Planning Board Recommends “Flexible” Regulations For Mixed-Use Buildings And Parking

Mixed use buildings with student apartments near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Photo: Flckr.com. Creative Commons


Report On The Meeting Of The Planning Board, November 3, 2021

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

The packet for the meeting is here

Present
Planning Board members: Doug Marshall (Chair), Maria Chao (Clerk), Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, and Janet McGowan 

Absent: Jack Jemsek and Johanna Neumann

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

Five Sets Of Planning Board Minutes Approved
In response to the three open meeting request complaints filed in September about some of its missing minutes,  the Planning Board approved new minutes from May 19, June 30, July 21, and October 20. Planning Board clerk Maria Chao was again taking minutes for this meeting to give some relief to Brestrup and Field-Sadler, who had previously been responsible for taking minutes.

Parking And Access Regulations For Residential Dwellings: Proposed Amendment To Zoning Bylaw Article 7 (see pages 65-81 of the meeting packet)
Changes to Article 7 of the Zoning Bylaw were first discussed near the end of the joint public hearing with the Community Resources Committee on July 21. Instead of requiring two parking spaces per dwelling unit, the Planning Department proposed a “flexible plan” that specified that “adequate” parking must be provided for renters. The planners suggested criteria that could justify lowering the required parking spaces, such as number of bedrooms, proximity to public transportation, arranging for shared parking spaces, the results of a developer’s traffic impact report, or proximity to downtown. However, the Planning Board and public had reservations about the vague wording of the proposed amendment. 

In response to the request for more information that would justify the proposed changes, Planner Maureen Pollock presented a more comprehensive explanation of various general approaches to residential parking. Her report suggests moving the “possible modifications to the two-car per unit standard” to the residential part of the bylaw (7.00) instead of leaving it with waivers (7.91). The current bylaw has created confusion for applicants, staff, and boards because the modifications are not part of the main bylaw on parking. Building Commissioner Rob Morra said that this has especially been an issue when a landlord wants to add additional bedrooms to a rental house but does not increase the available parking, so a four-bedroom house may only have two parking spaces..

The hope is that the flexible parking standards will establish minimum and maximum parking standards to avoid excessively large parking lots, but still provide enough on-site parking for residents and other renters, e.g. retail, restaurant businesses. The proposed  bylaw also requires a parking management plan for all residential uses and contingency plans if the plan is not adequate; changes provision for periodic documentation of the adequacy of parking, and if there is a shortage of parking, requiring owners to ameliorate the problem by providing alternative transportation, such as shuttles, or developing sufficient additional parking on the grounds. Another goal is to make the permitting process easier for applicants as well as the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, which review and recommend the parking plans.

The downtown area is in a “Municipal Parking Zone” and lacks parking requirements. Educational zones in Amherst do not have parking requirements either.

Planning Board Discussion
Janet McGowan appreciated that there were more specifics in the new proposal, but felt there should be a greater emphasis on the effects of loosened requirements  on the streets of nearby residential neighborhoods. Maria Chao said that the proposed change asks the developer of any individual project to provide their own  data to the town. She said that the information required does not need to be in the zoning bylaw. Doug Marshall agreed that the onus for providing justification of the adequacy of parking should be on the developer.

There was further discussion about the role of the building commissioner, and whether he was included in the term “Permit Granting Authority” (PGA) referred to in the bylaw. Morra said that the term “PGA” is not defined in the town’s bylaw, and including the building commissioner as a PGA might conflict with Massachusetts General Law because it could allow the building commissioner to approve projects that should be approved by the Planning Board or ZBA. Typically, the building commissioner approves plans for single-family homes and accessory dwelling units.

Thom Long and Andrew MacDougall suggested that provisions for evaluating parking by requiring periodic parking demand studies and provision of “shadow parking,”( where part of a property could be used for additional parking in the future if it was  necessary) be added to the proposed amendment. McGowan thought the vote should be delayed. She suggested a delay until the next Planning Board meeting, so the new language could be reviewed. Planning Director Chris Brestrup pointed out that the CRC is holding a public hearing on the amendment at its November 9 meeting, so it would be good to have the Planning Board’s recommendation before that time.

Public Comment And Further Discussion
Ira Bryck said that if a house is rented to four people with four cars, two parking spaces are not enough. He asked, “Where are the other two cars to go?” and suggested that a landlord should make contributions to a municipal parking fund to compensate the town. He added that “If we can’t measure parking adequacy, we can’t manage it, and it creates a problem for everyone if there is not enough parking.” 

Rani Parker said the Planning Board has a responsibility to the public to take the two weeks between Planning Board meetings to clarify the amendment. She asked, ”Why the rush?” 

Dorothy Pam reminded the Board, “We live in New England. We need cars [so] we need a requirement for parking. It’s not realistic to say we don’t.”

