The Amherst Planning Board held a joint public hearing with the Community Resources Committee (CRC) on Wednesday, May 19 on Zoom. A recording can be viewed here. The hearing was chaired by Town Councilor and CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large)
PresentCRC members: Councilors Hanneke, Steve Schreiber and Evan Ross (District 4), Dorothy Pam (District 3) and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)
Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Doug Marshall, Andrew MacDougall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann
Planning Department Staff: Christine Brestrup, Nate Malloy, Pam Field-Sadler, and Building Commissioner Rob Morra,
Proposed Zoning Bylaw changes are presented on the Planning Department webpage https://www.amherstma.gov/3603/2021-Zoning-Amendments
Public Hearing on Article 15: Inclusionary Zoning
About 30 members of the public attended the public hearing on revising Article 15 of the Zoning Bylaw. Malloy summarized the proposed changes, which had been discussed at several Planning Board and CRC meetings over the past three months.. A copy of the revised bylaw is here. Deletions are in red and additions in bold.
The current bylaw, passed in 2005, required affordable units to be provided in any building with 10 or more residential units that required a Special Permit for use or dimensions. This resulted in many large mixed-use buildings being created without any affordable units. The proposed revision requires every project creating ten or more new dwelling units to offer at least 12 percent of the units at affordable prices for those earning 80 percent of area mean income (AMI) (currently about $67,000 per year for a family of four). The only exceptions would be for subdivisions, institutional use, projects built by a public organization, and affordable housing projects.
Local preference for residents living or working in Amherst or who have children in the schools would be encouraged. Developers of large projects would have the ability to provide half of the required affordable units off-site within 500 feet of the main project or to contribute an amount equal to four times the area mean income (about $320,000 per unit) to the Affordable Housing Trust in lieu of constructing the required affordable units. Undertaking these alternatives would require a Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. If six or more affordable units are required, 20 percent must be reserved for those making 60 percent or less of AMI.
Jemsek wondered why ten units was the number chosen to trigger Inclusionary Zoning. He wanted to know if there is any data to support this. Malloy said the data are driven by the housing market. For communities nearer to Boston, any building with more than six units must make 16 percent of them affordable. The consultants for Amherst’s 2015 Housing Market Study recommended requiring that 15 percent of units be affordable.
MacDougall saw a potential loophole in the provision for off-site units. He said the nice thing about the proposal is that it promotes those of different incomes living together. Malloy replied that the Affordable Housing Trust discussed this point as well, but felt that this provision would still result in the creation of affordable units. He noted that half of the required affordable units must be on-site, and that the off-site units must be in the same zoning district or within 500 feet of the district. In addition, the off-site units require a Special Permit, so the developer must make a case for why they cannot be located at the main building.
McGowan said she found the proposal uniform and clear, applying to almost every project. She did note that Carol Lewis of the Affordable Housing Trust asked why cluster subdivisions are exempt, and noted that cluster developments are eligible for a density bonus if they provide affordable units. Brestrup answered that in the future we may want to include subdivisions, but it seems too complicated to do so now. A developer might put in a road, subdivide land, and then sell off lots, which could mean that several developers are involved, and it would be too complicated to keep track of which lots are affordable.
Bahl-Milne worried about developers passing on the costs of creating and maintaining the affordable units to the rents of the market rate units. She also voiced concern that small scale developers could be more impacted by this change due to economies of scale, and she thought they might need more incentives to build in Amherst. Brestrup noted that builders who create more than ten affordable units are eligible for tax relief over ten years as an incentive.
Schreiber said he would like to see most of the exemptions removed. He said deed restrictions could be placed on certain lots in subdivisions to make them affordable. Chao was concerned that the proposed change might decrease the number of housing units built, but added that she trusts the Planning staff and thinks “we should give this proposal a try” and if it doesn’t work, she said we can always change it.
Local developer Ted Parker asked what the actual payment in lieu of developing affordable units would be. Although Malloy was not certain about the actual amount at this time, he had previously said that four times the average mean income would be about $300,000 to $320,000 per unit.
