Planning Board Approves Changes To Dog Park Plans And New Mixed-use Building At 446 Main Street 

Architect's rendering of the development at 446 Main Street as viewed from Main Street. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, June 29, 2022

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

Present

Doug Marshall (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, and Johanna Neumann. Absent: Jack Jemsek and Janet McGowan

Staff: Christine Brestrup (Planning Director), Nate Malloy (Planner), Pam Sadler-Field (Assistant)

Minor Changes To 2019 Plan For Dog Park Require Review By Planning Board
The unanticipated extent of the Old Belchertown Road  landfill’s cap necessitated several changes to plans for the dog park there, which is already under construction. (The plans were approved in 2019.) As a result, Nate Malloy, senior planner for the town of Amherst, brought a new plan to the Planning Board for review. Not only did the landfill cap extend closer to the road, but its depth was only six to eight inches beneath the surface in many locations. These findings, which were discovered when construction began, led to a slightly revised layout and a loss of five parking spaces, leaving 17 spaces, two of which are handicapped van accessible. All parking spaces except for the handicapped ones are slightly shorter than the 18 feet usually required.

Chair Doug Marshall questioned the process, wondering why these changes were brought to the Planning Board when construction was almost complete. Brestrup said that usually Malloy makes frequent visits to park construction, as he did with the Kendrick Park playground and Groff Park, but the Department of Public Works (DPW) took the lead in the dog park construction and didn’t realize that the small changes in the original plan should have been approved earlier. 

After a site visit, Planning Board members generally viewed the changes favorably, although they thought the signs indicating etiquette for both dogs and dog owners were too large, and should match the style approved for the wayfinding signs near the center of town. They also suggested that a sign for the dog park be placed on Route 9, so patrons would be aware of its location. In addition to the signs, there will be an information kiosk at the site. 

There are two enclosures at the park, one for dogs weighing less than 30 pounds and one for larger dogs. Both enclosures have grass, peastone, and structures for shade. Irrigation will be provided by a small solar-powered irrigation pump. Neumann asked why the park was not moved a few feet farther from the road so that the original design could be used? Malloy said that the area beyond the fence is protected habitat for the endangered grasshopper sparrow. Long suggested that users of the Robert Frost Trail, located about 200 yards to the east of the dog park, may want to park at the dog park while hiking. Malloy said there is no minimum number of parking spaces needed for a park, but he felt the 17 spaces was probably adequate.

The new site plan was approved by a vote of 5-0 with the condition that the maintenance and management plan be as previously submitted and that the sign design, number, and size be brought back to the Planning Board for approval.

Mixed-use Building At 446 Main Street Approved
John Wrobeleski presented his plans to construct a 23-unit mixed-use building at 446 Main Street (Main and Gray Streets) at the Planning Board meetings on May 18 and June 15. Neumann, Long, and MacDougall did not attend the June 15 meeting, but testified that they viewed the video of the meeting and thus are permitted to vote on the project.

At the previous hearings, several Planning Board members voiced concern that the new three-story ell-shaped building was too close to the existing historic house on the corner of Main and Gray and dwarfed the existing structure. In response, the architects moved the new building slightly to the east and north, creating a small courtyard between the two structures. The front part of the new building facing Main Street was reduced from three to two stories to better match the roofline of the older building (see pages 26-70 of the Planning Board packet). There are 94 solar panels at the 462 Main Street building that would probably be enough to power the public spaces at the new site, but the new building will have a roof that could support solar panels in the future.

As presented the new building will have one office space occupying the Main Street side and 22 studio and one-bedroom apartments, three of which will be affordable. The design change afforded the addition of a two-bedroom unit. All mature trees on the site will be kept, and Wrobeleski plans to plant a wildflower garden at the corner of the lot. He noted the substantial amount of green space remaining at the site and showed how the new building fit in well with the surrounding buildings in the neighborhood. The site is zoned Neighborhood Business and is adjacent to the Dickinson Local Historic District.

Wrobeleski feels the amount of parking provided is adequate based on his experience with the 462 Main Street mixed-use building that was completed last fall and is fully occupied. There is a bus stop in front of the site, and Wrobeleski plans to ask about having a Valley Bike Share station placed there as well. He agreed to do a review of parking adequacy after 18 months, and feels he can add an additional seven spaces along Main Street if they are needed. 

Chao said she was very happy with the changes made in the plans. She admitted that the site presented constraints and that the plans looked slightly crowded, but she would not sacrifice the number of units to provide more space.

