Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, July 28, 2021
The 158 page meeting packet can be found here.
Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann
Planning staff: Planning Director Christine Brestrup,. Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler
- The Planning Board approved the site plan reviews and special permits for the planned Archipelago Investments five-story, 90-unit mixed-use building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street, with the lot at 15 East Pleasant Street serving as a staging area for construction equipment.
- Minor alterations were approved for the mixed-use building Center East Commons at 462 Main Street.
Mixed-use Building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street
Archipelago representatives Kyle Wilson and Dave Williams, as well as their attorney, Mark Bobrowski, were present for the continuation of the public hearings on their proposed five-story mixed-use building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street, the site of the Summerlin block containing the former Cousin’s Market. Wilson did most of the presentation.
The original plans for the project were for a 55-unit building containing one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and some indoor parking spaces. With the passage of the town’s inclusionary zoning amendment requiring 12% of units in new multi-unit buildings to be affordable, the developers submitted a new plan for 90 units: 30 studios, 36 one-bedrooms, and 24 two-bedrooms. Eleven units would be affordable to those making less than 80% of area mean income. The parking was eliminated. The commercial space on the first floor would be 1,700 square feet, with 500 square feet for “back of the house”.
Since the previous hearing on June 30, Archipelago has proposed to improve the right of way along East Pleasant Street by planning to plant three trees out front, putting in a crosswalk to Kendrick Park, and creating space for a bus stop. They also plan two benches, bicycle parking loops, and pavers along the sidewalk. The changes along the street need to be approved by Town Council and the Department of Public Works.
The Design Review Board (DRB) discussed the project at its July 19 meeting. Thom Long said that the DRB, which has three architect members including Long, voted unanimously to approve the project. DRB members had positive comments about the improvements to the streetscape. However, some members were concerned about the narrow rear setback near the West cemetery, which the developer set at 10 feet instead of the 20 feet required by the town’s zoning bylaw. There were also remarks that the north façade is an “expansive” surface that would be better if broken up by some accents or variation in the facade.
Janet McGowan noted that the DRB also suggested expanding the front and south plazas.
Doug Marshall agreed that a larger area in front of the building would allow greater opportunities or outdoor dining or other communal activities. He also said that five feet of setback from the property line on the north is not enough. He was less concerned about the narrow setback from the cemetery.
Wilson replied that “no front setback from the lot line is required” by Amherst’s zoning bylaw. He noted that increasing the front plaza would reduce the number of units in the building, adding “Amherst sorely needs housing.” He said, because of an easement on the north next to People’s United Bank, the project does not need additional access on the north side. He added that Archipelago’s proposed building would be “an improvement to what is near the cemetery now.”
Like Marshall, Long expressed support for more space in front of the building so that people walking there would not feel so squeezed into the road. Most of the Planning Board members agreed that the sidewalk should be increased from six to eight feet in width, and that this could be accomplished by decreasing the area covered by pavers. Planning. Board Chair Jack Jemsek wondered if the narrow sidewalk in front of One East Pleasant could be fixed at the same time.
Andrew MacDougall said that 11 East Pleasant will be a beautiful building, and won’t look like One East Pleasant, which he called “a block of brick that you feel like you have to avoid.” He asked Wilson where he thinks residents will park. Wilson replied that tenants would have options to obtain residential town parking permits or would simply not have cars. He dismissed the issue, saying, “Housing is more important than parking.”
McGowan said she is dissatisfied with the opinion from the town attorney, Joel Bard of K-P Law, that the Planning Board has the right to approve a reduced setback from the cemetery from the required 20 feet to just 10 feet because the building currently there is non-conforming and is closer to the cemetery than 20 feet. In fact, as Chris Brestrup pointed out, the back of the Summerlin Block is between one and a half and seven feet from the cemetery border.
Section 9.22 of the zoning bylaw states that the permit granting authority “may…authorize, under a Special Permit … a non-conforming building to be structurally altered, enlarged, or reconstructed; provided that the Authority finds that such alteration, enlargement, or reconstruction shall not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood than the existing non-conforming use or non-conforming building.“
McGowan argued that replacing a small one-story building with a large five-story one considerably alters the neighborhood, and that a more substantial discussion about the degree to which it would be detrimental is in order. However, she received no support from other board members.
