Petition seeks moratorium on large-scale building projects in Amherst

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2021 10:08:55 AM

AMHERST — Rather than creating what he describes as more “slum-like” developments in downtown Amherst, Ira Bryck of Strong Street argues the town should do more planning and take a break with a moratorium on approving projects like the mixed-use One East Pleasant and Kendrick Place.

These five-story buildings are often displacing existing shops and restaurants, and developers are doing nothing to create adequate space for new retailers or service businesses, says Jennifer Taub of Lincoln Avenue.

“I don’t see how the moratorium sends the wrong message to businesses,” Taub said.

Bryck and Taub are among several residents who spent more than 30 minutes on Monday evening telling the Town Council they favor a citizens petition seeking a 180-day moratorium on new buildings with three or more residential units in three zoning districts, including downtown Amherst.

Such a moratorium, which would be considered a zoning change, could pause two mixed-use projects recently announced by local developers. One is the 11 East Pleasant building by Archipelago Investments, a project that would replace a parking lot and empty commercial buildings immediately north of One East Pleasant. The other is an unnamed project that would be constructed by Amherst developer Barry Roberts between North Pleasant Street and the Boltwood parking garage.

With more than 200 signatures, the petition delivered to Town Council begins a process under state law that will include a joint Planning Board and Community Resources Committee hearing that will be held no later than April 21. Following that review and input from the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee, a recommendation will go to the full Town Council. A two-thirds majority is needed to approve the zoning change.

The moratorium calls for town officials to not issue building permits for large-scale projects for six months in the general business, limited business and general residence zoning districts. The idea is to “provide time for town staff and a consultant to provide outreach to residents, to assist in drafting design standards” and to amend various zoning requirements, such as for building heights and setbacks, required affordability and compatibility with the town’s Climate Action, Adaptation and Resilience Plan.

While several residents told councilors the moratorium would allow more feedback from the community on what development should look like and what sort of housing is needed, Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said it would be detrimental to economic growth.

In addition, due to the crisis in housing in the region, Pazmany said a moratorium would be antithetical to goals adopted by the council last fall promoting more housing options.

Similarly, Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said there is a need for more collective density  downtown, and that such developments bring taxes and are providing diverse housing.

“People who live in the buildings are spending money in our downtown,” Gould said.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said she doesn’t understand the reasoning of the moratorium, and advocates for finding solutions through a community engagement plan that the Community Resources Committee is undertaking.

The proposed moratorium, she said, would hurt local builders like Roberts, who was instrumental in revitalizing the Amherst Cinema and a bank building for AmherstWorks.

“We need more inclusion and dialogue, not moratoriums,” Bahl-Milne said.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she would also oppose a moratorium. 

Cathy Schoen, a District 1 councilor, said the idea of the moratorium is not to stop buildings but to have better projects with design guidelines and streetscape improvements.

“We need to do this because we need a vision on the direction of change,” Schoen said.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said a moratorium would allow the council to develop an across-the-board inclusionary zoning bylaw that would mandate all developments include apartments that can be rented by low- and moderate-income individuals and families.

Schoen, Pam and District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont proposed their own version of a moratorium. That has been withdrawn following the citizens petition.

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