Planning Board Recommends Rezoning Of Town Lot Behind CVS For New Parking Garage

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Report On The Meeting Of The Planning. Board, October 20, 2021, Part 2

This meeting took place over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here

The packet for the meeting can be read here. 

Present

Planning Board members: Doug Marshall (Chair), Jack Jemsek, Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann. MacDougall arrived at 9 p.m.

Planning staff: Chris Brestrup, Nate Malloy, Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler

Rezoning Town Lot Behind CVS For Parking Garage
At their September 29 and October 6 meetings, the Planning Board heard the Planning Department’s preliminary plan to create a one-parcel overlay district, in the town-owned parking lot behind CVS, that could only be used for a parking facility. Planner Nate Malloy presented an update on the proposed overlay district with the proper language for the Zoning Bylaw and specified standards and conditions. The Community Resources Committee (CRC) is planning to hold a public hearing on the topic on October 26 at 2 p.m.

Malloy described the current parking lot as 0.68 acres that is 97% paved containing 73 parking spaces. The only setback is on North Prospect Street; the other three sides of the lot are the CVS lot, the parking for St. Brigid’s church, and a small parking lot belonging to Barry Roberts. 

The proposed zoning changes are to Article 2.04 of the Zoning Bylaw pertaining to special districts and Article 3.23 pertaining to use. The proposed overlay district would have its own dimensional standards as opposed to using the standards for the General Residence (RG) zone in Article 6, Table 3. 

The allowed building coverage would be 90% and the lot coverage 95%. The maximum height allowed would be 40 feet, not including rooftop mechanicals. For clarification, Malloy said that each sloped level of parking would be about 10 to 12 feet in height (7 or 8 feet of headroom and 3 feet of structural support), so only three stories would be allowed to meet the allowable height, though there could be a fourth level on the rooftop. 

An applicant wanting to construct the garage would need to present the design, dimensions, number of parking spaces, and a traffic study of surrounding streets. Other conditions are spelled out in the proposed amendment.

Board member Janet McGowan asked if any massing study had been done to see what an allowable structure would look like in relation to the buildings around it. Planning Director Chris Brestrup said such a study would take several days of staff time, and is not necessary at this preliminary stage. She said Malloy had shown how a parking garage the size of the one in Greenfield would look superimposed on the site at the last meeting. 

Maria Chao said that the conditions in the proposed amendment require a developer to do usage and traffic studies and present an appropriate design. She said, “Zoning doesn’t design buildings, it just provides a guide.” Thom Long also said he thinks the detailed standards and conditions are  adequate. Johanna Neumann said she is still not convinced that a parking garage is necessary, but feels that if it was, the lot behind CVS was the best place for it, and that  the conditions spell out what needs to be considered. (See pages 51-56 of the packet)

McGowan remained dissatisfied with the proposed amendment. She wanted to know if CVS and St. Brigid’s had been informed that a parking garage could be built right up to the property lines of  their parking lots. Brestrup said that all abutters within 300 feet had received notice of the CRC hearing that will take place next week. 

McGowan was also worried about the impact a garage would have on the surrounding streets. She sent a list of 10 additional conditions that she believes would allay the concerns of many abutters. These are:

  1. A total height of 40 feet, including mechanicals and solar panels (an elevator tower can be taller if not near North Prospect Street);
  2. Include a study of the CVS lot, the town lot on Amity Street, and the Bank of America and Peoples Bank lots to give developers the option to use other lots or several lots to make a more functional garage;
  3. Require a solid façade on any aspect of the garage that fronts a residential street;
  4. Require the solid façade to reflect the character of the historic district it fronts;
  5. Require cars to exit only on main arteries (North Pleasant and Amity Street);
  6. Create a year-round screen of evergreen trees;
  7. Require minimum side and rear setbacks of 10 feet;
  8.  Reserve at least 50% of spaces for short-term parking until 10 p.m.
  9. Require the project to obtain a Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, not approval by Site Plan Review;
  10. Avoid excessive curb cuts.