Archipelago attorney Mark Bobrowski told the board that planning boards are generally found to have the right to approve non-comforming projects that are larger than the existing non-comforming building they would replace. Maria Chao said that, in her experience, in many towns in the area, developers are able to change the exterior and the footprint of a new project if it is not seen as detrimental to the neighborhood, although they cannot “increase non-conformity” by building closer to neighboring properties than the existing structure.
Building Commissioner Rob Morra said he had suggested that Archipelago use section 9.22 of the zoning bylaw to gain approval when their original plans called for a five-foot setback from the cemetery. He said, “the path is there” (in the zoning bylaw) for decreasing the mandated setback.
Twelve members of the public were in attendance at this meeting. Pam Rooney, Nina Weyl, and Elizabeth Vierling expressed reservations about the large size of the building and the narrowness of the sidewalk, especially at the northwest corner of the building. Rooney questioned the narrow setback from the cemetery if it is reduced from 20 feet to only 10 feet. Vierling pointed out that although the national standard for sidewalks is eight feet wide, the space planned in front of the building is no more than in front of Archipelago’s next-door building at One East Pleasant..
Project Approved With Conditions
At 10:20 p.m. the Planning Board discussed whether to continue the hearing to the August 4 meeting or to continue with the process at this meeting. Chao, calling in from Europe, where it was 4 a.m, said she would be traveling on August 4. She said that this project is “very important” to her, and the board decided to wrap up the approval at this meeting.
The Planning Board passed the Site Plan Reviews for 11-13 East Pleasant 5-1-1 with McGowan dissenting and MacDougall abstaining because he had missed the June 28 meeting. They approved using 15 East Pleasant as a staging area 6-0-1 with MacDougall abstaining.
The modifications of the setbacks required two Special Permits. The first Special Permit that the Planning Board gave to Archipelago allows the north setback to be reduced to five feet and the height of the building to be extended from the allowed 55 feet to 57 feet. The second Special Permit given to the developer allows the setback near the cemetery to be reduced to 10 feet. Both Special Permits passed 5-1-1 with McGowan voting no and MacDougall abstaining.
Brestrup and Jemsek read the lengthy list of conditions. Both Marshall and Chao noted that approving a five foot setback to the north is ok if the easement on that side of the building remains, but could present a problem if another multi-story residential building is built at 15 East Pleasant because the windows of the two buildings could be very close to each other. Wilson said that Archipelago has “no plans” to develop 15 East Pleasant at this time.
Wilson requested extension of the construction time from 24 to 30 months. He also asked for modification of the snow removal requirement so that plowed snow does not need to be removed from the sites during and after construction.
The project would need to comply with the stretch code requirements for energy efficiency. Wilson said the plans include 95 solar panels on the west side of the roof.
Archipelago’s application for creating a subdivision for 11-15 East Pleasant was not evaluated at this meeting. Brestrup said that the project might have to comply with a proposed mixed-use building zoning amendment that would mandate that at least 40% of first-floor space be devoted for commercial use. Creating a subdivision out of the properties could actually exempt the project from that requirement.
The original proposal for the 55 unit building with indoor parking was formally withdrawn and the public hearing was closed by a unanimous vote.
Modifications To Plans For 462 Main Street
Developer of Central East Commons at 462 Main Street John Wrobeleski requested a modification of the plans approved on March 4,2020. The 24-unit mixed-use building will be ready for occupancy in mid-August. The approved plans involved constructing a storage and trash area at the rear of the adjacent office building at 442 Main Street ( “Jared Westcott house”). Wrobeleski said he now intends to demolish that building and that an inspection by Engineer Group, LLC in May of 2021 found it to be in poor condition. The Historical Commission agreed at its May 19 meeting and declined to issue a demolition delay. Therefore, Wrobeleski wishes to temporarily create a storage area by modifying the shed at the rear of the current structure rather than building a new structure that would need to be demolished in the near future. (Discussion of more complete plans, including the demolition of the Westcott House and installation of a new shed are on the agenda for the August 18 Planning Board meeting.)
The Planning Board approved this modification unanimously.
The meeting adjourned at 11:05 p.m. The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for August 4, 2021, the fifth consecutive week that the board will meet.
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