13 East Pleasant Street. View from Kendrick Park. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Planning Board On May 5, 2021

The meeting was held via Zoom. A recording can be found here.

Participants
Members: Maria Chao, Jack Jemsek (Chair), Thomas Long, Andrew MacDougall, Dough Marshall, Janet McGowan, Johanna Neumann. Staff: Town planners Christine Brestrup, Nate Malloy, Assistant Pam Field-Sadler. Also: from Archipelago, Kyle Wilson and Dave Williams

Archipelago Applies for Special Permit At 11 East Pleasant Street
Archipelago Associates, developers of Boltwood Place, Kendrick Place, One East Pleasant Street, 26 Spring Street, and Olympia Place, applied for a Site Plan Review and several Special Permits to decrease setback requirements on the east and north, and to increase the building’s height from 55 feet to 56 feet 9 inches, three inches under the height that would require them to build any affordable units, for their proposed five-story building immediately north of One East Pleasant. Developer Kyle Wilson presented the plans for the 55-unit mixed use building with 1,300 square feet of retail space at the front and a covered parking space for residents at the rear of the ground floor.

Wilson began by citing a slowdown in housing growth in the state. Over the past 25 years, only half as many units were created than over the previous 30 years. Meanwhile, the population of Massachusetts grew 7.4 percent since the 2010 census. He pointed out Governor Baker’s current push to create more housing through the Housing Choice Initiative. In Amherst, much of the land is zoned for single-family housing, yet 53 percent of Amherst residents are renters. Wilson said Archipelago is serving renters, and the downtown district is a desirable location.

The company’s proposed building would extend from the sidewalk on East Pleasant Street to just five feet from the West Cemetery. There would be a pedestrian “pass through” between the retail space and the parking area, and a row of maple trees along the south side of the building, the side facing One East Pleasant. The siding will be mostly yellow cedar, with Danish brick and zinc accents. On the roof, which does not count as a story, will be the mechanicals and a row of solar panels facing south. Another of their adjacent properties, at 15 East Pleasant, formerly home to The Pub, will be fenced off and used for construction staging. There are no immediate plans for development of this parcel, but Wilson said it remains valuable property for downtown housing.

In answer to concerns of Planning Board members and many in public comment, about the lack of any affordable units in any of Archipelago’s projects, Wilson said, “We build market rate housing for the 90 percent of renters [who can afford it].” This presumably refers to the current Amherst Inclusionary Zoning bylaw, which says that projects requiring certain Special Permits for use or certain dimensional waivers have to make 10 percent of their units affordable. However, recent studies have shown that a significant percentage of Amherst renters are rent-burdened, paying  more than a third of their income in rent. Wilson contended that the way to create more affordable housing is to build more housing.

There is a public hearing on May 19 at 7 p.m for a proposal to expand the Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw to all developments creating three or more new dwelling units.

Marshall questioned the target population for the building. He noted that 60 percent of the units planned are four-bedroom apartments whose designs are obviously geared to students, not families. Chao praised the design, but questioned the viability of the small area allotted for retail space, as did most Planning Board members. Wilson said that the 4,000 square foot commercial space at One East Pleasant is “too large.” He said that Archipelago had tried several different designs for the front of the building, but the small retail space worked best.

McGowan corrected several of Wilson’s statements, noting that accessory dwelling units and converted dwellings are permitted almost everywhere in Amherst. She noted that the original plans for the project showed a height of two feet over the height  allowed by zoning regulations, which would have triggered the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw, but the most recent plans show an excess height of one foot nine inches, thereby avoiding the requirement to provide affordable housing. That height does not include the rooftop heat pumps and solar panels which would put the building over the two feet allowed. She questioned the need for more market rate housing, compared to affordable rate housing, since the Town has met the goals of the 2015 Housing Production Plan in total new units, but not in affordable units. She also mentioned that several other housing projects are currently under construction. And she expressed concern about the crowding of the sidewalk, with it being difficult for pedestrians to pass each other in front of One East Pleasant.

Wilson replied that the narrow sidewalk in front of One East Pleasant is “because of where the Town put the curb.” He said all buildings downtown are built up to the lot line and usually the curb is 20 feet from buildings, not the  six feet at that location.. He noted the recessed design for the front of the proposed building, which he said creates “a wider sidewalk.” 

Marshall liked the recessed first story, but noted the imposing nature of One East Pleasant, as opposed to other downtown buildings that have a prominent sign band between the street level and upper residential units. He suggested a similar feature for this new building to allow advertising for the retail space.

Jemsek suggested that the developers consider providing an  opportunity for outdoor businesses to set up in front of the building. Wilson did not reply to this, nor to questions about projected rents for the units. Town Councilor Cathy Schoen said that studio apartments at Spring Street were slated to cost almost $2000 a month.

