Public Hearing On Newest Zoning Amendment For Mixed-Use Buildings

Mass Mutual offices on the ground floor of Kendrick Place, a mixed-use building. Photo: Art Keene

Report On The Meeting Of The Community Resources Committee Meeting Of October 26, 2021 – Part I

The meeting was broadcast on Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here. 

Committee members: Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair, at large), Shalini Baal-Milne (District 5), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Evan Ross (District 4), Steve Schreiber (District 4)

Staff: Christine Brestrup (Planning Director), Nate Malloy (Planning Staff), Rob Morra (Building Commissioner)

The CRC is a council-committee of five town councilors appointed by the council president.

Most of this meeting was taken up by two lively public hearings on controversial proposals headed to the full council for a final vote. One would change regulations for permitting mixed-use buildings in the downtown area.The other would establish a parking overlay district on town-owned land behind CVS. (See here for Part Two

Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) explained that this would be a second hearing about permitting for mixed-use building, due to more than 90 days having elapsed since the previous hearing on July 21 Then Nate Malloy of the Planning Department proceeded to explain the current version of a recent proposal to change a number of regulations for mixed-use buildings downtown. The new version changes significant details in two areas in particular: the definition of “non-residential use” and the minimum space requirements for it, and second, where this space can be located in order to meet the minimum requirement. 

In the new version, the minimum square footage for non-residential usage is 30% of the square footage of the first or ground floor of the building, not including common (shared) and incidental space. The last version required an across-the-board 40% of the square footage of the first or ground floor. Malloy said they would amount to about the same thing, since the 40% included the common space..

What followed was an attempt to understand this and to understand what is meant by “common” or “shared” space and “incidental” space. Planning Director Christine Brestrup explained that common space is space used for residential as well as non-residential purposes, such as a shared hallway that provides access for residents to an elevator and access for a business to its rented storage room. Incidental space is space that is used solely for a business (or residents) and is part of a lease agreement, such as a rear storage area that is rented by a business.

The new version also loosened regulations about where the nonresidential space can be located to meet the minimum requirement for non-residential usage. The previous version said it had to be on the ground floor and be public-facing or front-facing, that is, facing a public way or area because the main purpose of mixed-use buildings is to enhance the vitality of the downtown. The new version says it can be located anywhere in the building or in one or more nearby buildings in a multi-building complex if the developer is given permission by the PGA (permit granting authority, designated on a case-by-case basis by the building commissioner). The space would not have to be on the first or ground floor or public-facing or clearly available to the public. 

Committee member Dorothy Pam was concerned that this goes against the purpose of mixed-use buildings. “I think we have a problem here in trying to make it easier for individual developers, by giving more flexibility, by lowering the percentage [and location] required for non-residential use,” she said. “We’re not thinking about the whole thing, and the whole is that you want a lot of small and medium businesses for shopping, eating, whatever, right near each other. You want a place where people are on their feet, where people are walking, maybe looking for something but then they find things they weren’t looking for because they’re right there next to each other. But if some of it is on the second floor [in the interior of the building] or in the back or wherever it is, you just lose that sense of a place where you can walk and shop.”

She also pointed out that diagrams just presented to the committee seemed to show what 30% of a floor’s square footage would look like, but actually showed what 50% percent would look like. Malloy responded that the drawings are only an example and illustrate differences between common, incidental, and non-residential spaces. He also said it’s possible that someone might want more than 30% non-residential space on a floor.

Committee member Shalini Bahl-Milne pointed out that downtown Amherst is small and lacks space for businesses. “Why not more than 30% for non-residential uses?” she asked. “How did you arrive at that 30%? Why not 40% plus the common spaces?” Malloy responded that “We spoke with the BID and the Chamber, and looking at previous developments, many struggle to even get 30% of floor area, so 40% excluding common areas would be a stretch. We were told that’s actually a lot of space to fill. 30% is a stretch in terms of space allocation.” 

He was asked later about sources and data that support the low requirements. Malloy responded that “The BID [Gabrielle Gould] has said it multiple times. And looking at the mixed-use buildings that are already here and haven’t reached that 30% commercial businesses on the ground or first floor.” 

“This is our shot. Once there are no longer public-facing spaces, it will never become that. If we don’t do this now, it won’t happen.” Steve Schreiber

Bahl-Milne asked, “What’s preventing retailers from coming downtown? Do developers need to charge less for retail space?” There was no response to her questions, but Brestrup explained that the Planning Department had created this version in response to the CRC’s rejection of the Planning Board’s approval of an amendment requiring 40% minimum non-residential space, and it had gone on from there when the planners realized that more definition was needed on a variety of details.

