Amherst Media project gets favorable reviews in planning board session

  • A rendering of Amherst Media’s proposed new headquarters.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/6/2020 1:41:46 PM

AMHERST — Town planners are giving favorable feedback to a new building that would house the headquarters for Amherst Media on a portion of the historic greenscape in front of the Henry Hills House on Main Street.

At the first hearing on site plans for the 1 1/2-story building, members of the Planning Board expressed support for the plans from Gillen Collaborative Architects of Amherst and The Zengineer of Easthampton. The structure is slated to be built on .55 acres at the corner of Main and Gray streets.

The plans in January received a unanimous certificate of appropriateness from the Local Historic District Commission, which reviews projects in the Emily Dickinson Local Historic District.

“Much as I hate to see a building on this site, nonetheless there is going to be one, and, this is going to be a good one, I think,” said board member Michael Birtwistle.

Birtwistle, who once lived in the Emily Dickinson House, said the landscape in front of the Henry Hills House has already been affected by several homes placed along Gray Street in recent years.

Board member Maria Chao said she appreciates that the project has responded to multiple town boards, that parking is concealed from the street, and that the building appearance fits in with the adjacent homes.

“This is exactly what this site needed,” Chao said.

“Well thought out, well detailed, well engineered” is how Board Chairwoman Christine Gray-Mullen described the plans. Vice Chairman Jack Jemsek said the design is “quite impressive.”

Site engineer Bucky Sparkle of The Zengineer said the Greek Revival building blends into the commercial character of Main Street.

“It's a broad structure, it's about 105-feet wide and it has a relatively modest roofline considering there's a television studio underneath it," Sparkle said, noting that the building rises to 26 feet in height, which is shorter than some neighboring homes.

The Gray Street side, near homes, is 55-feet wide and features a classic New England porch entrance, Sparkle said. This gives it a residential look and feel.

The building has also been moved to the east as far as possible, Sparkle said, to protect the view of the Henry Hills Mansion. The new construction will make “very little impact” on this view, he said.

Eight parking spaces would be built, whereas the town bylaw would normally require 15 spaces for an office. With virtually no traffic generated at the site, the project is seeking a waiver of a traffic impact study.

Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault said plans have evolved significantly over the past 18 months. This came despite pressure to sell the land and consider options for moving the headquarters, currently in an Eversource-owned building on College Street, to a public school building, such as Amherst Regional High School.

But Lescault said the amount offered for the land was 25% less than its assessed value, and in discussions with the school department about relocating it was determined an addition to the high school would have been both complicated and expensive.

“Regardless of being told in editorials that we should accept this offer if we really cared about the Amherst community, or else we should expect no financial support for our capital campaign, it is obvious that Amherst Media did not agree with either part of that argument,” Lescault said.

Planning Board member Douglas Marshall said the board is not in the position to stop the project, but only to optimize site plans in consideration of the surrounding neighborhood.

“Unless the town or somebody else wants to buy the property, something's going to be built here,” Marshall said.

The Planning Board did receive concerns about a retaining wall and drainage by an attorney representing Harmsway LLC, the neighbors who own the Henry Hills House.

Dan Finnegan, another attorney for Harmsway, said he is worried that Amherst Media sought to consider itself an educational use so no special permit would be needed from the Zoning Board of Appeals, but for setback requirements, Amherst Media doesn’t want to be considered an educational use.

"They can't have their cake and eat it too," Finnegan said, adding that a variance should be sought from the ZBA.

The Planning Board hearing will continue on July 15 at 6:35 p.m.

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


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