Amherst planners ready to move ahead on University Drive overlay district

Amherst. 04.22.2023

Amherst. 04.22.2023 STAFF PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-10-2024 3:15 PM

AMHERST — An overlay district along a section of University Drive, to encourage construction of more apartments and mixed-use buildings, as well as social dormitories for college students, is awaiting a recommendation from the Planning Board.

Senior Planner Nate Malloy told the board at June 5 meeting that, following months of discussions, town planners are ready to move forward a zoning amendment which, according to a general description accompanying the proposal, “shall be superimposed over certain areas on the east and west sides of University Drive between Northampton Road (Route 9) and Amity Street.”

The idea is to incentivize developers through flexible standards to increase the number of beds available in proximity to the University of Massachusetts campus, while also supporting commercial development, Malloy said.

“The hope would be that maybe there’s five or six sites that could be developed using this overlay,” Malloy said.

But even though planners have put together a memo outlining the idea, it can’t move forward until a favorable recommendation comes from the Planning Board, which then leads to a formal process of writing a bylaw that can be brought to Town Council. Councilors will then decide whether to approve or reject the zoning change.

The existing limited business and office park zoning designations on the street would remain, even with the purpose of the overlay being to provide more beds for undergraduate students and denser housing options.

“From the staff idea, why skirt it and not mention students and dense or multifamily housing?” Malloy said.

The proposal states that apartments would be allowed, though not within 500 feet of major intersections, along with social dormitories and mixed-use buildings, all capped at five stories. There would not be two parking spaces required for each unit, which Malloy called antiquated, with parking to be behind the buildings or consolidated, where possible.

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“The dimensional standards and design guidelines of the University Drive Overlay District are intended to foster development with dense residential units, that enhances the pedestrian experience along the street, allows for street trees and stormwater management, provide spaces for commercial and retail uses and results in architecture that maintains a scale and character appropriate for an entry into the town and university.”

Members of the Planning Board appeared supportive of the proposal, with some reservations, even if it changes the character of a street that includes Big Y Supermarket shopping plaza and Center for Extended Care nursing home, as well as some apartment buildings and other commercial developments.

Board member Jesse Mager said his concern is that the overlay district could lead to all apartments or social dormitories, and no mixed-use buildings, aside from those within 500 feet of the intersections. The town would lose this potential commercal space forever.

“I really feel that’s a loss for the town if that were to happen,” Mager said.

Planning Board Chairman Doug Marshall, though, said if a critical mass of residents, including college students, is on the street, then that likely would encourage commercial development, as people would walk to services.

Board member Bruce Coldham said he’s willing to support the measure substantially as written by Planning Department staff.

Though he has long been interested in building up the commercial tax base, board member Fred Hartwell said the urgency comes as more neighborhoods are being lost to student rentals.

“The time has come to definitively shift the market away from the enormous economic pressures that is now evident in the general residence zoning district,” Hartwell said.

Only board member Janet McGowan called to reject the idea. “I can’t support this proposal,” McGowan said, adding that it looks like a developer’s dream because there is no requirement to provide affordable housing. “A lot of give and there’s no give back,” she said.

McGowan said some percentage of commercial and retail space should also be in any new buildings. “We’re looking for a vibrant and commercial district,” McGowan said, fearing that Amherst would also lose existing businesses, because it is lucrative for developers to build apartments and dorms.

Marshall said the overlay district gives a pressure relief valve on neighborhoods and the tax revenue from such developments “would be quite substantial and of great value to the town.”

Malloy said the proposal currently remains a planning concept. A housing subcommittee will examine it and the Planning Board could take a position before the end of June.

Even before such an overlay district is in place, developer Barry Roberts is bringing forward an 85-unit mixed-use project at the corner of Amity Street and University Drive, which would replace two one-story buildings on the site, the former Rafters Sports Bar and Restaurant at 422 Amity St. and the current Encharter insurance offices at 25 University Drive.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.