Council Reviews Master Plan. Considers Design For Band Shell On The South Common

Architects rendering of the proposed Amherst Performance Shell. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council Meeting, September 27, 2021

Highlights

  • Primer and public forum on the Master Plan
  • Concern expressed about unruly students in the neighborhoods surrounding UMass
  • Design for performance shell on the South Common unveiled
  • Council approves Amherst College wayfinding signs, but defers discussion of gateway sign
  • Comprehensive Housing Policy accepted
  • Action on some zoning amendments postponed

This is one of two articles on the September 27 council meeting. The meeting took place over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

New to public comment at this meeting was the ability to see the faces of those offering comments, and Council President Lynn Griesemer asking them to state their preferred pronouns.

Present 
Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg (At large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont (District 5). Absent: Sarah Swartz (District 1)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Primer And Public Forum On The Master Plan
A presentation and public forum on the Master Plan is required annually by the Amherst Home Rule Charter. Amherst’s Master Plan was created between 2006 and 2010 with input from hundreds of residents. It was approved by the Planning Board in 2010 and by the Town Council in 2020. The council’s goal is to revise the plan by 2030. Planning Director Chris Brestrup gave a presentation on the history and substance of the Master Plan in the hour preceding the regular Town Council meeting. The presentation can be viewed here.

Few members of the public commented on the Master Plan during the public forum. Mary Sayer pointed out that the Master Plan encourages public input, but it seems that that input is often ignored. She said that Town Meeting allotted money to study placing sidewalks on East Pleasant Street several years ago, but the study has not been done. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the contract for doing that study is going out to bid this year.

Suzannah Muspratt noted that many of the zoning amendments now being considered influence each other, and should be considered as a whole to determine how they would help achieve the goals of the Master Plan. Kitty Axelson-Berry asked whether the Master Plan says anything, and if so what,   about plans related to students living off campus, and how the town should handle housing in town for UMass students. Brestrup said the plan talks about the need for dialogue between the town and UMass but nothing specific. She added that “the town can talk to UMass but we don’t have control over UMass — all we have is the ‘charm of persuasion,’ I guess.”  Bockelman added that  the town has a weekly  “on-call Monday” meeting with UMass officials, including the dean of students. The focus is on police, fire, and inspections. “They go through everything that happened over the weekend and develop a strategy for any intervention they want to do.” They especially look at repeat  offender households, he said. He also meets weekly with a representative from the university  specifically about Covid-19,  sharing information about case counts at the university and in the town and steps they are both taking to address it. 

Beginning in the public forum and continuing into public comment in the regular council meeting were complaints by several residents living near UMass about unruly, noisy undergraduates parading up North Pleasant Street, underage drinking, and noisy parties. Susan Jahoda wrote to the town after her house was broken into by a student looking for a nearby party. Tom Randall and Becky Miller said the situation is worse this year than in the past, possibly due to two classes experiencing their first year on campus (because  on-campus enrollment was limited last year). They wanted to know why fines for noise and related violations do not seem to be levied as they were in past years, and asked whether names of offending students were reported to the university. Bockelman said he would engage in discussion with Jahoda about the break-in and the town’s response.

Design For Performance Shell On South Common
In 2017, the Business Improvement District held a contest for the design of a performance shell on the South Common. A band shell was included in the original design of the South Common by Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Business Improvement District (BID) organization determined that it would be an important improvement over the temporary stages used for various performances on the common. The performance shell was presented as part of the BID’s Destination Amherst plan.

A seven-member committee chose a design by local architects Naomi Darling and Ray K. Mann from the 15 designs submitted. The architects presented their design along with BID Executive Director Gabrielle Gould and selection committee member and architect John Kuhn. The presentation can be viewed here. Mann and Darling’s design is a folded plate wood structure, with a roof sloping so rainwater would drain. Arcing walking paths around the shell would allow for transporting equipment for performances. The stage is 24 feet deep and 28 feet wide, large enough to accommodate a small orchestra, theater performances, and dance groups. The architects had the plans reviewed by a structural engineering firm for evaluation of its acoustics and stability. The engineers stressed the importance of musicians being able to hear themselves.

Gould maintained that arts are an economic driver for the town. She noted that the recent UMass wind ensemble performance on the common drew an audience of over 400, and  the town was full as were most restaurants. She looked forward to having many more such programs.

Discussion
Although the councilors praised the design, they had concerns about some associated matters. Hanneke wondered about a maintenance fund and who would control it. She also said the council would need to modify its policy for reserving the common for events. Currently the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) must examine all such requests, which then must be approved by the full Town Council, but the council cannot deal with the possible 200 requests per year after the performance shell is built.

Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) noted that more maintenance and clean up would be needed if there are  more events on the common. Steinberg worried about vandalism. Gould said that the Downtown Arts Foundation (DAF) is working with a lighting designer to provide lighting that can be removed after a performance, with equipment being stored in a van off-site. Performances would be weather dependent and would be cancelled in the event of storms. In response to Councilor Cathy Schoen’s (District 1) concerns about weather damage and graffiti, Mann noted that wood finishes are durable and easy to maintain.

Brewer said that if the DAF decided it needed a permanent structure on the common to store equipment, it should notify the TSO sooner rather than later. Kuhn said that portable toilets would probably be placed for large events, but there would be no permanent restrooms. He said that since for 95% of the time, the performance shell would not be in use, it should be something beautiful.

