Who approved those tall buildings?

Nick Grabbe


It’s amazing to me that some Town Meeting supporters are pointing to the size of the two new buildings at the northern end of downtown as reasons for retaining the current political system. The size of these buildings was approved under the current system!

That’s right, five stories in this part of town are allowed because of a Town Meeting vote in 2013. There are some questions about that vote, and I’ll get to them.

But first, let me speak to those who don’t like the appearance of Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, which is under construction.

Whether it is the buildings’ size or architecture or what their size represents that you dislike, I can understand your reactions. Many people in town feel this way. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the way these buildings look, though One East Pleasant seems a little too close to the road for a building that size. This is largely a matter of personal taste.

Kendrick Place has an unusual shape, but it seems to arouse more negative comments than the Kentucky Fried Chicken style of the Bank of America branch across the street (shown in photo). And then there’s the strip of stores on Triangle Street.

The two new buildings conform to the long-debated master plan, which urged that development occur downtown and in village centers, in order to preserve open space and residential neighborhoods.

It seems to me that you can dislike the appearance of these buildings and still acknowledge their many benefits to the town.

First, they promote downtown revitalization. If we want businesses, restaurants and the Amherst Cinema to thrive, we need more people living downtown. If there are enough downtown residents, we will see more service businesses – maybe even a food market.

Second, these are among the greenest buildings in town. They received Gold LEED certification for energy efficiency, and Kendrick Place has four Zip Cars (for only 42 units) and 40 bike racks. Their central location means fewer car trips.

Third, these buildings bring in lots of property taxes. Kendrick Place’s owners paid $165,966 last year, and 1 East Pleasant’s taxes could be double that. That tax money helps pay the salaries of teachers, police officers and firefighters.

Fourth, Kendrick Place provides 70 high-paying jobs on its ground floor, helping the downtown economy. Mass Mutual located these jobs there to help recruit computer science and cyber-security students from UMass.

Fifth, these buildings address the pent-up demand for housing in Amherst and help reverse the trend of students living in residential neighborhoods. Many of the residents of Kendrick Place are graduate students.

Sixth, problems with traffic, parking and noise have not materialized, as some had feared. Kendrick Place tenants have relatively few cars, and those who do have cars can park them in a previously underutilized lot on Pray Street. One East Pleasant will have 38 parking spaces, though none were required. Police report few noise problems at Kendrick Place.

Seventh, the proximity of Kendrick Place to the nearby intersection was vital to securing the $1.5 million state grant that partly funded the roundabout and burying utility wires underground.

Whether or not voters approve the new charter on March 27, it is likely that housing development will continue in Amherst. There’s a plan for a housing development on Spring Street, behind the Masonic Temple, and construction of the 130-unit North Square in North Amherst is due to start soon. UMass has plans for a 1,200-bed dormitory and a 150-room hotel and conference center.

Regarding that 2013 Town Meeting vote, some members have said they were “misled” into approving the five stories, and the word “mendacity” has been used. I was not present for this session, so I contacted three knowledgeable people who were.

They said that critics have conflated two separate items, the method by which the height of buildings is measured and the allowable height and number of stories. I took their explanation to one of those critics, Gerry Weiss, who responded that he expected sloped roofs to be part of a five-story building.

Developers wanted more height, which would allow more stories, under the pretext of being able to use sloped roofs in the design,” Weiss wrote to me. “They argued successfully that it would be unfair to count the height of those roofs since they would be uninhabited. I, like many in Town Meeting, felt that was a reasonable argument and a reasonable idea to bring more development downtown, and key to this was that the new development would be attractive.”

To me, this difference of perception illustrates the complexity of zoning. That’s why it makes sense to have a democratically elected Town Council, meeting regularly, make these decisions. The council will be able to deliberate about zoning proposals over weeks and months, not just in one night, acquiring more information and citizen input before making a decision. And a higher percentage of votes will be required for the approval of zoning changes than at Town Meeting.

Recently, an anti-charter group posted a comment by a resident who predicted that the council will be composed of people who “think that downtown should be filled with 5-story buildings.” When I told him the facts, he responded, “I didn’t remember that it was Town Meeting that approved 5-story buildings.”

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Comments 33

  1. As you say, it’s a matter of opinion, but I love the look of Kendrick Place. Also, why is tall bad? Some beautiful old buildings downtown are tall. I used to live in an apartment on the top floor of the building that Collective Copies is located in – it’s tall and it’s fine. I loved living there.

    It’s not how tall a building is, it’s what it looks like. The not-old tall tall building (brick) just south of the fire station is “OK” IMHO but not great. Kendrick looks better to my eye. CVS = ugly and not tall.

    Take a town-wide vote on: “Is Kendrick Place ugly and/or too tall”? I bet majority say “no”.

