Report On The Meeting Of The Design Review Board , November 1, 2021
Board Members: Catherine Porter (Chair), Thom Long (Planning Board representative), Katherine Davis (Historical Commission representative), Erika Zekos, Lindsay Schnarr
Also : Maureen Pollock (Planning Department) and Gabrielle Gould (Business Improvement District and Downtown Foundation)
Erika Zekos responded to a question from the chair asking if there were any conflicts of interest on the board. She noted that she Is a UMass colleague of the two architects who designed the bandhsell and that did not have any impact her objectivity.
Erecting a permanent bandstand on the South Common is now coming to local boards for review but will require approval from the Town Council to proceed. The project seems to be controversial, as it has generated more than 150 citizen comments on NextDoor.com in the last two weeks. Those commenting raised their concerns about the the location (seen as blocking the main views of the Inn on Boltwood), the design (solid planes at various angles that were seen as not working well with the surrounding landscape of the Commons and nearby buildings), and acoustics, the needs of performers, parking, and toilet facilities. However, it was received glowingly by all members of the Design Review Board as “an attractive generator for downtown business by contributing to the Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce goal of making Amherst an arts destination.”
BID Director, Gabrielle Gould, said that each of the four free outdoor concerts held last summer brought in 450 to 600 people of all ages, many of whom were eating take-out from local restaurants. She said she knows that a permanent performance space will bring more young families to town.
A design competition held in October of 2018 generated 15 entries that were later judged by a seven-member panel. The location of the shell is just south of the midpoint on the east side of the south common, at the bottom of a “bowl” with a ten foot grade change from South Pleasant Street on the site suggested in the mid- 1870’s by visionary founder of American landscape architecture, Frederic Law Olmstead.
The winning design by Ray Kinosita Mann and Naomi Darling, both of whom are part of the UMass Department of Architecture is an origami-like design, based on folded-and-cut paper, made of engineered wood on a “stage” of local stone at seating height, about 18 inches off the ground.
The 24×38-foot five-panel stage is 13 feet high at the front and 10 feet at the back, all supported by five steel columns. It is surrounded by rain gardens to catch the run-off from the roof and the “bowl” sloping from South Pleasant Street to Boltwood Avenue. The stage is fully accessible, surrounded by paved ramps from handicap parking spots on Boltwood Avenue. All sound and lighting systems will be brought in and set up on temporary trailers by the performing groups. The acoustical properties were overseen by Acentech Acoustical Consultants of Cambridge to ensure that the audience can hear well, and at the same time the musicians can hear each other well.
The board did raise some issues to be addressed in the refined plans. Catherine Porter found the wood panels to look very “heavy” and wondered if they could be more graceful. Thom Long noted that the stage is relatively small compared to the size of the common, and suggested that a rendering from a greater distance would confirm that the scale is not (or is) intrusive in the context of the Common. Safety issues were foremost in the minds of several members. Are the panels climbable by children (or college students)? Can the wood panels be easily repaired, or removed and replaced, if subject to vandalism, such as graffiti? How can the site be protected from vandalism? There were no questions from the public, but five very positive comments were made as to the need for a performance shell and how it would enhance public life in our downtown.
The board approved the project with the requirement that the petitioners come back to it with their 90% completion plans, signage designs, and maintenance management plan. Once all town boards and committees have provided input to the Town Council, the Downtown Amherst Foundation will begin fundraising for the project and for a permanent maintenance account. The BID has stated that no public tax money will be used.
Editor’s note: At the Planning Board meeting of 11/3/21, Thom Long announced that the performance shell proposal does not need to come before the Planning Board or the ZBA, and that review by the Design Review Board, the Disability Access Advisory Committee, and the Historical Commission are sufficient for the matter to be brought before the full Town Council.