Planning Department Presents Revised Zoning Bylaws For Mixed-use Buildings and Apartments And Demolition Delay

Mixed use buildings with student apartments near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Photo: Creative Commons

Report On The Planning Board Meeting Of May 12,2021

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

Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, Johanna Neumann
Planning Department Staff: Chris Brestrup, Pam Field-Sadler, Nate Malloy, Ben Breger, Maureen Pollack

Public Comment
Elizabeth Vierling spoke in strong support of the proposed Inclusionary Zoning bylaw, which is the topic of the public hearing scheduled for May 19 at 7 p.m.  She pointed out that Inclusionary Zoning was not even on the original Community Resources Committee (CRC) Zoning initiatives, and thanked the Planning Department for putting it forward.  (look here for an Indy primer on Inclusionary Zoning)

She also voiced concern about downtown parking. With the new building proposed for 11-13 East Pleasant Street, there will be a net loss of 30 parking spaces. She noted that 26 percent of students on campus have cars, and this building will have134 beds geared for students. She felt the developer is taking advantage of the Town’s poor parking regulations, just as they previously took advantage of the zero setback requirements, and even blamed the narrow sidewalk in front of One East Pleasant Street on the Town (and suggested that the Town move the street).

Suzannah Muspratt thanked the Planning Department for the new online site presenting proposed zoning changes,, but wishes the comments could be sorted by the amendment they refer to. 

Mixed-use Buildings
This proposal, and the one covering apartment buildings, discussed below, were presented to the Community Resources Committee (CRC) on May 11. They are detailed in the Planning Board packet . The Planning Department thinks they are almost ready to be presented to the Town Council and then to go to a public hearing. Malloy presented the latest revisions to the mixed-use building bylaws, and Pollock presented the proposed guidelines for apartment buildings. These proposed changes remove many of the distinctions between the two types of multi-unit buildings and make regulations consistent.

Two of the distinctions are that for mixed-use buildings:

  • No more than 50 percent of the ground floor can be used for parking or residential units. Most of the ground floor should be commercial. Residential and parking areas should be at the rear of the building and not visible from the street. If the project is on a corner lot or on a sloping lot, the permit granting authority will determine what is the ground floor and which side or floor of the building should be considered the front.
  • The proposals also include a “requirement” that 10 percent of the footprint of a mixed-use building be devoted to open space, but it  can be waived by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals. As with the apartment building bylaws, no more than half of the units of buildings with more than five units can be of the same bedroom type.

Both types of building require “adequate parking.” This is defined as “the amount of parking spaces provided for each … dwelling unit shall be based on factors including, but not limited to: bedroom count; analysis of traffic impact reports; proximity to downtown; proximity to public transit; proximity to public parking, including on-street and off-street parking; availability of alternative modes of transportation; tenant lease restrictions relative to parking; and shared or leased parking as regulated in accordance with Section 7.2.”

In the proposed new bylaw, the permit granting authorities (Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals) shall apply the design review guidelines in Sections 3.2040 and 3.2041of the Zoning Bylaw  and take into account the recommendations of the Design Review Board if applicable to any planned construction, renovation or expansion. The Planning Department feels this “gives more teeth” to the design guidelines.

Jemsek wondered, given the lack of parking downtown, why indoor parking in mixed-use buildings was limited in the proposal to no more than 50 percent of the ground floor. He wondered if this restriction could be waived or modified. He also wanted to know if basement parking would be allowed. In contrast, McGowan suggested  that mixed-use buildings should be required to have at least 60 percent commercial space on the first floor. She also felt that the 10 percent open space specification should not be able to be waived. Malloy responded that a Special Permit would be required to waive this requirement.

Neumann said that young people are excited about driving cars less, and that we should be building a “walkable and bikeable downtown,” but McGowan pointed out that there are more cars in Town and less use of public transit than 10 years ago. She said that lower rates of driving may apply to urban areas, but not to Amherst at this time. She noted that John Wrobeleski, who was granted a parking waiver for his mixed-use development at 462 Main Street, is now asking to demolish the Victorian office building next door in order to create more parking. Brestrup said that the Planning Board discusses parking with every new proposal. The new language suggested gives some direction to the discussion without mandating two spaces per unit. McGowan felt the parking requirement needs more discussion, and perhaps should be placed in another part of the bylaw, but Brestrup felt it belongs with the mixed-use and apartment buildings sections of the bylaw. 

MacDougall wanted the open space requirement to specify that the space should be usable, not just landscaping. Chao liked the idea that the open space requirement can be waived, saying that every site is different, and that downtown is different from village centers. She said that the Town should not “give up” valuable real estate to create open space.