Pam Rooney pointed out that it would have been nice to have the background information at the beginning, in July, not right before there is pressure to take the vote. She agreed that it is important to start with a requirement of two cars per unit and then move up or down, based on a number of factors, to keep cars off neighborhood streets. She said that if the number of cars decreases, the “shadow parking” can always be turned back into grass.

Jennifer Taub said that it seems that the proposed amendment is providing developers with opportunities to provide less parking, and is not sufficiently focussed on the requirement that they provide at least the  minimum amount. She said that although fewer parking spaces might occasionally be acceptable, that is the exception. She pointed out that in neighborhoods  next to the UMass campus, there are at least four cars parked at every house. She said, “students bring cars,” and that UMass lots are over subscribed, and have shut down additional permits. Pollock reiterated that the proposed bylaw maintained the minimum of two spaces per unit, unless the developer could convincingly justify that fewer would be adequate.

Although McGowan repeatedly said that the proposed amendment was not ready to be voted on, and could be made clearer with some of the changes discussed, the proposed amendment passed, as is, by a 4-1 vote.

Mixed-use Building Amendment
At the October 20 Planning Board meeting, Planner Nate Malloy presented a modification to the Mixed-Use Building bylaw that was approved by the Planning Board on August 18. The new proposal decreases the minimum required nonresidential space from 40% to 30% of the area of the ground floor. Common space would not be included in the 30%. Also, importantly,  the nonresidential space need not be on the ground floor in the new proposed amendment, although the street-facing area would have to  be “predominantly commercial.

Brestrup explained that the Planning Department was having a hard time deciding whether hallways, elevators, and storage areas are residential or nonresidential. Therefore, the new proposal excludes  them from being counted as commercial space. She added that the word “predominantly,” which had been termed “vague” at the last Planning Board meeting, had been added by the town attorney.

McGowan felt the town needs as much retail and commercial activity as possible in the downtown and village centers. She thought 40% was a minimum but 50% is preferable. But now, she noted, even more commercial area is lost and could be spread out between floors and even buildings. (This does not provide a viable marketplace atmosphere).

MacDougall said that knowing that nonresidential area  would be predominantly on the a street-facing part of the building makes him more comfortable with this proposal, as well as the plan creating the possibility of having accessible dwelling units on ground floor. Chao agreed that frontage, not area, is the critical factor, and that increasing the required nonresidential space too much could prevent mixed-use projects from being built at all.

Public Comment
Dorothy Pam said she was surprised to again see a floor plan showing 40% or more nonresidential space being used to illustrate the current version of the  amendment, which lowers the nonresidential space significantly.. She would rather see what the 30%  would look like. She added that the town should stop using the word “vibrant” for the downtown, since the proposed changes go in the opposite direction. She felt that the key is the rent charged to businesses. If the rents are too high, she said, “We will never get the stores we want.” She suggested that the town should require the builders of mixed-use buildings to provide lower rents for small businesses that would like to establish there.

Pam Rooney also disagreed with the decrease in nonresidential space. She said it would be hard to have an Amherst Books or a Hastings store with only 30% of the ground floor being commercial. Kitty Axelson-Berry said that, as long as one board member was talking about giving importance to green, sustainable living, with people talking to each other casually, the town should not go about making it hard for small  retail stores and instead sending residents to Amazon.com or big box stores.  She also questioned how putting a therapist’s office, for example, on the third floor of a “mixed-use” building would activate the streetscape. How would a tiny therapy office on a second floor help downtown be more vibrant.

Brestrup said the Zoning Bylaw cannot regulate rents, but McGowan continued to worry  the main problem today with establishing and maintaining businesses in the downtown area of Amherst is that the rents charged are simply too high. (Developers allow stores to sit empty, rather than lower the rent.) She said that if building more apartments will supposedly lower rents for residents, then building more commercial spaces should also lower rents for businesses.

The Planning Board voted to recommend the revised mixed-use building bylaw to the Town Council , 4-1. (McGowan voted no.)

The meeting was adjourned at 9:12 p.m.

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10 thoughts on “Planning Board Recommends “Flexible” Regulations For Mixed-Use Buildings And Parking

  1. Congrats to all the winners of the election. Thx to those who served.
    I’d like to make a suggestion.
    There are many suggestions for “wants” in new developments. But I wonder if those making those wishes truly understand the impact on the financial equations.
    The basic wants seem to be 1, more commercial space at lower rents , 2 more affordable housing units 3 fewer units per building. 3 vs 4 vs 5 floor buildings.
    I think the town should get a consultant to present to the boards exactly the impact of these variables are on building. I’m sure we developers could be helpful in doing this but I feel some would not be comfortable with that.
    Have the consultants do a few scenarios

    3 floors vs 4. More commercial vs less. Rental rates both commercial and residential. In fill projects vs completely new developments. And also be sure to have good estimates on capital needed to accomplish each project and what the rate of return would be to the developer.
    Both best case and worse case.
    Be sure to include all the risk variables such as interest rates. Timing delays , occupancy rates, legal delays , cost to manage regular and affordable units. etc etc.
    once ppl actually understand the costs of each “wish” I think we will have a better chance of moving forward.
    Just so you know. Many developers have the same “wishes and wants”. But to move forward Sometimes the math just doesn’t work.

