Planning Board Offers Suggestions For Achieving More Housing In Amherst


Way Finders' preliminary design concept for affordable housing at the East Street School near the expanding East Village Center. Photo: Way Finders

Report On The Special Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, February 21, 2023

This meeting was held in person in the Town Room with remote connection enabled. It was recorded and can be viewed here.  

Doug Marshall (Chair), Bruce Coldham, Thom Long, Karin Winter, Janet McGowan, and Andrew MacDougall. Johanna Neumann was absent

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

One additional person, Town Councilor Pam Rooney (District 4), was present in person, and three members of the public were present on Zoom.

This special meeting of the Planning Board (PB) was inspired by the zoning changes proposed by Town Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) to encourage more housing in town by easing permitting on multifamily housing and allowing it to be constructed in more areas of town. Several members of the PB felt that these changes would not markedly increase housing and could produce deleterious consequences for the town. Rather, they felt that increasing housing in those areas of town that already have larger apartment complexes would more likely achieve the desired result of more housing and would be less likely to have negative effects on other neighborhoods. Using maps of the town, the PB pointed to areas of town which would support increased density of housing.

During public comment at the onset of the meeting, Councilor Pam Rooney (District 4) said it was important to focus on which parcels in the village centers have historic structures that should be retained, where townhomes are appropriate, and where duplexes are most likely to be built. She liked the more focused look at areas of town, as opposed to the broad changes proposed in the Hanneke/DeAngelis amendments.

PB Chair Doug Marshall said he looked at maps of Amherst to consider where more housing can be built without arousing profuse objections of abutters. He settled on the area north of the UMass campus near Puffton Village and Brandywine and Townhouse apartments, as well as the area across North Pleasant Street, such as Hobart Lane. These areas, he felt were low density rental housing with a mix of students and nonstudents. He also looked to University Drive, which is largely commercial, save for newly constructed mixed-use buildings at 70 University Drive and One University Drive South and a couple of assisted living facilities. The third area Marshall thought might be densified was the west side of Kendrick Park, although he admitted that this would be the most controversial. PB member Bruce Coldham mentioned that the Sunset/Fearing Local Historic District, of which he had previously been a resident, may want to expand the district to include the west side of Kendrick Park. That would most likely protect it from dense development.

PB members Andrew MacDougall and Thom Long thought that the area along Route 9 in East Amherst would be an area where both commercial and residential uses could be expanded, especially with the new Way Finders development at East Street School and Belchertown Road and the newly established community farm and soon to be built elementary school. In addition, the developments at Colonial Village and Alpine Commons are relatively low-density, two-story buildings which could be expanded in size. However, Planning Director Chris Brestrup said that property owners who were making a good income off of their properties might be unwilling to pull them off the market for a period of time to construct larger structures with more units.

Marshall mentioned that there is no bus route that goes directly from East Amherst to the grocery stores on the west side of town, so more services in the east side of town would be welcomed. Bruce Coldham mentioned that the long-shuttered Maplewood Farms restaurant on Belchertown Road would be an ideal location for the food coop that many town residents are hoping to develop.

MacDougall and Long also felt the village center at Pomeroy Lane would also be a place where denser housing would be appropriate.

Town Planner Nate Malloy gave the history of multifamily housing in town. He said that when UMass expanded greatly in the 1960s, many of the large apartment complexes were constructed. But shortly thereafter, the zoning was changed so that most of the complexes are now in the Neighborhood Residential (RN) zone and could not be built today. However, article 9.22 of the zoning bylaw allows nonconforming properties to expand by special permit. This was recently done at Presidential apartments and is currently the case with a new building being constructed at the Boulders. He suggested that the town could establish overlay zones where dense apartment living could be created.

Malloy added that there is such a shortage of student housing in Amherst that almost all new housing would be filled with students. He said that the student market is so lucrative that developers are willing to let commercial space sit vacant for years, because it is subsidized by the residential units.

PB member Janet McGowan noted that the 1504 bedrooms created in Amherst housing over the past ten years meets the goals of the Housing Production Plan, but do not satisfy the number of affordable units needed. Malloy thought that using specialized zoning such as 40R would encourage a situation where  20 to 25% of units created would be affordable, and should be considered, even though a proposal to adopt 40R did not gain much enthusiasm for the downtown.

Karin Winter worried that Amherst is losing its balance of residents as more families move away from the downtown area, and she worried that the town center will be overwhelmed by students. She felt UMass should use its land to build more housing for students.  Brestrup explained that UMass has reached its borrowing limit with the new classroom buildings built recently, but over the past 15 years it has worked out a means to build more residential units through public-private partnerships, as with the new apartments at North Village and the dorms being constructed on Massachusetts Avenue. If these are successful, she felt UMass would build more in this fashion.