In public comment, Pam Rooney expressed concerns about safety issues on Pray Street during and after construction. She also said that Archipelago had committed to create a crosswalk from their building at One East Pleasant to Kendrick Park, but has yet to do so. Ira Bryck questioned Wilson’s contention that Archipelago projects have contributed a major portion of income for the Town, “I understand that the three project are bringing in a million dollars of tax revenue, and of course that’s important,” he said. “But [that means] making drastic changes downtown in order to get the revenue for only 1.2 percent of the town’s budget — and if you look at how to get that million dollars from houses like mine, my tax bill times 143 houses would create that same million dollars.” He added, ““I appreciate the comments of some of the Planning Board members supporting more retail in Amherst. When I see the tiny little storefront [in the proposed plan] on the narrowest side of the building …it’s really kind of a joke.” 

Kitty Axelson-Berry disagreed with Wilson’s assessment that downtown Amherst does not need retail stores and that people can just order over the internet and shop at the Hadley malls a few miles down the road. According to Wilson, downtown Amherst only needs coffee shops for residents who can walk to them. Axelson-Berry commented that residents not only from Amherst but from neighboring towns like Shutesbury, Pelham, and Leverett want to shop in Amherst but feel they can’t because of the recent displacement of so many businesses here. 

Schoen brought up the issue of the large shadows cast on the street by Archipelago’s buildings. She also noted that the Council had granted a permit to close the sidewalk on Spring Street for the Archipelago project there, which was supposed to be completed by January 2021. That project remains dormant, with only part of the framing up. She questioned whether the company should receive another building permit while the Spring Street project remains incomplete. Wilson said that construction was halted  due to the pandemic, and now there is a six- to nine-month wait for the rock wool needed for insulation. Construction will resume when materials are available.

Jennifer Taub also disputed some of Wilson’s assertions.

First,, she said she “wanted to  respond to some of the context that Mr. Wilson set up in terms of the need for more housing, so that it is part of the record for the meeting. Mr. Wilson has stated that there’s huge growth in Massachusetts, and I think it’s fair to say that growth is in the Boston metropolitan area and not in Amherst. Actually, the Donahue Institute at UMass said, while it was headed by our Council president, that ‘Growth in the Pioneer Valley in the 25-year period from 2010 to 2035 is a total of 6.5 percent.’ That’s not a year, that is the total for the 25 year period, and the population director there called it ‘OK growth’ So we’re not having a population surge in Amherst.” She also quoted Marty Meehan, the president of the UMass system, in a 2020  interview with boston.com, about “the demographic cliff that’s coming, and he said, ‘The number of college-age students will drop almost 15 percent in five years,’ and he touted the need for right-sizing in the future because there will be many fewer students…so while Amherst may be in need of a certain kind of housing, I don’t think it is in dire need of more of these dormitory-style student complexes.” Taub went on to correct  Wilson’s comparisons of Amherst to Durham, North Carolina and Berkeley, California, in terms of students not having cars or needing to park them. “Durham has a population of 220,000 and a robust public transportation system,” she said, “and Berkley is served by the Bay Area Rapid Transit.”  McGowan had noted that the Town issued about 110 parking permits to residents of Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, pointing out that their residents do own cars, despite the fact that they live downtown.

The Design Review Board (DRB) will review the project on May 10. The Planning Board continued its discussion until June 2 at 7:30 p.m.

Signs For Kendrick Park Playground
The Planning Department proposed a redesign of the signs at the new Kendrick Park Playground to better coordinate with the Wayfinder signs being installed in other locations around Town. The new design, which was presented to the DRB last week, is for a brown, 5-foot x 2-foot sign with yellow writing between two granite posts. The sign will be two-sided and have park rules and nearby attractions on the reverse side. McGowan suggested acknowledging the Kendrick family, who donated the land for the park, as well as the state PARC grant, the Town of Amherst, and the town’s Community Preservation Act monies. The Planning Board voted to leave the final design up to the Planning Department.

The meeting adjourned at 9:45 p.m. The Planning Board will meet next on May 12 at 6:30 to continue its discussion of zoning.

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4 thoughts on “Planning Board Considers Archipelago’s Application For New Building Downtown

  1. For the record, at this meeting Kyle Wilson clearly stated that (a) Archipelago does build student housing, and it is designed and marketed for that use, and (2) it was always their plan to sell the buildings to outside investors, explaining why their 3 jumbo buildings are now owned by a Chicago hedge fund.

  2. Developers are becoming more out front about their MO, demonstrating complete confidence that the Planning Board will give them everything they ask for – on a silver platter.

  3. A quick, but important correction: Archipelago is seeking an increase in building height at 11 East Pleasant of 2 feet, not 1 foot, nine inches. Zoning bylaw’s requirement in B-G district is 55 feet.

    If Archipelago asked for 1 more inch, it would trigger the 10% affordable unit requirement under Zoning Bylaw Article 15. “Height more than 2 feet greater than standard maximum” is the trigger.

    The 56’ 9” number in this article is likely based on the Planning Department’s Development Application Report. Archipelago’s drawings showed a building height of 57 feet and Wilson clarified that Archipelago was asking for 57 feet during last Wednesday’s Planning Board hearing.

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