Amherst eyes new design standards for building projects 

  • Amherst Town Hall FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2022 12:14:41 PM
Modified: 8/21/2022 12:11:08 PM

AMHERST — Continued development in downtown Amherst, including construction of mixed-use five story buildings to replace 20th century commercial projects, have been permitted by town boards and committees in recent years.

While various bylaws regarding setbacks and heights guide the projects, like the completed One East Pleasant and the project under construction 11 East Pleasant, and with a master plan on the books, there are no specific criteria for what these buildings look like.

To change this, and give more control to the town, Amherst officials will soon embark on a project that aims to create specific downtown design standards, with a consultant to be sought to provide expertise in urban design, landscape architecture and historic preservation.

Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy told the Planning Board during a discussion Wednesday that the focus will be on the visioning for the main commercial corridor in downtown, as well as the abutting properties.

“We're not saying that we're going to be promoting commercial development in a residential neighborhood, but we can have design standards, and, if there are going to be big changes, to say what we want it to look like,” Malloy said.

The Planning Department is finalizing a request for proposal for the project that will cost up to $100,000 and involve extensive community engagement over a year or more, with the goal of a having a consistent vision for the town center, codified with downtown design standards.

The idea is to have the built environment look like what residents want it to, Malloy said.

The draft request for proposal notes that streetscape standards, building and architectural standards and other standards will be used.

Specifically, the proposal states “streetscape standards may include such elements as sidewalk width, materials, furnishings/amenities, lighting, crosswalks, landscaping, accessibility, pedestrian signals, bicycles, signs/wayfinding” and that “building/ architectural standards may include such things as front/side setbacks, entries, plazas, pocket parks, glazing, height limits, massing limits, upper floor step back, mechanical equipment/solar, first-floor commercial and residential uses, sidewalk crossings for cars, signs, lighting; architectural types/styles, themes.”

The final standards include density recommendations, façade treatments and lighting.

Malloy said that Ithaca, New York did something similar that provides a level of detail and tells developers the type of ingredients that the town desires.

While the town’s master plan gives general guidelines, it doesn’t spell out the width of sidewalks or how many windows a building can have.

The finished product from the consultant, Malloy said, could extrapolate and apply design standards to other areas of the town, including village centers, where similar commercial development might happen.

Planning Board Chairman Douglas Marshall said he appreciates the town might be able to give more information about the articulation of the buildings, something that isn’t done in the current review process.

Board member Janet McGowan said she is enthusiastic about a design process with the community so agreement can be reached on what people want, and residents can be comfortable as in-fill continues in downtown.

“My hope is in this process, with flexibility, we will come to an agreement and be part of a community process of putting together something,” McGowan said.

District 3 Town Councilor Dorothy Pam told planners that the consultant needs to know what cues will guide development, whether the town will be following the brutalist style architecture at the University of Massachusetts or the more classic design of buildings closer to Town Hall.

“Otherwise you could get a lot of really crazy designs that would cause a lot of people to have heart attacks,” Pam said.

But she cautioned against removing any buffer between the dense commercial district and nearby residential neighborhoods. “I hope that you’re not going to allow high rises on both sides of Kendrick Park,” Pam said.

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