Will Proposed New Zoning Promote More Retail Downtown? Planning Board Debates Mixed-Use Zoning Amendment

Ground floor commercial space at One East Pleasant Street that has been vacant since the building's opening. Photo: Art Keene

Report On The Planning Board Meeting Of June 16, 2021

The meeting was recorded and can be viewed here. 

Present
Members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, Johanna Neumann

Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director), Pam Field-Sadler (Staff Assistant), Maureen Pollack (Planner), and Rob Morra (Building Commissioner)

Highlights

  • This was the first in-person meeting of the Planning Board in over a year. Four members of the public (aside from applicants) attended.
  • Board recommended the approval of a Special Permit for creation of a duplex at 187 College Street.
  • Board heard a presentation on Amherst College plans to build a classroom building on South Pleasant Street.
  • Board debated new standards for mixed-use buildings.

Public Comment:
There were four people outside of applicants present in the Town Room for the first in-person meeting in over a year, following the expiration of emergency pandemic orders permitting remote meetings. (Shortly before this meeting, the Governor signed into law a bill permitting remote meetings until April 2022) .

In public comment, Suzannah Muspratt referred to the letter she recently sent to the Planning Board regarding the importance of saving the historic buildings on North Peasant Street between Cowles Lane and McClellan Street . She suggested that new buildings could be constructed behind the existing buildings, retaining them while still permitting new development. She felt this area of the Limited Business (B-L) zone should be treated differently than the area on Triangle Street that does not contain historic structures. Muspratt expressed disappointment that she has received no acknowledgement of her comments. Brestrup replied that her comments were forwarded to the entire Planning Board (PB).

Ira Bryck said that the direction in which the Town is headed in proposals to develop the downtown will result in there being no reason to live in the center of town, because vital businesses are being lost. He urged the town government to figure out what they want the Town to look like and not grant waivers that lead in another direction. He stressed the need for housing that is affordable for families.

Special Permit to create a duplex at 187 College Street
This proposal was already discussed at the Zoning Board of Appeals and referred to the PB for its recommendation. Alan St. Hilaire of Valley Property Management and Michael Liu of Berkshire Design presented a plan to convert a non-owner occupied single-family detached dwelling into a non-owner occupied duplex by constructing a four-bedroom addition to the rear of the existing structure. (pages 2-57)

St. Hilaire pointed out that this block, on the south side of College Street, is composed entirely of one- to four-unit non-owner occupied structures, most of which contain two units. It is the only residential block on this stretch of College Street. 

Several issues were raised during this presentation. First, this property, located in the General Residential (R-G) zone, is nonconforming because it is only 80 feet wide instead of the required 100 feet. Also, its lot coverage is 41.4 percent which exceeds the 40 percent coverage allowed by the Zoning Bylaw. The most controversial point was that the lot is too small by 2,250 square feet for an additional dwelling unit (see Article 6 of the Zoning Bylaw).

Marshall asked whether any of the nearby duplexes had been given Special Permits. Brestrup said she was aware of Special Permits being granted to the easternmost building as well as one to the west. McGowan said that the four-unit building predates the current zoning requirements.

Liu presented the design. The current lot coverage would be almost the same as the current structure because an existing garage would be removed. This would allow a 100-foot buffer from the abutting wetlands to the south. The parking area will be redone with gravel and will have eight spaces. A fence would separate the property from the property to the east, and native plants would protect the wetlands at the rear.

McGowan asked why so much parking would be needed, since only four spaces are required by the Zoning Bylaw (two per unit). St. Hilaire replied that in his experience, most UMass students have cars and no other parking is available nearby, except on side streets across College Street. Chao pointed out the need for care with snow removal from the gravel driveway and the lack of an overhang over the new entrance to protect people from snowfall off the roof. Otherwise, she felt the project fits with the neighborhood.

McGowan referred to a written comment received from former ZBA member Ken Rosenthal expressing concern about setting a precedent by permitting a duplex to be built on a lot without the required area. Rosenthal felt this would lead to more of the Town’s affordable housing stock being bought up by investors rather than workforce or young families. This point was echoed by Janet Keller in public comment, who noted the dire need in Amherst for modestly priced single-family homes. Marshall said he saw the validity of this argument, but added that the buildings on this block “are all investment properties.” He said he thinks  that that area of Town does not belong in the R-G and should be rezoned. Chao said she would feel “differently” if this project was being proposed for Lincoln Avenue or Sunset. 