Brendan Bailey, the CEO of The Realtor Association of the Pioneer Valley, who lives in Longmeadow, noted the lack of cost incentives for the increased costs to developers inherent in the current proposal. He recommended that the Town do a financial feasibility study.
Nina Weyl (District 4) asked if Central East Commons, currently under construction on Main Street, has any affordable units (no) and whether it would have had any if this bylaw change had been in place when it was permitted (yes).
Chad Fuller (District 4) wanted to know why there was not a provision for those earning less than 60 percent of the AMI, for example 30 percent. Malloy said the town would have to offer more financial incentives to developers to help compensate for the lower rents at that level.
John Hornik, Chair of the Affordable Housing Trust, said that the costs to developers for providing affordable housing are manageable, and stressed that developers are unlikely to provide any affordable units voluntarily. He said that the Amherst rental market is very strong. “This is a question of our values.… It might be a little more difficult for developers, but without this provision, many people would not be able to afford to live in Amherst.”
Janet Keller (District 1) said that North Square offered 26 affordable units to families earning 50 percent of AMI, under a Comprehensive Permit, and that all of them were snapped up immediately. Three hundred families are on the waiting list. Kitty Axelson-Berry (District 2) felt the proposal does not go far enough. She felt that affordable units should have to be less than 500 feet, the equivalent of one-and-a-half football fields, away from the market-rate units, and that more units, perhaps 20 percent, should be affordable. She also wanted to make sure the units would remain affordable if the development changed ownership.
Planning Board Endorses Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw Changes
The Public Hearing on Inclusionary Zoning was closed at 8:13 p.m. Later that evening, after the e Public Hearing on the proposed Temporary Building Moratorium ended, the Planning Board briefly discussed the proposed changes to Article 15 and voted 6-0 (McGowan was absent for the vote) to recommend it to the CRC.
Public Hearing on Article 16: Proposed Temporary Building Moratorium
The proposed six-month moratorium on new building permits for projects that would create three or more new dwelling units near downtown Amherst was presented by Councilors Cathy Schoen (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3), and Darcy DuMont.
There were 51 members of the public attending, and more than 880 constituents had signed a petition supporting the measure. In addition to those speaking at the hearing, the Council and Planning Board received many letters on the matter, mostly in support of the moratorium. They can be read here.
The three Councilors pointed out the widespread dissatisfaction they have encountered regarding the new development downtown in terms of size, design, the amount of rent charged, lack of parking, crowding of the sidewalks, displacement of small businesses, and lack of affordable units. They noted that the Planning Department, Planning Board, and CRC are now working on several zoning changes to improve the character of the downtown area and said that the six-month pause would give a chance for many of these amendments to be enacted. They also noted that the Planning Department hopes to be able to hire a design consultant to establish design standards for different areas of the Town, and that the moratorium would provide time for this.
Questions from the Planning Board and CRC
MacDougall wondered if the Archipelago project proposed for 11-13 East Pleasant Street is driving this proposal. Schoen replied that another building like the ones at Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant would make a significant difference in the downtown and that the only reason there isn’t a corridor of (similarly) large buildings downtown is that the old Bertucci’s was declared a historical building and could not be demolished.
Long said that although he agrees with the goals of the moratorium, he isn’t sure how many could be achieved in six months. He asked how a moratorium could create “a bookstore” when developers can’t fill the retail space they already have. Schoen answered that the pause would give some time for creative thinking and that every small town is grappling with how to bring back its downtown. Pam said the Councilors don’t have all the answers, “but if we go the way we are going, we’ll be stuck with a ‘dead corridor downtown’ for a long time.”
Schreiber made the claim that “nothing substantial was built downtown” from 1880 to 2010. During that time, development was occurring on Route 9 in Hadley. From 2010 to 2018, several new buildings were completed, but not in the past three years. (Construction on a large new building on Spring Street was stopped due to the pandemic and has not yet resumed.) In the past 10 years, he said, 200 residential units have been built downtown in a compact area. If the same number of single-family homes on large lots were built, it would take 100 acres. He asked how that would be more sustainable. DuMont replied that there is an argument for density being sustainable if all amenities are in a walkable area but not when the housing is built for people who have cars. She emphasized the need for a year-round economy, which students who are in town for only eight months a year cannot contribute to.
