Report On The Meeting Of The Planning Board, July 14, 2021
Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, and Janet McGowan. Absent: Joanna Neumann
Staff: Planners Chris Brestrup, Maureen Pollack, and Nate Malloy, Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler
- Planning Department presents proposed changes to regulations for apartment buildings, mixed-use buildings, and parking. Public Hearing to be held on July 21.
- Overlay district proposed for the limited business districts on Triangle Street and North Pleasant Street
- Expansion of parking at Atkinson Family Practice was approved
The primary purpose of this meeting was to discuss the three zoning bylaw amendments that will be the topics of a public hearing on July 21. All three have been deemed ready for the required public hearing by a Town Council vote on June 28. The amendments would change the town’s bylaws on apartments, mixed-use buildings, and parking requirements. Jemsek pointed out that if the Planning Board is not satisfied with the proposed amendments at the July 21 meeting, it has the prerogative to continue the public hearing to a later date.
Suzannah Muspratt said she appreciates the hard work done by the Planning Department and Planning Board on the inclusionary zoning and accessory dwelling unit amendments, but is worried about the fast pace that these three and other amendments are being considered. She urged the Planning Board to take some time and not be pressured by other peoples’ timetables
Gordon Green said he is worried about intergenerational wealth disparities in town. He said that large buildings do not address this issue, whereas townhouses and condos do address it. He encouraged the board to consider these options for home ownership to promote diversity in housing opportunities.
In response to these comments, McGowan said that it doesn’t seem as if the proposed zoning changes are following any process. The Planning Board’s public hearing on rezoning the public parking lot behind CVS, for example, was held on July 7 without any prior discussion by the board, and the discussion of proposed changes to the limited business (BL) zone was inserted into this agenda without any previous notice. She asked why the town is moving so fast, since the council has not specified any timetables for these changes.
Brestrup said she believes the town is following the flow chart approved on May 6, 2020. She went on to recount previous discussions of the items on the agenda, as well as the directive by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and the full council to prioritize zoning changes passed at the January 4, 2021 council meeting. She said that the legal requirement is that the Planning Board hold a public hearing on any proposed zoning changes, but it does not need to make any recommendations on them to the council.
Changes To Requirements For Apartment Buildings
Pollack presented the current requirements and proposed changes for apartment buildings as presented in Article 3.3 of the zoning bylaw. As of now, apartment buildings are defined as buildings consisting of three to 24 dwelling units and must be located near main streets or areas with other multi-family housing. In the proposed changes, the cap on maximum number of units would be removed. The buildings would still be subject to the dimensional requirements of the zoning district they will be built in. For example, in the B-L district, apartment buildings would require a minimum 20,000 square feet of lot area and 4,000 square feet for each additional unit. Specifications of lot and building coverage would also apply. Meeting these requirements would limit the number of units that could be built.
Other proposed changes would require diversity in the bedroom counts of the units in any building with 10 or more units, so that no more than 50 percent could have the same number of bedrooms. Also, any enclosed parking would need to be at the rear of the structure. Apartment buildings would need to be approved by Special Permit in the general business (B-G) area where inclusion of nonresidential use is encouraged, and by Site Plan Review in the village centers.
In response to questions from the PB about the elimination of design standards present in previous iterations of this amendment, Pollack said that the Planning Department felt that the streetscape and open space requirements were best left to the design consultants that the department was planning to hire. She said that the Planning Department thought these aspects should be zoning district-specific, not general for the entire town. She added that, when the Zoning Board of Appeals evaluates a project, it looks at how well the building will blend with the existing neighborhood in making its recommendations.
Marshall and Chao expressed support for these changes to the proposed zoning law, but McGowan said she wants more analysis of the impacts that potentially larger buildings would have on surrounding neighborhoods. Although the dimensional requirements provide some protection, she noted that “footnote a” allows these limitations to be waived in many circumstances.
Councilor Dorothy Pam expressed frustration that every time an amendment is presented, it is different. A parking requirement, for example, disappeared from the original proposal, as did an open space requirement. Muspratt asked about the lack of a requirement for a management plan, but Brestrup said that a management plan is required of all Site Plan Reviews and Special Permit applications for multi-family structures.