Committee member Steve Schreiber observed that “UMass’s private developer is about to start a mixed-use building, and I believe it is 100% ground-floor non-residential. I’m not a developer, I’m not a retailer, I don’t manage these kinds of buildings, I’m an academic, but if UMass can do it…?” He also shared his concerns about allowing the minimum square footage for retail and other non-residential uses to be split across buildings and floors. “I see all the loopholes [in other regulations] and here, for example, gyms or meeting rooms that are ‘open to the public’ or that the public ‘can buy a membership to’ would count as part of the 30% minimum. This should be about activating the ground level in mixed-use buildings in the central business district. We have to stick by what we’re really trying to do — have public-facing activities. This is our shot. Once there are no longer public-facing spaces, it will never become that. If we don’t do this now, it won’t happen.” 

Resident Jennifer Taub asked Malloy about the terms “non-residential,” “commercial,” and “retail.” “Does non-residential mean retail? Or could you have a builder fulfill the 30% minimum non-residential space, but have only 5% of that space be retail?” Malloy said that “retail” was a subset of “non-residential” so that, yes, it would be possible that a building could have as little as 5% of space be retail.

Resident Rani Parker told the town councilors, “I love mixed-use buildings because they promote sustainable living. But I live right in the downtown area and there isn’t even a place to purchase groceries! I would like there to be studies and data about limitations for facade businesses.”

And resident Pam Rooney asked why recently built mixed-use buildings are being used as a rationale for not pushing for more than 30% non-residential on the first or ground floor of a mixed-use building. Brestrup responded that they’re trying to come up with the minimum square footage for commercial space that is best for Amherst, and are not looking back at the mixed-use buildings already here.

Councilor George Ryan said that “people have to take some risk to put retail space in their buildings…it is very expensive for them. Thirty percent would be nice but…the financial pressures are very high, and certainly one of the pressures they face is the lack of parking. It’s nice to think of Boston or some downtown area that has lots of parking… so the 30% to me seems an attractive figure given the economic realities.  I would put a lot of credence in what groups like the BID and the Chamber [of Commerce] and others who actually do this for a living [say].” 

As an aside, he responded to the comment about the UMass project. “We’ve had a presentation on that and the street-facing portion essentially is going to be some kind of athletic space [and] there’ll be an area for storage and trash and pick up for the sake of the neighborhood and there’ll be a small cafe and a glass bridge, so I have heard nothing nor have I seen anything in their plans to suggest that they see an exciting market for retail. It’s that kind of space they’re putting at the front of the building, the rest is all apartment-style housing.” 

He concluded, “I guess this is just a plea for trying to give serious thought to and credence to the business community that actually has to try and make this work, and the challenges they face.”

Speaking in opposition to the proposed zoning changes, Rooney reminded the committee that “we should keep our eyes on the prize, which includes trying to enliven our town with retail space.” She urged them to keep 40% as the number for active commercial/ retail/ non-residential space and to specify that it does not include common areas. “We could support starter and intro businesses. We don’t have a lot of that kind of space at all now. These commercial buildings need to be contributing to that kind of commercial opportunity in town.”

Taub said she’s “really troubled that there’s absolutely no requirement for retail” in the new version, and warned against conflating “retail” and “non-residential” usage, such as when the public was told beforehand that there would be “retail” on the first floor of Kendrick Place, but it was filled instead with a Mass Mutual data office. “That office does not help draw people downtown. I’d like to see a requirement for retail, specifically retail, so that a mixed-use building could not be given a permit with no retail space at all.”

Malloy said that requiring retail space and other details could get complicated if, for example, no retail wanted to locate there. He felt that “this is what we have to work with and we should just go ahead.”

Pam cautioned the committee about moving ahead without thinking about the downtown as a whole. “The Carriage Shops [formerly at the site of One East Pleasant] were eccentric looking, but people liked to go there because they found things they felt were interesting,” she said. “I am not saying bring back the Carriage Shops, but what they did was provide a lot of small, different kinds of businesses. If these places are not public facing, no one finds them and no one is walking around town.”

On the specific issue of letting developers split the required minimum between buildings and floors, Bahl-Milne said, “I saw a bar on the top floor of a building and it was beautiful. We need to give that flexibility to developers and we need to listen to [them]. Yes, they have a vested interest, but we rely on them to be invested in our community and we should encourage them to work for the community and not feel alienated.”

