Packed Agenda For Public Hearing On Zoning Prohibits Full Discussion

Architect's rendering of proposed apartment building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street viewed from west. 1 East Pleasant Street is pictured to the south (right). Photo: Amherst Planning Department

Report On The Joint Meeting of the Planning Board and Community Resources Committee, July 21, 2021

This meeting was conducted over Zoom and can be viewed here. 

Highlights

  • Public hearings held for proposed zoning changes regarding apartments, mixed-use buildings, accessory dwelling units, and parking
  • Archipelago proposes change in application to avoid having to comply with new zoning changes for mixed-use buildings

Present
Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann Absent: Maria Chao 

Community Resource Committee (CRC) members: Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair), Dorothy Pam, Evan Ross, and Shalini Bahl-Milne. Absent: Steve Schreiber

Planning Staff: Chris Brestrup, Maureen Pollack, Ben Breger, and Nate Malloy. Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler

Jemsek ceded the chairing of the meeting to Hanneke. The presentations can be viewed in the Planning Board packet here

This meeting was scheduled as a public hearing on four zoning amendments. Each amendment was scheduled for a half hour discussion, but even with much more time being allotted, two of the hearings were closed while significant concerns remained unaddressed.

Almost two hours into this five-hour meeting, Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) expressed her frustration. She asked, “What is the point of a public hearing? Is it just ‘Oh we have to do it, we’re required to do it. Okay we did it. Now we can go on and do something else. …. As a CRC member, I don’t know the impact of these changes… They could lead to mega apartment buildings downtown. Do we want to do that? Why do we have to pave the path to allow that …We ask the public to come to these meetings. They come, they try to keep up, they speak, and then we say “done” and move on.  We have so many questions that aren’t answered. If we are doing this for real, we should do it for real. If it’s just pro forma, let me know.” 

Below is a report on this far-ranging and long public hearing on four proposed zoning changes.

New Requirements For Apartment Buildings
Apartment buildings are currently limited to 24 units. The Planning Department is recommending lifting this cap entirely.  The department is also recommending that in apartment buildings containing over 10 units, no more than half of the units can have the same number of bedrooms. Apartments would be able to be approved with a Site Plan Review in the village centers, but would require a Special Permit in the general business zone (B-G). 

Due to the existing limit on the number of units allowed in apartment buildings, many developers have chosen to avoid this restriction by building mixed-use buildings, which have no such cap. Because dimensional requirements for lot size, building coverage, and open space in each district would still apply, this amendment would primarily affect the B-G and business village center (B-VC) districts.

Staff member Maureen Pollack offered the example of the lot containing Ren’s Mobil gas station and the vacant lot behind it, comprising a total of 0.8 acres. That lot could contain a five-story apartment building with 90 units. The parcel containing the Typewriter shop and the Knights of Columbus building could hold a maximum of 25 units, while meeting the dimensional standards in Article 6, Table 3 of the zoning bylaw.

Janet McGowan and Dorothy Pam said they worried that removing the cap on the number of units in apartment buildings could make it more lucrative to build apartments downtown, as opposed to elsewhere and that this could further erode existing businesses in the downtown. They mentioned that footnote “a”of the dimensional table is a loophole for developers to get around the required building, lot, and open space requirements of various districts. 

In public comment, Hilda Greenbaum pointed that with this bylaw change, it would be easier to get approval for an apartment building of three or more units than a non-owner occupied duplex, and that may encourage people to tear down older buildings, rather than remodel them as duplexes.  Pollack pointed out that every building over 50 years old must be reviewed by the Historical Commission for a possible demolition delay, so the older buildings may be protected.

Elizabeth Vierling pointed out that the proposed 100 foot overlay district in the limited business zone would also permit construction of large apartment buildings of four stories in those transitional zones. The overlay proposal was discussed at the July 14 Planning Board meeting, but not in this public hearing.

Councilor Cathy Schoen suggested that there be a variable cap on the number of units per building according to zoning district.

There were many concerns about this amendment, which has only been publicly discussed by the Planning Board at their July 14 Planning Board meeting. Andrew MacDougall said he would like more time to consider the impact of the changes. He and McGowan wanted to continue the hearing at a later date, but Doug Marshall and Johanna Neumann (who was not present at the July 14 discussion) moved to close the hearing. The vote was 4-2 to close the hearing with McGowan and McDougall dissenting. The CRC voted 3-1 to close its hearing, with Pam voting no.