Janet Keller wanted a preservation plan, since a number of the village centers in Amherst are National Historic Register districts. Pollack replied that buildings in the village centers are limited to three stories in height and also need to adhere to dimensional requirements, so they cannot be as large as buildings in the downtown area.
Changes to requirements for mixed-use buildings were previously discussed at the Planning Board meeting on June 16. They were reviewed here in a presentation by Pollack.
The proposed changes include a definition of mixed-use buildings, which is lacking in the existing Article 12 of the zoning bylaw, and minimum requirements for nonresidential space. As with the apartments, design standards and open space requirements that were in the original draft of the amendment were left for future determination by design consultants. But the Planning Department thought that the Design Review Board standards should apply to all mixed-use buildings, not only the ones in the B-G and B-L zones.
A mixed-use building is defined as a building containing one or more dwelling units in combination with permitted nonresidential use in accordance with Article 3. The proposed guidelines specify a minimum of 40 percent nonresidential space on the first floor. As in the apartment provision, larger buildings would be required to have no more than 50 percent of units to be of the same bedroom count. There would be no change in the permitting required.
McGowan questioned why the requirement for a minimum of 60 percent nonresidential space on the first floor in the 2016 article presented to Town Meeting was reduced to 40 percent in this iteration. She also suggested that setbacks should have to be at least 20 feet from the curb, rather than continuing to use the zero setback requirement (from the lot line) allowed in the B-G district, which has resulted in the narrow sidewalks in front of One East Pleasant, Kendrick Place, and the partially constructed building on Spring Street.
The rest of the Planning Board liked that many of the prescriptive guidelines were removed from this version of the amendments, and felt they are ready for the public hearing.
MacDougall and McGowan asked for some comparison data on required nonresidential use in mixed-use buildings in other municipalities. Brestrup said that Northampton requires 100 percent nonresidential use on the first floor of mixed-use buildings in the downtown area, but it now has a lot of vacant commercial space. Malloy pointed out that this provision does not mean that there cannot be more more nonresidential use, such as office space on the upper floors. Pollack added that, from her work as liaison to the Disability Access Advisory Committee, she has learned that residents with mobility issues often prefer to be on the first floor, so they are not dependent on elevators in the event of a power outage or other emergency.
Councilor Cathy Schoen, speaking as an individual, liked the idea of a required setback from the curb being specified. She noted that at North Square, the entire first floor is nonresidential, but most of it is not occupied, probably due to high rents there. She said that the residential use cannot subsidize the nonresidential there because the two are owned separately.
Muspratt supported the idea of requiring more nonresidential space, and perhaps having smaller shops there. She said that we need retail to support other retail.
Kyle Wilson of Archipelago, the developers of Kendrick Place, One East Pleasant, Spring Street, and the proposed mixed-use building at 11 East Pleasant, asked whether, if the goal is to have vibrant businesses, wouldn’t it better to mandate how much of the street-facing area should be nonresidential as opposed to using a percentage of first floor area. He pointed out that 11 East Pleasant is a narrow lot with a small amount of frontage on the street, so a business would need a very deep footprint [to fulfill the entire requirement by itself]. But Pam pointed out that a restaurant might want a deep space to provide for a food prep area and storage.
Jennifer Taub said that by trying to avoid the minimum required nonresidential use, Wilson was implying that the business of Amherst is providing student housing. If that is the case, she said, “then downtown is doomed.”
Change In Parking Requirements For Multi-Unit Dwellings Proposed
The current bylaw states that residential buildings must provide at least two parking spaces per dwelling unit. This requirement has been the source of lengthy debates between developers and the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. The Planning Department has proposed more flexible guidelines that require “adequate parking” based on “other factors” as well as the number of units. New apartment and mixed-use buildings in the downtown area would continue not to need any parking at all.
The proposed changes do not deal with single-family dwellings, duplexes, townhouses, or converted dwellings, all of which will continue to require two parking spaces per unit. They would only apply to apartment buildings, mixed-use buildings, and accessory dwelling units. Rather than specifying the number of spaces per unit, the Planning Department suggests that factors such as proximity and connectivity to public transit, proximity to downtown, availability of public, shared, or on-street parking, and lease restrictions be considered. Pollack noted that, in the past, the ZBA has required one parking space per bedroom. She said she likes the referral to “connectivity” because it takes into account existing sidewalks and crosswalks, and could encourage developers to create sidewalks.