Although Jack Jemsek thought McGowan’s conditions made some very good points that the Planning Department should consider, Malloy thought many were more appropriate for a Request for Proposals (RFP) than a zoning bylaw. He said the required parking plan would specify the number of long-term and short-term spaces and noted that putting a solar canopy on a garage would add 10 to 12 feet of height, limiting the structure to less than three stories if the mechanicals figured into the maximum height.

Long noted that the site is already a parking lot, so there is already noise and lights from cars entering and exiting. Chao disagreed with changing approval of a garage to Special Permit, which provides more detailed review by the town, and with adding setback requirements.

Public Comment
Whereas the first presentation of the overlay district to the Planning Board on September 29 drew several comments in favor of the parking garage from downtown businesses, subsequent meetings have aired the concerns of the public, including many of the residents of nearby neighborhoods.

Harry Peltz, who lives in the condominiums across the street from the parking lot, was concerned that the idea of a parking garage was being pushed by two town councilors who are up for reelection. He said he went to Greenfield to see the parking garage of comparable size to the one that could be built on this site and noted that the Greenfield structure is located in an area of parking lots and large buildings, and is  not near any residential areas.

Bob Pam, who lives on Amity Street and is a Jones Library trustee, said that with the proposed Jones Library expansion, the only access for construction vehicles would be through the town parking lot proposed for the garage, so nothing could be built at that site for at least three years. He also wanted to make sure that a garage would not be visible from Amity Street. And he was concerned that people would park all day for free in the CVS lot, rather than pay the fees for a garage, thus impacting the ability of CVS patrons to find parking. He did worry about people leaving the proposed Drake music venue at 1 a.m. and disturbing the neighborhood.

Rani Parker pointed out that none of the Planning Board members live anywhere near the proposed site for a garage. She said she believed Councilors George Ryan (District 3) and Evan Ross (District 4) when they originally said that a  garage would be only three stories high including rooftop parking, but now the talk is of a five level structure.

Speaking as a resident of District 3, Councilor Dorothy Pam said it took so much work to develop the historic neighborhood around North Prospect Street. She asked why the town would trust private money to determine if a garage is “worthwhile” to build. She said the current surface lot is not fully used and that the town would forgo the annual $30,000 to $50,000 in parking revenues it currently receives from the lot, if a private developer were to build a garage there.

Jennifer Taub said that the creation of the overlay zone seems like a response to public concerns, but she pointed out that the proposed parking overlay district conditions are now taller and larger than those in the original plan. She believes the neighbors deserve the care that approval by Special Permit, rather than that which a Site Plan review, would give. She also disagreed with Long about noise from the current lot. She said the lot is not noisy now because almost no one parks there, especially at night.

Kitty Axelson-Berry pointed out that the last parking study commissioned by the town, in 2019, said that a parking garage should be the last resort to address parking in town. There were many suggestions in that study that have yet to be discussed publicly, much less implemented, such as providing adequate (wayfinding) signage ,  using lots owned by businesses  that are unused during peak visitor times, and decreasing the excess space of existing parking spots in town, many of which could be two feet shorter. She agreed with Neumann that she is not convinced another garage is needed, and suggested that the actual need for additional parking be studied or that the town should pay attention to the recent study. She also suggested that if a parking facility is needed, the best location or locations should be determined. 

Jay Silverstein shared some calculations to show that a garage would produce a small number of additional spaces if nearby on-street parking were removed in order to accommodate it. He said the Planning Board was not listening to the concerns of residents.

Suzannah Muspratt wanted to know why the proposed overlay zone uses the height allowed in the RG zone, but not the setbacks. 

Jemsek said that there is a perception of a lack of parking in the downtown, but the matter does need a closer look. 

McGowan wondered what the rush is to push this zoning change through, since no garage can even be built for the next several years if the library construction is ongoing..

