Planning Board Approves Amherst College Lyceum For South Pleasant Street

Architect's rendering of proposed Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank Lyceum at 197 South Pleasant Street. The renovated building will house Amherst College's History Department and the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, January 19,2022

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. The packet for the meeting can be found here

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

Planning staff: Planning Director Chris Brestrup, Senior Planner Nate Malloy, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler

15 members of the public attended.

Amherst College Lyceum Approved With Conditions
The public hearings for two Site Plan Reviews and a Special Permit request to allow Amherst College to construct the Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank Lyceum at 197 South Pleasant Street were held together. The existing single-family home and the proposed three-story addition to its south will house the History Department and the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. The single- family home at 205 South Pleasant Street was moved to Baker Street this past summer to make way for the addition.

The project also includes creating an access drive from Woodlawn to the rear of the building and one handicapped parking space next to the building. The parking lot behind Newport House at 32 Northampton Road will be expanded from 17 to 28 spaces, including two handicapped spaces, to accommodate those working at the lyceum. There will be a wooded sidewalk linking that parking lot to the new building.

The Special Permit is required because changing the use of the building from residential to educational doubles the mandated front setback from 15 to 30 feet. The existing building has a front setback of 20 feet, and the plans for the addition also have the 20-foot setback. There is no crosswalk at the proposed site. Existing crosswalks for South Pleasant Street are down a steep hill at Walnut Street or uphill at Quadrangle Drive. If a new crosswalk is to be created, it would need to be approved by the Town Council.

Amherst College brought a large representation of planners to present the project and answer questions. Tom Davies, Amherst College Director of Design and Construction, and Chris Chamberland, principal engineer at Berkshire Design, were joined by representatives from Stimson Landscaping and Bruner/Cott Architecture. As conceived, the new building will have rooftop solar and all electric utilities. It will be hooked up to the town sewer. According to Building Commissioner Rob Morra, the building at 211 South Pleasant Street can most likely be used as a staging facility during construction under Article 14, temporary zoning.

The site visit by Planning Board members was limited by icy conditions at the site, so members were unable to evaluate the sidewalk from the Newport parking lot or the drive from Woodlawn. Planning Board member Maria Chao called the design a “gorgeous addition to campus that respects the adjacent building.” She added that the eight-foot retaining wall between the existing building and the addition is well masked with plantings. Andrew MacDougall pointed out that the addition, though beautiful, is different from the classical design of most of the structures on South Pleasant Street. Jason Forney of Bruner/Cott maintained that the design of the new addition is distinct but “compatible” and its rooftop is below the eaves of the existing building, so as not to overpower it.

Most of the discussion from the Planning Board revolved around the adequacy of the handicapped parking. The site is on a steep slope which would make accessibility challenging from the distant parking lot at Newport House or from the existing crosswalks across South Pleasant Street. Lauren Stimson said that there was probably not room for a second handicapped space behind the building. Because the college is not building a parking lot at the site, there is no legal requirement for accessible spaces. Davies said that the Newport lot was being expanded, not because of necessity, but because of requests from those who would be working in the new building. He said that the college possesses an on-call handicapped van available to the whole college community to deal with access to buildings on campus. 

Chao said that her husband works for Amherst College and that most employees park in one space and walk to wherever they need to go. She did not see a need for more parking close to the new building. However, Doug Marshall, Thom Long, Janet McGowan, and MacDougall thought that access would be challenging for anyone with mobility impairment, and that ideally a second accessible parking space should be created near the building. They were not willing to require the college to create the second space, but requested that they investigate if it were possible. This motion passed 4-2-1, with Chao and Johanna Neumann voting no and Jack Jemsek abstaining. Neumann said that she thought the college has probably looked into the creation of a second handicapped space already and that this motion was “sending them on a wild goose chase.”

Although Marshall suggested deferring the rest of the discussion of the hearing until the February 2 Planning Board meeting, Davies said the college has several contracts for construction pending and thus needed the board’s approval at this meeting. Chao said that the need for Planning Board approval itself is an example of “outdated zoning”. She said that this is an educational project in the general residence zone (RG), and should be rezoned as educational, and not have to meet RG requirements for parking.

There was no public comment offered. The board approved the site plan reviews and special permit with the condition that the college return to the board if it does not plan to build a crosswalk across South Pleasant Street and to present the findings about adding a second handicapped space next to the building. These conditions must be met before a certificate of occupancy is granted.

New Farm Stand Building For Wagner Farms
James and Joseph Wagner of Wagner Wood at 305 North East Street presented a plan for a two-story structure to the west of the existing barn to house a Class 1 Farm Stand and offices, as well as basement freezers for meat and storage on the second floor. The structure will be constructed from wood milled at the site. Tom Reidy, attorney at Bacon Wilson, and developer Barry Roberts, who worked with the Wagners and architect John Kuhn, presented the plan.

A Class 1 Farm Stand must grow at least 25% of its product on-site, and 50% of the product must be from Massachusetts. The Wagners plan to have the farm stand open year-round from dawn to dusk, though maybe a little later in the winter. They plan to only sell their own products, but may expand the offerings in the future. The project does not change the access to the site from North East Street. There is adequate parking and lighting planned. The restroom is not handicapped accessible, but there is no public access to the part of the building containing the three offices where the restroom is located. The restroom will be connected to the public sewer.

The Planning Board questioned the safety of the parking area which is located along the drive that is also used for trucks servicing the farm and wood business. There is one spot designated for handicapped parking, but this spot is across the driveway used by trucks. McGowan suggested that another accessible space be situated next to the building. Board members also agreed with plans to place one or more signs along the drive alerting drivers to the presence of pedestrians. 

The farm stand is not expected to attract extra traffic on North East Street. Public events and programs are not allowed by the residential neighborhood zoning of the site.

There was no public comment offered. The hearing was closed, and the project was approved with conditions. The Wagners will need to submit an updated management plan to the building commissioner in addition to meeting the other conditions specified, which include the addition of another accessible parking space and safety measures along the entrance drive.

Planning Board Up To Date On Meeting Minutes
Without discussion, meeting minutes from March 31, 2021, April 14, 2021, and January 5, 2022 were approved unanimously. This means all outstanding minutes have been approved.

The meeting adjourned at 10:24 p.m. The Planning Board will next meet on February 2, when the proposed amendment to the Demolition Delay Bylaw will be discussed as well as an update on the Solar Siting Bylaw.

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