Report On The Meeting Of the Community Resources Committee, June 7, 2021
The meeting was held via Zoom and was recorded.
Members: Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large, Chair), Evan Ross (District 4), Stephen Schreiber (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Dorothy Pam (District 3).
Staff: Christine Brestrup (Planning Director),Maureen Pollock (Planner), Nate Malloy (Senior Planner), David Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager), Rob Morra (Building Commissioner), Tom Kegelman (Housing Consultant)
Inclusionary Zoning (IZ)
The committee engaged in a brief discussion before wrapping up their consideration of Inclusionary Zoning, which had spanned several meetings.
Pam indicated that she supports IZ and that in her forays around town last week, she found that many residents support it as well.
Ross said he can support IZ conceptually, but still has concerns about its potential to “deter development” and “increase market-rates rent.” He said that he regrets that the committee has not heard from developers on this issue, but indicated that he would vote for IZ because “affordable housing is a priority,” and added that he will be less likely to support anything moving forward that would decrease density downtown or impose additional costs on developers.
Responding to Ross’s statement about the lack of developers’ participation in meetings, Hanneke noted that she had reached out to the Chamber of Commerce seeking input from developers
Brestrup indicated that she has also reached out and encouraged developers to be part of the conversation, so it’s disappointing that their voice is the one that is missing from the room. She said that we have some good cost offsets on the table, and that we should take a look at those offsets moving forward – things like expediting permitting or awarding an extra floor in exchange for incorporating [inclusionary units. She noted that the Planning Department had received many comments on the proposed temporary building moratorium for downtown but not about IZ.
Schreiber spoke again, as he had at previous meetings, about the desirability of offering developers permission to build a sixth story as a way to achieve “the social good of having more affordable housing without imposing an unfair burden on developers.” He said, “We’re asking for a lot – retail, parking, affordability – the volume is just not great enough to accommodate all of that so we have to think about a higher height limit in BL [Limited Business] and BG [General Business].”
Bahl-Milne said, “We live in a capitalist society so we have to find a way to engage and work with developers so that accessing the tax benefits and other offsets that we’re offering are more attractive and accessible. We’re already giving them a lot — like on parking — so maybe we can market this [increasing the allowable height of new buildings].” She suggested that one way to ameliorate the burden for developers, especially small developers, might be to “help them with the paperwork.”
Brestrup pointed out that the town already uses its Community Preservation Act (CPA) money at a high rate in support of affordable housing. She said that the affordable projects on Northampton Road and Belchertown Road have each received about $750,000 and that the town is offering to lease East Street School for $1 to develop affordable housing there.
Ziomek said that few people realize that the Town gave Beacon Communities a tax break of about $1.6 million over 10 years for their North Square development. They will not be fully taxed on that development until 11 years after its construction. In that way, all taxpayers in Amherst contribute to the development of affordable housing.
Schreiber, Bahl-Milne and Ross all spoke of their deep concern for protecting and accommodating developers, lest they take their projects to neighboring towns.
Hanneke moved that the Committee recommend that the Town Council adopt the latest revision of the IZ bylaw, Article 15, and the Committee voted unanimously (5-0) in favor. The full Town Council will likely vote on this bylaw at their next meeting on June 21.
Building Standards for Mixed Use Buildings and Apartments
The Committee continued its discussion of revisions to the Town’s standards for mixed-use buildings and apartments. Town Staff made substantial revisions to the draft since meeting with the Planning Board. The Planning Board’s discussion of mixed-use buildings and apartments will continue at their next meeting on Wednesday June 16 at 6:30 p.m.
Several Councilors raised concerns about retained language requiring mixed-use buildings to reserve a percentage of their development for open space. Schreiber and Ross had requested on multiple occasions that such language be struck, but the Planning Department has retained it for now, saying it can be waived or modified if desired. After noting that the CRC has received inquiries from constituents asking why there are so many options for waivers and why waivers are so frequently granted, Schreiber stated again that he thinks the open space requirement should be dropped. He said he couldn’t think of a project that’s been approved in the last 15 years where requiring more open space would have given us “a better building.”
Ross agreed with Schreiber, and commented that it seems as if the Planning Department is committed to keeping something about open space in the bylaw. He proposed moving the proposed language on to the full Council and letting the rest of the Councilors decide. He also asked whether recent projects have been compliant with the proposed open space requirement. He said that Boltwood Place, One East Pleasant Street, Kendrick Place, Spring Street, and the new Barry Roberts’ project on University Drive probably would not have been compliant. “I will keep asking whether recently approved mixed-use buildings would have been compliant, and if not, where they would not have been [compliant],” he said. “That will help us decide whether this provision works or not.”
Pam responded, “There is a public concern about open space. We can’t just dismiss it!”
Like Ross, Hanneke expressed concern about having the open space requirement in the BG “because it lowers the lot coverage to 90% [and]if you have 10% open space and you have setbacks, you are forcing us to not have 95% [lot] coverage.”. She asked whether the General Business area can be exempted from the open space requirement.
Bahl-Milne agreed that although “some people are really unhappy about downtown and the Council has to listen to them…that doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to adopt their solutions.” She said “We made the correct decision on the North Common in creating and enhancing a lively public space. But taking land away from the builders so we can have a bigger sidewalk… that may result in us getting less housing or not getting the buildings that we want.” She said that other communities are embracing “incentive zoning.” and shared that a developer recently told her that “they would be willing to develop space for outdoor dining but only if the Town provided the space because of the disadvantage that requirement would impose during the winter.”
The Committee continued its discussion of proposed language for Article 7, the parking bylaw, noting that not much of the language had been changed since their last discussion.
During public comment, resident Jennnifer Taub asked the Town to deal with the reality that most people in Amherst drive, that most [college] students drive, and that we need to create parking spaces for these people.
Pam Rooney spoke about pressure on parking in the municipal parking district downtown. The current proposal (7.001) is “just not adequate,” she said.
Comprehensive Housing Policy
The Committee resumed its discussion of its draft comprehensive housing policy.
Councilors acknowledged the receipt of a critique of the policy from the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust (AMAHT), but did not comment on the critique forwarded from the Amherst Community Land Trust, both of which conclude that the draft is data poor and does not do enough to actively promote the development of affordable housing in Amherst.
Bahl-Milne suggested that, in response to the AMAHT critique, the policy ought to place more emphasis on the creation of affordable housing.
Ross responded that the main focus of the policy is housing production in general. “More units is the priority — and more units will ultimately result in more affordable units,” he said. “We’re interested in affordability across a range of income levels. I don’t think we need to make affordability the first goal, as it comes through in the second. We don’t resolve the problem if we don’t step up production of units.”
Housing consultant Tom Kegleman agreed that we need as much housing as we can get and that removing some obstacles to development will help. But he also agreed with Bahl-Milne that the draft policy does not adequately stress the need for affordable housing. He said that developers will lean toward providing upscale housing because it is the most profitable. “If this is our opportunity to create some pressure and direct some resources, then we ought to explicitly call for more affordable housing,” he said.
Ross responded that “nothing will happen if we don’t address the housing shortage. Everything starts there.”
Hanneke said that she would attempt another revision for the next meeting.