Bahl-Milne said she is worried about alienating the developer community by having a moratorium. She felt the moratorium (and design guidelines) would not lead to more businesses downtown. Schoen said the moratorium does not prohibit building anywhere in Amherst except the downtown area. She mentioned that several people she knows had planned to move to the Spring Street development when it was originally proposed, but when the plans were changed to only offer small studios and one-bedrooms, with no onsite parking, it lost its appeal to would-be permanent residents.
Neumann paradoxically said that she thinks 180 days is not enough time to make significant zoning changes and would leave the north end of downtown in the same state it is in now, with “condemned buildings and cracked parking lots.” She also said that the Mass Mutual office space at Kendrick Place provides “cutting-edge training in data science for young researchers.”
Jemsek said that the Planning Board will continue to hear proposals for new construction projects, and that those projects will probably not receive building permits until next year, so the moratorium would not accomplish anything. But Brestrup said that once a notice for a public hearing on a proposed zoning amendment is published, developers must abide by that amendment if it is passed.
Nina Weyl (District 4) said she hears that many of the officials at the hearing do not feel that the moratorium is “a solution to the problem” and asked them, “Do you [even] realize that there is a problem?” She added, “One East Pleasant Street and Kendrick Place bring nothing to the vitality of the Town.” She added that had nothing against Mass Mutual’s training office, but only to its location on prime downtown real estate.
Schreiber and Jemsek came to the defense of the Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, saying they are an improvement over what previously existed at those sites. Bahl-Milne said that it is a matter of personal preference, whether one likes those buildings or not. She wanted to know whether proposers of the moratorium have asked Archipelago why they reduced space for retail in their latest project. Pam speculated that rents in the Archipelago buildings are too high for small businesses and reiterated that density arguments only work if amenities are available in the area.
Pam Rooney (District 4) cited the Master Plan and said zoning in the downtown should be treated holistically. There are several zoning changes being proposed, she said, but they should be evaluated as a whole, and the moratorium would provide an opportunity for that.
Sandy Muspratt (District 3) noted that many residents are dismayed at the buildings that have been built under the current code, “although not Steve Schreiber, who apparently would have preferred to have the Hadley malls built in downtown Amherst.”
Susan Sheldon (District 5), a landscape architect who served on the Kendrick Park Committee, said she was excited when she first learned that a building was to be built at the north gateway to town, but is disappointed by what was built (Kendrick Place) because it is “so out of character for the town.”
Meg Gage (District 1) spoke against Ross’s contention that the moratorium would “jeopardize future economic development” in Amherst. She noted that Amherst is one of the few downtowns in Western Massachusetts with room for new development and that she would like to see more arts and cultural activities. She noted that Amherst Cinema was not created to make a profit but because Amherst residents wanted a local place for independent films — and that it is not students who keep it afloat.
Speaking against the moratorium, Sarah Marshall said she cares about the downtown, but cares more about funding the schools and repairing the sidewalks, and that she wants to make the downtown a welcoming place for everyone who wants to live there, apparently referring to the student population.
Ted Parker said the moratorium is a “disingenuous effort to thwart Archipelago.” He wanted to know why developers weren’t consulted in drafting the moratorium, and noted that 1,000 residents signing a petition are “not a majority” and “that kind of thinking doomed Town Meeting.”
Erika Zekos worried that the moratorium will “harm our relationship with local developers” and said she doesn’t see why some of the ideas can’t move ahead without a moratorium.
Nicola Ussher (District 1) said she “can’t believe we are proposing this, coming out of a pandemic.”
Planning Board Fails to Endorse the Moratorium by a 6-0 Vote
After the Public Hearing was closed at 10:17 p.m. the Planning Board discussed the proposed temporary moratorium. Jemsek said he was not moved by any arguments about shadows or narrow sidewalks and that although he is concerned about parking downtown, he doesn’t think a moratorium would “solve” that. He said that “people don’t go downtown for open space.”
There were no comments in favor of the moratorium from Planning Board members and they voted 6-0 not to recommend it to the CRC.
The meeting adjourned at 11 p.m.