Long pointed out that with added housing and amenities on campus, businesses in town suffer as students don’t need to leave campus.

McGowan stressed the need for design standards for village centers so that development would fit it with the neighborhoods. Both she and Marshall felt preserving farmland in both Amherst and Hadley was important for the region, and increasing density in already built areas was a better direction to go. All present seemed to agree that it was important to keep the feel of a “quintessential New England town” in the downtown area.

Marshall ended this discussion, saying, “If a couple of town councilors can come up with a zoning proposal, the Planning Board can, too.”  Work will continue toward this goal, although the next steps were not specified.

Marshall Responds To Conflict-Of-Interest Complaint
For the third time in the past two years, a conflict-of-interest complaint has been filed against Marshall asserting that his position as a senior planner at UMass conflicts with his position on the Planning Board. In both previous instances, he consulted with the State Board of Ethics. Marshall stated that at UMass, he only deals with state-owned land over which the town has no jurisdiction and is not subject to local zoning. He added that the Planning Board has no direct dealings with the university. Any conversations with the university are through the Town Manager, although Brestrup noted that the manager is informed by the Planning Department, Town Council, and public sentiment.

The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for March 1.

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3 thoughts on “Planning Board Offers Suggestions For Achieving More Housing In Amherst

  1. The discussion started out on the right path, then it took a turn…

    Let me see if I understand these proposals: it’s ok to add density to already dense areas with large apartments but not other residential areas where it would upset the not-in -my-backyard population? What about overcrowding in certain schools because of large density in those areas? Will that be taken into account? How about the equity that Amherst keeps boasting? That doesn’t sound equitable to me…. Neighborhoods should be diverse!

  2. Renata, The Master Plan calls for greater density in housing and shops in Amherst Center and the village centers (which have never been mapped out). The Master Plan calls for protecting farms, forests, and other natural resources–and strict design standards when adding more density and protecting neighborhood communities. Part of Doug Marshall’s proposal was to increase the amount of unit allowed at some current apartment complexes that have low buildings and space for more housing. Almost all residential neighborhoods are zoned for more density than you see–with some duplexes and multifamily buildings that you may not notice since they look like 1 house. Amherst is very progressive in how much density it allows in all neighborhoods. Keeping denser development near services-shops and buses is good planning. It prevents sprawl and protects our farms, wetlands, forests, and drinking water keeping them for food, wildlife, recreation and sequestering carbon in their soils.

    Ironically, the most diverse neighborhoods are the most threatened by these wide-ranging zoning changes–neighborhoods with less expensive houses and large lots are most attractive to developers seeking to rent to students who can pay up $850 to $2000 per bedroom — or in the case of one Sunderland apt complex, $850 per bed in a room with 2 bedrooms. It is this intense demand for student housing that skews our housing market and is slowly converting diverse neighborhoods of families, ethnicities, and middle and low income workers into student housing enclaves. Year-round folk out are being driven out by high prices and behaviors. Residents have talked about this problem for years and years. With the proposed zoning changes developers will now be able to build townhouses and dense housing with greatly reduced or no design standards in all neighborhoods. To me, the zoning changes lightly skip over the fact that Amherst is a college town and that many neighborhoods are slowly being picked apart and that these proposed changes will only increase the pace of negative changes in neighborhoods.

    Ironically, the neighborhoods with the most expensive housing–Amherst Woods, Amherst Hills, East Woods., etc. are the least likely to be converted to townhouses or other multi-family rental properties–and are the least likely to be affected by these proposed zoning changes. One, the houses are too expensive to convert to student rentals. Two, most affluent owners won’t want or need to add housing units.

    The problem isn’t the fact that the ZBA issues permits for duplexes and multi-family houses–it’s that the market is being controlled by unmet student housing. UMass needs to builds thousands more beds for it students to reduce student housing demand. And most of the housing we add needs to go into village centers, near services and transportation–and it needs to look good. We need the ZBA to make sure the denser housing that is built fits into neighborhoods, augmenting them, not harming them. The ZBA is doing a good job at this right now.

  3. “UMass needs to builds thousands more beds for it students to reduce student housing demand.” Janet McGowan has stated the core problem of development in Amherst. It is also the solution. A simple solution. UMass, build more beds for your students.

    Shouldn’t we be thinking of ways that Amherst can leverage the University to build necessary housing for their students?

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