Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Planning Board, November 29, 2023
This meeting was held in person at Town Hall, but was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Doug Marshall (Chair), Bruce Coldham, Fred Hartwell, Jesse Mager, Janet McGowan, Johanna Neumann, and Karin Winter
Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director), Nate Malloy (Senior Planner), Pam Field Sadler (Assistant)
The packet for this Planning Board meeting contains a map of a potential overlay district along University Drive, one property deep on both sides of the street from Amity street to Snell Street, including Hawkins Meadow apartments on Route 9 and some houses near the intersection of Route 9 and University Drive. If the overlay zone is created, it would permit housing to be built along University Drive, much of which is currently zoned limited business and research and development. Use of the overlay guidelines instead of the underlying zoning would be voluntary and at the choice of the developer.
Prior to the meeting, Planning Board members Janet McGowan and Karin Winter accompanied Planning Director Chris Brestrup on a drive through the area and surrounding neighborhoods. They observed that the only residential buildings along University Drive were the Arbors Assisted Living and the mixed-use buildings at 70 University Drive and 1 University Drive South. Many of the commercial buildings were set back from the street with an abundance of paved parking which would seem to allow residential units to be built near the street.
Planning Board members felt it was important to maintain the commercial enterprises, so that they recommended that residential buildings be built with commercial space on the first floor. In order to encourage businesses to occupy the space, Bruce Coldham suggested allowing builders to add an extra floor of apartments if they offered reduced rent to the businesses on the ground floor. Doug Marshall thought a hotel might be appropriate for the area.
There was a discussion as to whether the housing constructed should be for students only. Although McGowan thought there might be an advantage to having a student village to ease some of the pressure for students to live in residential neighborhoods, most Planning Board members thought the market should decide who rents the units. Johanna Neumann said that the important thing was to address the shortage of housing in town by creating more housing.
Planner Nate Malloy said that there have been some problems at Aspen Heights, a complex on Route 9 that was designed for students, but has several affordable units, as required by the inclusionary zoning bylaw, that are occupied by families. He said that it is not ideal to have families living surrounded by students. This may also be the case when 11 East Pleasant Street opens. He suggested modifying the Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw for the overlay district to require 20% affordable units, instead of the 12% in the bylaw, but make them affordable for people earning up to 100% of area mean income, rather than 80%.
McGowan did not think that Hawkins Meadow should be included in the overlay zone. She stated that even though more housing density could be achieved at the site, she worried it would displace many of the year-round occupants who have lived there for some time. Winter agreed. McGowan suggested that the town work with UMass to build more housing on its land north of Amity Street, but Brestrup cautioned that UMass moves slowly. “We can work with them,” she said, “But I wouldn’t wait for them.”
All Planning Board members thought that parking requirements for the area should be reduced, due to the proximity to shopping, UMass, bus routes, and the bicycle path. Malloy presented some potential designs from other New England towns and hoped that the town would receive input from the downtown design consultant the town is planning to hire. He also included concepts to consider when developing the overlay district.
The Planning Board will continue to discuss the possibility of an overlay district along University Drive at it regular meetings. Jesse Mager expressed concern that the subject would be put off, saying, “We’ve been talking about the need for more housing for 10 years, and it’s time to do something.”
Student Rentals and Neighborhood Stability
The Board continued its discussion of the incursion of student rentals into residential neighborhoods. Mager used the town’s GIS data property cards to characterize neighborhoods by the number of rentals, but noted that it was not possible to differentiate student rentals from nonstudent rentals. It was clear to him, however, that rental units are not evenly distributed among neighborhoods and that the issue of the loss of family housing needs to be addressed on a neighborhood basis. For instance, in Amherst Woods only 14% of the 489 properties are not owner-occupied, but in neighborhoods closer to the center of town, it is 51%.
Neumann noted that when she sublet a house on Columbia Drive for a year, she could see the houses “fall like dominoes” to student rentals. She thought the problem of neighborhood preservation should be addressed proactively for vulnerable neighborhoods, as well as for neighborhoods that have already changed. Fred Hartwell felt that owner-occupied units should be exempt from any limitations, because they pose less threat to a neighborhood than non-owner-occupied ones.
Amherst has several ways to regulate rentals. One is limiting unrelated occupants of a unit to four or less. However, Winter said that this limit is poorly enforced, and that she sees students “hauling mattresses down the street” when an inspection is scheduled, and then hauling them back afterward. There is also the rental registration program, but that program licenses about 1200 units when Mager’s data indicates that there are over 2000 rental units in Amherst. He felt that the most effective way to stabilize neighborhoods from being overrun by student rentals is to set a minimum distance between student rentals, as is done in Ithaca, New York and State College, Pennsylvania. Other Planning Board members worried that such a system could be challenged in court. Marshall said it doesn’t seem fair that a property owner be told he could not sell to an LLC because his neighbor “beat him to it by three minutes.” Brestrup worried that the town would not have enough staff to monitor such regulations. Coldham said he would check with officials in Ithaca and State College to see how those programs are run and how many staff are involved. Marshall suggested that UMass might have better data on where students are living off campus than the town records.