Griesemer asked if the back of the structure could be open. Darling said that she and Mann initially considered that, but the acoustic engineer said that the back is important for the acoustics. Mann noted that the back of the shell doesn’t actually sit on the ground. 

The council voted 12-0 to refer the plans to TSO for a report back to the council on December 6.

Wayfinding Signs For Amherst College

Councilors Alisa Brewer and Andy Steinberg (at large) felt that this prime location should not be given to the college without the town receiving something in return, such as use of college parking lots on evenings and weekends.


At its September 23 meeting, the Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO) approved 14 of the 15 proposed signs to be placed on town public ways to direct visitors to various locations on the Amherst College campus. TSO was deadlocked, with a 2-2 vote, on whether the large gateway sign on Route 9 and South Pleasant Street should be approved. Councilors Alisa Brewer and Andy Steinberg (at large) felt that this prime location should not be given to the college without the town receiving something in return, such as use of college parking lots on evenings and weekends. In response to their concerns, representatives of the college Tom Davies and Seth Wilschutz asked the council to postpone the decision on that one sign.

Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke wanted to know the gist of the TSO discussion, and said that TSO had referred the matter to the full council for a decision, but Amherst College has only heard from the four members of TSO present at the meeting. She said some of the topics discussed had nothing to do with signage. For instance Steinberg mentioned Amherst College’s purchase of the adjacent Page Chevrolet dealership made it unavailable for development of housing.  Brewer said that since the request was postponed, there was no reason to rehash the TSO discussion. TSO Chair Evan Ross (District 4), who supported the sign during the TSO meeting, admitted that it is a significant request for the town to allow Amherst College branding on a primary intersection in town without any discussion of compensation for the town. Davies and Wilschutz had no comment. The other 14 signs were approved unanimously.

Climate Action, Adaptation, And Resilience Plan
The council acknowledged receipt of the Climate Action and Resilience Plan(CAARP) presented by the Energy and Climate Action Committee by a unanimous vote. The council directed the town manager to give quarterly updates on the town’s progress toward meeting the climate goals adopted by the council in 2019, which stipulate a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The vote to require the quarterly reports was 10-2, with Hanneke and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) voting no.

Comprehensive Housing Policy Accepted
Hanneke recommended approval of the much amended Comprehensive Housing Policy drafted by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) with referral to the town manager and CRC for implementation.

Schoen criticized a new paragraph that had been added to the first page of the draft stating that “restrictions aimed at preserving agricultural and open space” contribute to the challenge to Amherst’s quality of life. She said that one of the goals of the Master Plan is to preserve agricultural and open space, so it should not be referred to as having a negative impact on our quality of life. Ryan countered that open space “is not as important” as having a diverse, inclusive community. Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) suggested changing the wording from “quality of life” to “availability of housing.” This change passed 8-4 (Hanneke, DeAngelis, Ryan, and Steve Schreiber, District 4, voting no)

Schoen also suggested removing Appendix A, the implementation strategies, from the document to allow for more discussion of the diverse strategies proposed. Griesemer pointed out that each proposed strategy is listed as “possible” and that none are specifically endorsed. The motion to remove Appendix A was defeated 3-9 (Schoen, Pam, and DuMont voting yes). The entire Comprehensive Housing policy passed 11-1, with DuMont voting no.

Successor Committee For The Community Safety Working Group
As the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) winds up their charge with their final report to the Town Council scheduled for October 25, the committee is anxious to establish a permanent successor committee. The proposal for this successor committee, submitted by the CSWG suggests that the successor committee will be called the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and will have seven members, the majority who will be from the BIPOC community. The members will be selected by the Town Manager. 

There was a discussion on whether the committee should be a “town manager committee” or a “Town Council committee.” Hanneke pointed out that even though members would be appointed by the town manager either way, the councilors would write the charge if it were a council committee. Bockelman said a Town Council committee would seem to have greater importance. It could not be disbanded by the town manager. 

Griesemer urged the council to wait to discuss the matter until the October 4 meeting when members of the CSWG will present their vision for the new committee.

Action On Several Zoning Amendments Postponed
In her report on the CRC, Hanneke said that it had become clear after discussions with the Planning Department that not all of the recently proposed zoning amendments will be ready to come to the council for a vote within the 90 days after the July 21 public hearing. Thus, new public hearings will need to be held on proposed amendments regarding mixed-use buildings, parking, accessibility, and rezoning of the town lot behind CVS. When Brewer questioned why the 90-day period had expired, something that she didn’t recall ever happening before, Hanneke said that lots of questions arose about these amendments and it was hard to coordinate all of the information within the 90 days mandated by state law. Note that the public hearing on July 21 dealt with four amendments and lasted for 6 hours.

Council Begins Town Manager Performance Evaluation
The council will begin soliciting input from staff, committee chairs, and the general public on the town manager’s performance. They hope to finish the evaluation by late November or early December with formulation of goals for the upcoming year. Brewer objected to the short time frame so late in the year.

On-line Public Comments 
Residents are now invited to submit comments to the council electronically here.

Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe will confirm the submission and then upload the comments to the main Town Council page, so they will be available for the public to read. She will scan them for inappropriate comments. Bahl-Milne suggested that O’Keeffe add tags to make sorting by topic easier.

And Liaisons To The African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA)
DeAngelis and Brewer were appointed as liaisons to the African Heritage Reparations Assembly.

The meeting adjourned at 12 a.m.

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