McGowan said she has noted that the neighborhoods in that area are getting “shabbier” as more properties become student rentals rather than owner-occupied homes. She said the lease could specify “no students,” but Brestrup said she couldn’t see that a family would want to live there, surrounded by student rentals. In public comment, Pam Rooney said that this area is not representative of the R-G and is clearly never going to be a family neighborhood.

St. Hilaire said that Valley Property Management does not want to set a townwide precedent with this proposal, but students are part of our community, and they need places to live. He appreciated the process for obtaining input and dealing with each project on a case by case basis.

The Planning Board voted to approve the Special Permit 6-1 with McGowan voting no.

Amherst College Presents Preliminary Plans for Classroom Building on South Pleasant Street
Project Director for Amherst College Tom Davies presented plans for an addition to the south of and behind the existing brick building at 197 South Pleasant Street to create a new classroom building and associated offices. This building has been vacant for several years. The house to the south of the site has been purchased and will be moved to the southern end University Drive and Snell Street in August.

In addition to the new construction, the sidewalks on both sides of South Pleasant will be extended and upgraded, and a new crosswalk will be constructed across South Pleasant Street. A small driveway from Woodside Avenue will lead to two handicapped parking spaces behind the building.

The project received favorable comments from several members of the PB. It will be presented again when plans are more complete.

Continued Discussion on Revising Standards for Mixed-use Buildings
Pollack gave a brief presentation of the proposed amendment  that was previously discussed at several PB meetings and most recently at the Community Resources Committee (CRC) meeting on June 7 . Pollack said that the Planning Department (PD) wants to standardize the requirements for mixed-use buildings throughout Town in regard to the amount of area for commercial use and the open space required. The PD was hoping to present the amendment to the Town Council in the coming months.

The current draft of the proposed bylaw specifies that a minimum of 40 percent of the ground floor must be commercial space and that 10 percent of the footprint be devoted to open space.

Marshall said he was surprised that CRC thinks the amendment is ready to present to the Council. He offered a lengthy critique, saying he was perplexed to see a reduction of required commercial space on the ground floor from 60 to 40 percent, when we are trying to encourage commercial activity downtown. He also said that the new proposal seems to preclude having an entrance to the residential units from the front of the building and suggested a change of wording to permit this access. 

His main criticism was of the open space requirement. He did not agree with the desire for open space in an urban environment. Instead, he proposed an idea inspired by a photo of the Hastings block provided to the PB by Janet Keller. Rather than having a haphazard street edge which may result from different open space requirements for different sized buildings, he proposed a uniform specification of setbacks from the street, which would provide a coherent streetscape.

He also suggested that amenities, such as benches or planters be placed in the public way and not immediately in front of retail spaces. Chao also had a problem with requiring open space, in that valuable property would not be used for building.

Pollack pointed out that the Town has secured funds to hire a design consultant for the Downtown area. 

In regard to the amount of commercial space required in mixed-use buildings, Brestrup said that now there are no standards. She said that we are ending up with mixed-use buildings with 200 square feet of retail. The PD believes that, owing to the decline in retail, 40 percent, not 60 percent, is the right amount of retail space. 

McGowan said that when Town Meeting passed the mixed-use building standards, it was a bonanza for developers. They could put as many units as they could fit on a lot with minimum retail space. She pointed out the need to encourage retail, especially small stores like those whose locations have been destroyed by recent development. She thought requiring 60 percent for commercial was the right amount. Jemsek said the rents in Amherst were probably too high for small businesses in comparison to those in Hadley. Long pointed to parking also being a problem in Downtown Amherst.

Morra said the town is trying to get a handle on how much vacant space there is in downtown Amherst but he is unable to provide any current data.

Because it was 10 p.m., the PB deferred further discussion of this zoning amendment and amendments proposed for apartments and parking until an added meeting in July.

The Planning Board will next meet on June 30 to continue the Public Hearing on the Archipelago mixed-use building proposed for 11 East Pleasant Street.

Spread the love

4 thoughts on “Will Proposed New Zoning Promote More Retail Downtown? Planning Board Debates Mixed-Use Zoning Amendment

  1. No doubt need zoning changes to increase access to affordable housing. I agree with relaxed zoning to allow for additions of in law units on private property. However, allowing increased expansion on already multi unit housing property should be exempt as it only serves to increase profits for landlords whose only interest is to line their pockets and profit from increasing student housing. No to expansion for multi unit bldgs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.