Marshall felt that the new building overwhelmed the existing house, and requested that the Planning Board receive input from the Design Review Board and the Local Historic District Commission. Although Long agreed that the new structure is out of scale with the site, he was happy with the changes made and did not feel referral to another committee was necessary. Neumann said the scale was not a concern for her and was pleased that Wrobeleski prioritized adding more units because she believes that there is a housing crisis in town and was pleased that Wrobeleski prioritized adding more units. She opposed adding more bureaucracy by referring the project to the Design Review Board or the Local Historic District Commission. Wrobeleski added that a delay would be costly to him.

The Planning Board voted 1-4 against referring the project to the Design Review Board and the Local Historic District Commission. Only Marshall voted in favor.

In public comment, Executive Director of the BID Gabrielle Gould said the BID was strongly in favor of this project. She said Wrobeleski was a good landlord who manages his buildings well, and that housing density is needed for the downtown to flourish. Town Councilor Dorothy Pam, however, was concerned about the already-existing density of this area of town and wished there could be more green space.

The project was approved with findings and conditions and the public hearing was closed. The vote was 4-0-1, with Marshall abstaining.

Preliminary Plans To Make Some Of the Pandemic Provisions Of the Zoning Bylaw Permanent
Planner Maureen Pollock presented an outline (see pages 71-80 of the Planning Board packet) of a proposal she and planner Ben Breger have been working on so that  some provisions of Article 14, which was enacted to help businesses survive in the pandemic, can be made permanent. These provisions offer streamlined approval of smaller projects by the building commissioner as opposed to having applicants present their plans to the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals. Pollock said the provisions, which are set to expire on December 31, 2022, have worked well for businesses, abutters, and the town during the pandemic.. The planners also suggested adding a permitting pathway for one-day events, such as weddings, cheese tastings, etc., since this provision does not currently exist in the Zoning Bylaw.

The plans have previously received a favorable reception from the Community Resources Committee. As this topic was presented late in the meeting, Planning Board members were encouraged to email their suggestions to the Planning Department so that a draft bylaw can be developed, and presented in September.

This was Chao’s last meeting on the Planning Board. New members Bruce Coldham and Karin Winter will join the board at the next meeting. The meeting adjourned at 10:30. The next meeting will be on July 20.

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1 thought on “Planning Board Approves Changes To Dog Park Plans And New Mixed-use Building At 446 Main Street 

  1. Regarding the idea of one town employee making decisions on granting building and demolition permits and waivers, without any abutter notice:

    This must be built on a theory that abutters and committees and public input slow down a process that needs to be as expedient as possible. And that they lack important perspectives to consider in the permitting decision. If I was an abutter to a proposed new restaurant in town, I’d want to know what might happen in my ecosystem. If I were on the ZBA or Planning Board, I’d feel remiss in not being a part of impactful decisions in this hasty way.

    I don’t know that Amherst Town Government has any kind of idea gathering system, that are used in the top performing organizations world-wide, including governments. But if it does/ did, I am sure there would be better ideas than increasing efficiency in government by consolidating decision making authority. Fun fact: a top expert in idea-driven organizations teaches at UMass, and is working on a book about idea systems in government.

    Many in Amherst see in our new government how decisions and power are being consolidated to many fewer people. To now further reduce oversight in this way seems not in the public interest or liking.

    One of the reasons Amherst has gained an anti-business reputation is the clogs in helping a business open its doors. A couple of decades ago, a town manager supposedly called meetings of everyone that needed to approve or deny, speeding things up. I don’t know if that still happens (I’d guess not) but that is an idea that is efficient, without reduced transparency. If you were to score a variety of ideas to implement in Amherst government, transparency should have a lot of weight.

    Amherst has a wide diversity of views. Some would make all of downtown a local historic district. Others would line the street with 6 story buildings. The most quality ideas will come from encouraging dialogue, not eliminating input.

    Ira Bryck

    PS Also, that one decider is only accountable to their supervisors and the Town manager, who determine their salary and tenure. Also, that one person may not have experience or training in historical architecture or local history. Or be able to anticipate potential negative impacts on neighboring businesses and residents—since they don’t have direct contact with them. A public hearing ensures that these impacts can be raised and addressed.

    PPS I respect the stated purpose of our zoning bylaws: For the purpose of promoting the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the inhabitants of the Town of Amherst, and to encourage the most appropriate use of land throughout Amherst. This Zoning Bylaw is in accordance with the recommendations of the Master Plan adopted in accordance with the Amherst Home Rule Charter and is consistent with the comprehensive plan of the regional planning agency.

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