She also noted that Finance Director Sean Mangano is forming a parking group to implement the goals of the 2019 Downtown Parking Study and to update parking permit regulations.
McGowan criticized the proposed changes to the bylaw amendments as “vague” and said she cannot understand why they apply to apartments and mixed-use buildings but not to converted dwellings and duplexes. She also wants more data to support the adequacy of the listed factors in assuring adequate parking for residents. MacDougall also wants more specification, especially with regard to lot coverage and paving materials.
Pollack said that the Planning Department and Planning Board have not discussed duplexes and converted dwellings, so they are not included in these recommendations. She said that the proposed changes give a basis for discussion and allow developers to present their rationale for providing whatever amount of parking they propose for new construction. Also, both the PB and ZBA have the discretionary ability to require a peer review if they feel the parking is not adequate.
Chao said she likes these proposed changes because they relieve developers from giving up so much valuable real estate and using it for parking, instead of housing. She said developers will figure out what works for them. (Note: This has not been the case with recent downtown building projects.)
Marshall felt these changes would not reduce the amount of time the PB spent in deliberation over parking, but should reduce the need for waivers. He said “the need for waivers” indicates a problem with the underlying zoning regulations.
Pam said that this plan for parking can work if we are only providing housing for students who can bike to the university and purchase permits for on-campus parking , but it gives the message that Amherst does not want families, or seniors, who need cars to live here. She also said the town could face accusations of discrimination if people who qualify for affordable housing downtown cannot afford to pay to park there.
Janet Keller argued for additional firm guidelines, such as at least one parking place per unit plus spaces for visitors. She reiterated that young families usually need cars.
Proposed Changes Along North Pleasant And Triangle Streets
There is no public hearing currently scheduled for zoning changes in the B-L district, but the Planning Department has been working on plans to encourage more residential units to be built in the areas of the district close to downtown. It is proposing two overlay districts 100 feet in depth, one along North Pleasant Street from Cowles Lane to McClellan Street and one along Triangle and East Pleasant Street.
Currently, the small lot sizes prevent new residential developments in those areas because of dimensional requirements. The proposed guidelines would relax the dimensional guidelines in the overlay zones and permit four-story multi-unit buildings or apartments in those areas, as long as setbacks between 10 and 25 feet are met (depending on the street). Current guidelines limit building height to either 35 feet or three stories. The existing guidelines for height and required extra lot size per unit would apply behind the 100-foot overlay district, where the B-L abuts the adjacent general residence district.
The proposed changes also create a Project Open Space requirement for all new buildings in the overlay districts, so that they cannot occupy 100 percent of the lot. Space must be left for gardens, seating, playgrounds, artwork, or other uses. The Planning Department said it is not ready to recommend design standards or parking requirements.
McGowan noted that a previous analysis of a similar proposal showed that the maximum unit counts would allow too much density for this area, especially if adjacent lots were combined. She said she would also like some incentives to preserve the historic buildings along North Pleasant Street, for example by encouraging developers to add onto the buildings rather than raze them and build new.
Malloy said that this plan was developed using the recommendations from discussions of 40R overlays in 2018 and 2019, but scaling back the recommendations for density and increasing setbacks and open space. Brestrup said the CRC has reviewed these suggestions and does not need further discussion, but the Planning Board has not reviewed the latest version.
Pam was pleased that many of the elements that had been eliminated from the mixed-use building and apartment proposals in the previous iteration, such as open spaces and setbacks, have been restored in this plan.
Muspratt questioned why business is not mentioned in this proposal, since the B-L zone is a transitional zone with the purpose of encouraging smaller businesses near residential areas. She also said she would like to see plans of how a four-story, 51-foot high building would look in relation to the surrounding areas.
Pollack said that the maximum building coverage in the B-L is 35 percent, much less than the 95 percent allowed in the BG district.
Expansion of Parking at Atkinson Family Practice Approved
Without discussion or objection, the Planning Board approved a proposal for Dr. Katherine Atkinson to purchase 0.8 acres of the lot adjoining her medical office building on Research Drive for additional parking. No vote was taken.
The Planning Board will hold a Public Hearing in conjunction with the CRC on July 21 to discuss proposed changes to the zoning bylaw on apartment buildings, mixed-use buildings, and parking requirements for new building projects.