The Planning Board and CRC will deliberate on the amendment at a future time and will send their recommendations to the Town Council within 21 days. If the Council does not receive a recommendation within 21 days, it can proceed without it. The council has 90 days to vote on the amendment. If it does not, it must hold another public hearing.

Mixed-use Buildings (Article 3, Section 3.325)
Unlike the existing regulations for apartment buildings, the current bylaw concerning mixed-use buildings has few standards. This has resulted in buildings being constructed with as little as 2% nonresidential space on the first floor. The proposed amendment gives standards for first floor use and provides a definition of mixed-use buildings as those containing at least one dwelling unit and commercial space. The proposal specifies a minimum of 40% nonresidential use on the first floor of a mixed-use building. Residential use includes storage, elevators, parking, and incidental space. Also, the Design Review Board would review all plans for mixed-use buildings no matter where they are located. And, as with apartments, buildings with more than 10 residential units would need diversity in the number of bedrooms per unit.

Staff member Nate Malloy said that a 2018 Pioneer Valley Planning Commission report found a demand in Amherst for retail uses, such as clothing, health and personal care, boutique grocery, and general merchandise stores. The Planning Department hopes to encourage creation of these businesses. He said it would be difficult to retrofit a building if it was not constructed with commercial space. He presented an example, simulating a design for a mixed-use building at the site of the former Bertucci’s that had 40 percent nonresidential use along East Pleasant Street (see Planning Board packet, page 27).

This bylaw proposal has been more extensively discussed than the one regarding apartments. Most of the discussion at this meeting centered around the required nonresidential space. Ross thought 40% was too high, especially in a narrow lot. He wondered if some flexibility could be built in to include use of space on other floors, such as a rooftop bar. Malloy replied that the 40% requirement could not be waived. A developer could apply for a variance, but that is a “high bar” and difficult to obtain.

Northampton, South Hadley, and Greenfield require 100% of the ground floors of mixed-use buildings in the downtown areas to be commercial, but the Planning Department felt this was too high a standard for Amherst and would discourage the construction of mixed-use buildings. Malloy said the housing market is so much stronger than the commercial market in town that we need to have minimum standards to encourage the creation of businesses.

McGowan, Pam, and several members of the public spoke in favor of increasing the minimum nonresidential area on the first floor to 60%, perhaps offering reduced rents to businesses to encourage economic diversity. Malloy said the town does not have a means to offer tax abatements or other incentives to promote retail development. 

Despite the varying opinions on the percentage of nonresidential use required, both the Planning Board and CRC voted unanimously to close the public hearings.

Accessory Dwelling Units (Article 5, Section 5.011)
The Planning Department has proposed increasing the maximum size of supplemental dwelling units from 850 to 1000 square feet and changing the term to Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). ADUs are dwelling units containing a kitchen, bath, and sleeping area built on the same lot as a single family home. They may be contained within the home, attached to it or be a separate structure. One structure must be owner-occupied. This bylaw change was previously discussed by the Planning Board at its April 14 meeting and also by the CRC, and Town Council. 

The occupancy of the ADU is capped at three unrelated persons. An ADU must conform to setbacks and lot coverage of the zoning district.  However, ADUs are exempt from the increased lot size needed for an additional dwelling unit that is required for other multifamily structures..

Another proposed change is that ADUs contained within or attached to a single-family home may be approved by the building commissioner, without referral to the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Detached ADUs are allowed by right if they are less than 50% the size of the original dwelling. If they are larger than 50% they require a Special Permit from the ZBA. This requirement exists to avoid having two single-family homes on one lot.

Several attendees noted that this latter size requirement would hurt those with smaller homes who would more likely require a Special Permit to build a detached ADU. Schoen proposed raising the limit to 75% the size of the original dwelling.

McGowan noted that allowing many ADUs to be approved without a public hearing eliminates  the need to notify abutters of the construction. She proposed an amendment to require notification of abutters prior to approval of a detached ADU. Although this amendment received favorable comments, it was not considered as part of this hearing, according to Hanneke. The public hearing on the proposed ADU zoning change was closed by unanimous votes from the Planning Board and CRC.

Parking Requirements For Apartments, Mixed-use Buildings, and ADUs (Article 7)
The Planning Board discussed this amendment proposal at its July 14 meeting. The suggested change eliminates the requirement of two parking spaces per unit and requires only “adequate” parking, based on several factors, such as proximity to public parking or transportation, on-street parking, walkability, or shared parking. The Planning Board and ZBA have the discretion to decide if a parking plan is adequate. Malloy said the Planning Department thought that two spaces per unit was not the right starting point for deliberation, and that too much valuable real estate would be devoted to parking and asphalt.