The CRC voted to recommend this version of mixed-use building regulations, 4 to 1. (Councilor Dorothy Pam voted no.)

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3 thoughts on “Public Hearing On Newest Zoning Amendment For Mixed-Use Buildings

  1. As someone who spent many years in retail, owned the building where our store was, so always needed to find 4 additional commercial tenants, plus apartments upstairs, I would just say: it was never “easy” to find good tenants. Our town needs a talented economic development director, who will work with the Chamber and the BID to get ground floor businesses rented by stores, services, restaurants. As Steve Schreiber points out, if we don’t build it, they will never come. There are many university towns that are thriving. I was recently in Columbus, and the “Short North” section of High Street is where the action is. Interesting stores and restaurants, only one 5-story private dorm on the whole street. All the rest was 2-4 stories, with apartments above businesses. We are, as they say, cutting off the limb that we are sitting on.

  2. Hello all. As someone who has a vested interest in our town and it’s future I want a way to move forward that allows for clarity yet flexibility. Those afraid of growth for reasons we may or may not all agree, we need to still find a way forward. As a life Amherst townie and active developer in Hampshire county I find zoning that allows boards to interpret rules as guidelines within the intent and spirit on the rules to be most hopeful. No one knows what the future of demands may look like. So some of these creative thoughts such as roof top restaurants , entertainment space , grocery stores , etc. could all become reality. But if we create rules that don’t allow for these ideas they will likely never happen. What I mean by all this is allow for exceptions to be made. Find ways to allow good plans and ideas. If the rules just say NO! Then you eliminate creative inspiring projects. The simple fact is commercial business today is a high risk for developers. Residential is what fuels the progress. We can debate types of occupancy but it is what generates activity. The more residential units allowed in a structure the easier it is to allow more commercial space at more affordable rates. It’s really simple. Where the space is located in the building should be less of a concern. Most of the time it will be in front and on ground floor. But maybe it could be a roof restaurant. Wow wouldnt that be great!! But to allow the rent to be affordable for that we may need to have the remaining floors all residential. Would that be so bad? Not in my opinion. But that’s me. Please allow for creativity and be able to say YES.
    If someone proposes 4 buildings in one project. Let them meet commercial requirements in two and nothing in the other two. Assuming the required amount of space is correct. Think of a grocery store! The intent of the zoning would be met. Please leave yourselves a way to say YES!

    Many ideas will pop up and maybe can happen if we can be creative and boards can say YES.

  3. Curt, I don’t put the same faith in boards whose members change from year to year. It’s feels like starting with solid regulations, and then you can go from there, is a no-brainer. Planning and zoning boards have enormous power and responsibility to determine the look, feel, and sustainability of a town and its people, both full-year and partial-year. Their members might be ideally balanced with some who are practical, some academically capable, some old-fashioned, some futuristic, some visionary, some with deep local roots, some who are passing through for a few years. And they have cultures: a board might operate in ways that support — or doom — fresh opinions and ideas. Or tried and true, practical opinions and ideas. They might subtly insist on unanimous votes or resign (or not be reapponted, which comes first). What about that sensitive topic of data, research? How do board members make important decisions? Do they conduct or commission adequate research, do they read widely and deeply before taking a vote? Or are they satisfied with hearsay, pronouncements, anecdotes, and asking a few people what they think?

    Some boards merit trust but others defy reason, and we’e got to watch out for those.

    Second, we are solely talking about regulation of non-residential uses for mixed-use buildings. A mixed-use building is intended to have a mix of dwelling places and businesses (“mixed” “use”) to increase the town’s vitality and build a diverse population of long-term residents and visitors who can easily walk from place to place and meet their shopping needs without exhausting themselves. Street-level stores could be just about anything — I’m thinking groceries, restaurants, clothing stores, shoe stores, hardware stores, toy stores, jewelry stores, walk-in do-it-yourself crafts stores, pop-up shops, starter businesses, a world cheese shop has been mentioned…. The intent is to increase vitality. Here’s one of those anecdotes: I have never gone to a store, on a whim, that is not located at ground level, not in Amherst, not in Boston, not in New York, unless it is designed to welcome people into a multilevel environment like Thornes Marketplace or the Holyoke mall.

    And you’re confounding what the proposed regulations would do and would not do. They would require some amount of street-level, public-facing commercial entities, e.g. shops, serving the public. They would not prevent a developer from establishing additional businesses in their building, e.g. the rooftop bar you mentioned, but let’s add a nice restaurant, pool, sleeping mats, pick-your-own string bean patch, and so on, as long as the uses are permitted for things like health and safety.

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