Chair Doug Marshall said that this zoning change to permit construction of a parking garage is an incremental step, not a decision to build a garage. Any developer who wanted to build, he said, would have to study the financial feasibility and do a traffic study. The public would have a chance for  input when the request for proposals is formulated.

The Planning Board voted 5-1 to recommend the zoning change to the full council for a vote, and the public hearing about the parking district was closed. McGowan voted no.

New Guidelines For Mixed-use Buildings Presented
At its August 18 meeting, the Planning Board had voted to recommend a revision of the standards for mixed-use buildings, but the Planning Department is now proposing additional changes in order to satisfy concerns of the CRC. Because more than 90 days has elapsed since the July 21 public hearing, the CRC is required to hold another public hearing which will take place on October 26, after the hearing for the parking overlay zone. 

The updates to the original proposal are in the Planning Board packets for September 1 and 14 (see pp.42-43), but were not discussed at those meetings.

The proposal that had been recommended by the Planning Board required that a minimum of 40% of the first-floor space in a mixed-use building be devoted to nonresidential use. The CRC, however, wanted clarity about allowing the nonresidential space to be split between more than one building in a multi-building development and not to have to be located on the first floor. 

The new, revised amendment presented by Nate Malloy specifies a minimum of 30%, rather than 40%, of the first floor of a mixed-use building be used for commercial purposes. It also clarifies that common space, such as hallways and elevators that are used for residential purposes or a combination of residential and non-residential purposes, would not be considered  in the 30%.  Thus, Malloy said, the 30% requirement would not be much of a decrease in the amount of footage dedicated to commercial use. The new amendment does require that the “predominant” area facing the street must be active nonresidential use. 

McGowan said she finds the new language confusing and unclear.. She doesn’t agree with the reduction of nonresidential use from 40% to 30%. In fact, she would prefer a 60% minimum. She said if someone wants to add a rooftop bar, it should stand on its own merit and not count toward the total commercial space in a mixed-use building. She would like most of the street level to be commercial.

Brestrup said that the new proposal is in response to Business Improvement District Executive Director Gabrielle Gould’s concern  tha  buildings would not be able to fill the 40% commercial space.

Other Planning Board members also voiced concern with the significant changes in the proposed regulation.. Andrew MacDougall said the new version seems “like it is moving away from the idea of a vibrant downtown.” Chao said that if the 30% nonresidential could be split over more than one floor, a line of ATMs could satisfy the requirement that the street-facing area be  commercial, while an office could be located on the second floor to satisfy the requirements. 

Marshall thought the wording is too vague. He also thought distributing the non-residential use between more than one floor would detract from having an active street front. Long agreed and said he would rather have the zoning amendment specify that the nonresidential requirement be on the first floor and changes would require a waiver.

Malloy pointed out that the Planning Board did not need to come to an agreement at this meeting since  substantial changes had been made to the previous proposal. He said he would take the comments made at this meeting and then bring the proposal back for discussion on November 3. The “fuzzy language,” he said, was meant to give applicants some “flexibility.” Brestrup said that perhaps the flexibility could be gained by requiring a Special Permit for a change in location of nonresidential space. Marshall thought that this change might allay some of the concerns of the Planning Board.

In public comment, Pam Rooney agreed with MacDougal, Marshall, and Chao that the changes were going in the wrong direction for promoting a vibrant downtown. But developer John Wrobeleski pointed out that most of the discussion about mixed-use buildings has been focused on the downtown area, where there is a lot of foot traffic, but in  developments such as Center East Commons at 462 Main Street, not many people walk by. Offices in residential areas might prefer a back entrance close to parking.

The proposed amendments to the mixed-use building  bylaw will again be discussed at the November 3 Planning Board meeting, along with the proposed parking bylaw changes.

Parking Lot Approved For Podick and Cole Conservation Area
Building Commissioner Rob Morra presented a plan for creating a 13-space gravel parking lot with two accessible spaces at the Podick and Cole conservation area to the west of Route 116 in North Amherst (see pages 48-51 of the packet). This is part of the Conservation Commission’s plan to improve safety and access to trails in Amherst. This parking lot will be similar to the one created at the Sweet Alice trailhead off of Bay Road. Morra said the town hopes to complete the construction this fall. There will be two informational kiosks and a sign at the entrance to the lot on Route 116.