  2. hello, Curt- thank you for your suggestions and ideas – I totally agree that it would be good to have that info. It would be so useful to have the facts and figures that would show, for instance, if a 3-4 story building downtown, with first floor commercial and residential above, with the setbacks and design elements that give it character and attractiveness, that accomodate students, families, retirees, etc, would be profitable for a developer. It would be so helpful for the town (in a public process) come up with models of what would be a win/win/win. It would be great to show the best practices of other towns and cities, that can reasonably be compared to Amherst. It would be great to include the trends and forces, ie: will college populations grow or decline? Will our community adequately support stores, restaurants, services? How our downtown adequately cater to both a state university and a year-round community? Are there college towns that have discovered solutions to our problems (ie: the recent observation, by John Varner, that State College, PA requires distance between student rental houses, or that problem houses have their permit suspended). I long for a new climate, where we can have a constructive conversation, all together, instead of all the characterization. Thank you for your reasonableness.

  3. I’m puzzled by the equity issues that the State College, PA, requirement of a minimum “distance between student rental houses” might pose for neighbors.

    It’s a bit like “staking a claim” to mineral rights: the “first one in” – in this case, the landlord of the “student rental” – gets all the financial benefit, while the costs are “socialized” to the neighbors…

    …and they are also prevented from “staking a claim” on their own property? How could such a scheme be “fair” – or even be “perceived as fair”?

    If such a law were going to hold up in court, almost surely there are equitable provisions to prevent such unfairness, real or perceived. It would be great if people proposing such schemes for Amherst would provide more details…..

  4. I am suggesting that we look at solutions devised in various college towns- according to John Varner’s research ( https://www.amherstbulletin.com/Letter-John-Varner-43074907 ) it has worked at Penn State (if there was ever a town dominated by a college, it is there- I was a freshman there in 1971-72, btw) – but Ithaca has experimented with 3 unrelated maximums, and many other examples. We are not unique in this puzzle, and there are many experiences to look at.

  5. I believe that TM member Rolf Karlstrom was involved in research (and presenting it at TM) regarding successful steps other communities have taken to address the this issue.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree that we need more data before rezoning! The faster the zoning amendments come at the Planning Board, CRC and Town Council, the less information we have. Curt Shumway’s list is a great start. Otherwise, we wind up debating ideas or perspectives with no underpinning of facts. Collecting this information, finding effective methods from other towns and cities, then evaluating what is best for Amherst is the job of the Planning Board, Planning Department and the CRC. Let’s start doing that again.

  7. The analogy to State College is an interesting one, but it’s important to understand that their success at limiting conversion of single-family homes to student rentals has gone along with (though I’m not claiming causality) an explosion in high-rise student apartments in the downtown area. And when I say “high -rise,” they make the newer developments in downtown Amherst look quaint by comparison. Here is one free article that gives you a sense of some of this: https://www.statecollege.com/so-you-havent-been-to-state-college-for-a-penn-state-game-recently-a-stay-at-home-construction-update/ It’s interesting to note that, at least at the time of this article, they were also struggling to fill commercial space in all these mixed-use buildings. State College non-student residents also bemoan the lack of non-student-focused businesses in the downtown.

    State College has also experienced a lot of development outside the borough, which is what people probably think about when they describe the town. There are any number of apartment complexes in the surrounding townships, including The Retreat (same company that attempted to build in North Amherst a few years ago). These are accompanied by ever more strip mall commercial in those areas.

    All of this is to say: I really like some of the ideas State College has implemented for rental properties, AND I really hope Amherst doesn’t begin to look like State College. Full disclosure: I grew up there, and my mom is on the Zoning Hearing Board in the town.

  8. That was a shocking look at State College! I haven’t been there since 1971-72, my freshman year- when it was definitely a small city dedicated to its humongous university neighbor, but not yet overgrown as it now is. It makes even more sense for us to take a thorough inventory of college towns, and roads they have gone down. We are not inventing anything here- our developers are just following a trend that we can know more about, by seeing towns that are extremely “densified.” This is the most important work of our town planners, to include in their visioning a good look at our likely future, as it already exists in many other towns. It makes no sense to change our zoning to end up where so many in our town don’t want to go. As it is said “begin with the end in mind.”

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