Public Comment
Ira Bryck said that Amherst will survive by encouraging thriving businesses, and that increasing tax revenue is not sufficient. In regard to parking, he said he walks to Town daily, but he needs a car if he has to carry anything heavy. He also wondered why the emphasis on open space was changed in this version of the bylaw from being “public space” to being “space for residents and their visitors.” 

Elizabeth Vierling felt that developers shouldn’t be allowed to use the Town’s open space, such as Kendrick Park, to fulfill their own requirements for open space. District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said that the Town is focusing on redoing Kendrick Park for all Town residents, not just for people in the buildings across the street. Those coming to use the park and the businesses in the Archipelago buildings will need places to park their cars.

Changes to Bylaws Regarding Apartment Buildings (Sections 12.02 and 3.232
As noted by Pollock, the current definition of an apartment building limits the maximum number of units to 24 and restricts the areas of Town where they are allowed. She said that four projects approved recently all had more than 24 units.

These are: 54 units at Presidential Apartments, 88 units at Aspen Heights at 408 Northampton Road, 47 units in a new building at Southpoint Apartments, and the 28 affordable studio apartments at 132 Northampton Road. 

Marshall noted that none of these projects are in the districts approved for apartments. He suggested that the zoning be changed to allow apartments in more zones.

Pollock also recommended changing the terminology from “apartment building” to “multi-family dwelling” to better conform to terminology used in other towns. Other changes were updating requirements for management plans, standards, and conditions. The proposed changes require that apartment buildings need a special permit in the General Business District, where commercial development is encouraged, but only need a site plan review in other zones.

In addition to removing the cap on the number of units for apartment buildings, the Planning Department suggests increasing the minimum number of units from three to four and creating a separate category for triplexes, but this would require a change in the way property tax assessments are calculated.

Public Comment
Pam Rooney felt that the new definition of apartments would take some of the pressure off mixed-use buildings. Several recent mixed-use buildings have been built with tiny, nonviable retail spaces in order to avoid the restrictions placed on apartment buildings. She wanted mixed-use buildings to emphasize commercial..

Dorothy Pam said that she recently drove through Aspen Heights and that there was no open space at all, no greenspace, no place for families or students to hang out. Pollock said that there are plans for the development to have a play area and a dog walking area, as well as other gathering areas.

Demolition Delay Bylaw Change (Article 13)
Breger said that the plan is to move the Demolition Delay bylaw out of the Zoning Bylaw and add it to the General Bylaws. His presentation begins on page 24 of the Planning Board packet. The Historical Commission has been discussing modification of the bylaw during the past year. Over 160 communities in the state have Demolition Delay bylaws. Amherst’s bylaw was adopted in 1999 and revised in 2005.

Currently, all buildings older than 50 years slated for demolition are subject to review by the Historical Commission. If the Commission finds the structure of architectural, historical, or geographic significance, it can delay the demolition for up to a year. That delay can be used to explore reuse, reconstruction, or moving the building.

The proposed changes allow for the Town planning staff, perhaps in conjunction with members of the Historical Commission, to first review the plans for demolition and to determine if they should be reviewed by the Historical Commission. The criteria for determining the significance of the structure will be more clearly spelled out in the proposed bylaw. The changes in process will lessen the workload on the Historical Commission and make it easier to evaluate proposals. (Flow chart on page 37)

After a demolition delay is issued, the applicant may apply for a reduction in the time for the delay, if they have filed plans for appropriate development of the site and have made a bona fide but unsuccessful attempt to find a purchaser who is willing to preserve, rehabilitate, or restore the building. This provision allows the Commission to take into account the future use of the property, which the current bylaw does not allow. The new plan also allows the Commission to deny the permit for demolition and issue a Preservation certificate if there would be a significant impact of the demolition on the Town.

Long said that he found some of the language incredibly Eurocentric and wondered how we imagine preservation in regard to indigenous populations and certain landscapes  with historical significance that could be destroyed by a new structure.

Since this was the first presentation of this bylaw change to the Planning Board, and it involved a substantial rewrite to the existing bylaw, it will be discussed at a later date.

Brestrup said that the CRC and Planning Department plan to present the proposed revision of the Accessory Dwelling Unit bylaw to the Town Council on Monday, May 17. If approved, it will be scheduled for a public hearing with the CRC and Planning Board. She also said that a group of citizens is proposing changes to the Converted Dwelling bylaw.

The Mixed-use Building Bylaw might be presented to Town Council on May 24.

Next week’s Planning Board meeting, on May 19, will include public hearings on the proposed Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw at 7 p.m. and the Temporary Building Moratorium at 8 p.m.

The meeting adjourned at 9:40 p.m.

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