Marshall and MacDougall of the Planning Board and Brestrup of the Planning Department did a site visit. The Design Review Board unanimously approved the plans, as did the Planning Board at this meeting. 

Minutes Approved To Respond To Open Meeting Law Complaints
The Planning Board is working to produce the 13 sets of missing minutes cited in three recent Open Meeting Law complaints. Drafts of minutes are being posted on the website. At this meeting, the board approved minutes from July 7 (with edits on page 9), August 4, August 25, September 1, and October 6. McGowan pointed out that the discussion of zoning amendments at the July 14 meeting was not reflected sufficiently in the minutes.  She will add more information from the transcript and bring the minutes back to be approved at the November 3 meeting.

Archipelago Investments Requests Another Extension Of Subdivision Plan for 11-15 East Pleasant Street
At the August 25 Planning Board meeting, Archipelago Investments proposed creating a subdivision at 11-15 East Pleasant Street, site of the proposed five-story mixed-use building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street. They are now requesting an extension of the 45-day approval deadline until December 1. Although Brestrup said Archipelago is a long way from starting construction at 11-13 East Pleasant Street, this subdivision proposal, if approved, would protect the company from having to comply with zoning changes now being proposed.

The Planning Board unanimously granted the extension.

Large Solar Array Proposed For Woodlands In Northeast Amherst
The ZBA will soon receive a proposal to develop a solar array on almost 100 acres of forest land owned by WD Cowls in the northeast corner of town. The land is currently a working forest, and the project would involve cutting down trees. There are also wetlands in the area, so it would need a permit from the Conservation Commission. The project will extend into Shutesbury.

Planning Board members expressed an interest in weighing in on the project when more is known. No date has been set for the ZBA hearing as yet.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:15 p.m. The next meeting will be on November 3 at 6:30 p. m.

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3 thoughts on “Planning Board Recommends Rezoning Of Town Lot Behind CVS For New Parking Garage

  1. Comparison with the parking structure in Greenfield is interesting not only in terms of appearance, but also of function: it’s part of a multimodal transportation center — named in honor of our former member in the U.S. House of Representatives, John Olver, who championed environmentally-friendly alternative transportation around the nation in his time chairing a key subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee — and the parking structure located right at the Greenfield AMTRAK and commuter rail station!

    Will Amherst aim to offer the same kind transportation alternatives to its residents — including the tens of thousands of students who otherwise need to bring their own cars to campus — connecting us with other places by passenger rail in the near future?

    Specifically, if the proposed location has been deemed “best” for parking, then planners need to explain how will it accommodate folks who might once again use the (still-active freight, and until-recently passenger) rail line through Amherst, continuing to Palmer and connecting with the east-west “inland-route” joining Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, New York and beyond?

    The historic brick Amherst Station is many blocks away down Main Street from the proposed parking garage site between N. Prospect and N. Pleasant Streets — a very pleasant walk in nice weather, but a rather dim prospect for encouraging alternative transportation.

    How could Amherst Center and the rail line through be be better connected to enable and encourage the use of alternative transportation (like passenger rail) by both residents of and visitors to Amherst?

    There was once the trolley line along N. Pleasant, and another along Main Street and Pelham Road. A subway extending the rail line through Amherst Center, then on to UMass, is also fun to imagine and has been done elsewhere (the underground Red Line through Cambridge to Alewife wasn’t there 4 decades ago), but would be expensive and technically challenging, even if that might offer the “friendliest” way to connect in the long run….

    Are private developers of the proposed garage also prepared to pay for any of these future “connection” costs? If not, we will once again be in a situation where narrowly-focused short-term benefits will be “privatized” while the overall long-term costs will be “socialized” — paid for by “the next generation”….

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