It was noted that much of the dissatisfaction over the amount of residential parking provided by multi-unit buildings has centered around those constructed in the downtown area. The downtown and part of the limited business district are in the municipal parking district where buildings are not required to provide any parking spaces. This amendment makes no change to that provision.

McGowan noted that there is already a provision for a parking waiver in the existing zoning bylaw which has been used to approve parking plans in the past.  She said she would like more data on the adequacy of parking for complexes in town to better evaluate proposals. 

Jemsek liked that plans would be reviewed on a case -by-case basis and that tenants would be aware of the availability of parking when they sign a lease. But he suggested that the town deal with the low fees it charges for residential parking permits.  Pollack said that Finance Director Sean Mangano is working on revising the permit system, and the Planning Department is planning to institute better wayfinding signs to direct visitors to the downtown area to available parking.

MacDougall wanted a framework by which to evaluate proposals. He worried that the vague guidelines for “adequate parking” would lead to everything being an exception. Pam warned against using the possibility of a new downtown parking garage as an excuse for developers not providing parking. She said if the town is serious about providing housing for people other than students, it should require parking. She suggested a minimum of one space per unit.

Ross said that tenants should know whether or not they need parking when they sign a lease, and if their needs change, then “they made a bad decision. It is part of being an adult.” Marshall said that the criteria listed in the proposed bylaw are what is currently used to evaluate projects, and that the change brings the bylaw into line with what is actually happening.

The Planning Board voted 5-1 to close the hearing with McGowan voting no. McGowan felt the proposal was incomplete and needed more data. The CRC voted 3-1 to close the hearing with Pam voting no.

The public hearings ended at 11:30 p.m. Members of the CRC and Planning Board frequently expressed fatigue and difficulty concentrating during the last hour of discussion, and the late hour limited public participation. The Planning Board will deliberate on all of the amendments within the next 21 days and send its recommendations to the CRC for it to evaluate. The council must vote on the proposed amendments within 90 days.

Changes In Plans For Proposed Archipelago Mixed-use Building At 11-13 East Pleasant
Brestrup said that Archipelago Investments, the firm proposing construction of a mixed-use building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street, has submitted a preliminary subdivision plan. This would freeze the zoning requirements they are subject to as of July 12. If accepted, this would exempt the project from the proposed changes in requirements for mixed-use buildings for required nonresidential space on the first floor. Archipelago has agreed to accommodate the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw by increasing the number of proposed units, and eliminating parking in order to create 11 affordable units out of the planned 90 total. 

The implications of this new application will be discussed at the July 28 Planning Board meeting.

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5 thoughts on “Packed Agenda For Public Hearing On Zoning Prohibits Full Discussion

  1. Staff made several false comments supporting her proposed amendments to the “apartments” regulation at this meeting, particularly
    with regard to changing the approval process for apartments in the Residential Village Center from the discretionary Special Permit to “by right” Site Plan Review. The R-VC surrounds the Business Village Center in North Amherst, Pomeroy Lane, and the historic East Street Common. Apartments in the surrounding Business Village Center will continue to require a Special Permit.

    The East Street Common was the first common in Amherst, older than the one downtown and all the houses–like North Amherst Historic District R-VC–are more than fifty years old. Please note that these houses are only protected from demolition for ONE YEAR, not in perpetuity, as staff stated incorrectly.
    Also, it was stated that the size of the lot and lot coverage govern the size of the building. Note that there is an * referring to Footnote “a ” that building and lot coverage requirements can be waived in the R-VC zone.

    Sociologists already in the 1950s had learned that garden-style apartments with much green space like those that were built here fifty years ago are preferable living spaces to tall ones. Keeping the unit cap per building at 24 units could encourage building larger three and four bedroom units for families over 90 studios and one bedrooms affordable only to foreign students.

    I also note that much of the Residential Village Center zone in North Amherst abuts permanently protected prime agricultural farmland.
    The hearing was summarily closed in the rush to pass these amendments while most residents are on vacation. Not for the first time in the City of Strehma!!
    (Amherst College announced Mr. Papparazzo’s PURD for much of East Amherst during a cocktail party in August. The public was not happy.)

  2. Strehma is that part of downtown Tsrehma that is not only backward but also out of order.

    Better to die laughing at these antics than jump off the new Puffers Bridge.

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