    And yes the “Kentucky Fried Chicken style of the Bank of America” is the ugliest building downtown by far, and almost single-handedly wrecks the look of downtown. Anyone know how that building happened?

    1. If you love the look of Kendrick Place then you have no taste. People aren’t opposed to development. What they want is contextual development which retains the character of the Town. Examples would be the Trolley Barn in North Amherst and the commercial development opposite Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley.

      1. Post

        Steve, I get it. You don’t like the look of Kendrick Place. Is it the size or the architecture, or both, that you don’t like? Do you think that’s a matter of personal opinion or an objective reality? Is Kendrick Place less “contextual” than the nearby Bank of America building or Triangle Street strip mall? Are you able to simultaneously dislike the appearance of Kendrick Place and acknowledge the seven benefits I outlined in the post? If you are, do you think your dislike of the appearance should outweigh those benefits?

      2. Steve–The planning board proposed modified zoning bylaws twice to Town Meeting to required what’s referred to as “Form-Based Zoning” in our business centers. Such zoning would have regulated the “look” of the buildings to make sure they fit in with the character of the area in which they are being built. Town Meeting, both times, failed to pass these bylaws. If they had passed, then I feel certain the “look” of these two buildings would be in better character with the rest of the downtown area.

        1. Actually, the Planning Board twice proposed form-based design standards for certain mixed-use centers (North Amherst and Atkins Corner) — not specifically for the town center. However, I am sure that if Town Meeting had adopted what was proposed there, the Planning Board would have soon suggested town center-specific, form-based design standards, and that they would have been similar to those proposed for the village centers.

          1. Thanks for the clarification. I recently briefly skimmed the proposals, and it seemed that the new section would apply to certain zoning districts throughout town, with modifications to that section applying to just North Amherst or Atkins. Since it was 5 years ago that I last looked at it extensively, I guess my memory failed me.

      3. What is it about this town that draws people who want to impose their aesthetic on the rest of us?

        Nobody cares what I think about the new buildings – I don’t care what others think either. The developers followed the rules established by the town – voted on by Town Meeting – and invested millions to erect their buildings. You don’t like the zoning that allowed it? Change it through the petition process. You want a different look for the buildings? You invest the money and build them yourself. You want a fish monger or a butcher or a family-owned drug store downtown? You open it. I’m tired of people showing up at meetings with a wish-list of “wants” and no willingness to invest a dime.

        We didn’t like the way our town was neglected by our current governance structure and the unaccountable form or Representative Town Meeting. Guess what we did? That’s right – we started a petition process to change it. Now we’re demanding better governance.

      4. Steve, there is a saying that has stuck with me since high school Latin: de gustibus non disputandum est.

        Our built environment is peppered with buildings and structures which may have been denounced by their contemporaries as “tasteless” (or considered aesthetically undistinguished and thus ignored) but now are deemed historical resources worthy of protection.

        While I don’t consider Kendrick Place or One East Pleasant to be aesthetic home runs , the three new buildings downtown are no more or less distinguished than the brick blocks on the north and west sides of the Common which were mostly built – or rather rebuilt – in the 1880s after big fire wiped out their wood frame predecessors.

        What many, and perhaps you are among them, would today consider “tasteful” others might dismiss as a kitschy neo-revivalist, reactionary hash. I don’t think any of us – or a respectful dialogue about design sensibilities – is well served by telling someone else that they “have no taste”.

  2. The vote for changing the way building height is measured was a declared 2/3 majority at Town Meeting.
    The vote in favor of allowing 1 more story (from 4 to 5) in the B-G zone was 121 to 53. I am proud to have joined Town Meeting members Gerry Weiss, Janet McGowan, and many others in the super majority. That change has allowed our downtown to become more sustainable and beautiful. Who would have thought that the weed and litter filled vacant lot next to Bertuccis could support new residences and businesses?
    I love how 5 story buildings are called tall in Amherst. In many areas–including nearby UMass– they are considered “low rise”

  3. Did you know that the bricks used on 1EPl are handmade by the same (fourth generation of) family brick makers in New Hampshire as our beloved buildings in the center?

  4. The height variance they keep complaining about was so there could be a taller load-in dock for move-ins (those darn UHaul trucks), so they wouldn’t block the street (E Pleasant) every time someone moved in. It had nothing whatsoever to do with adding a floor. Conveniently forgotten, I might add. It was like 6 feet.

  5. Thanks for the context, on these buildings, Nick.

    As someone who works for an environmental organization and has worked to protect our air, land and water for my entire career, I agree that we need to live more densely. I appreciate that these buildings don’t come with a parking space for every apartment. Young people are driving less, have less expectations of car ownership, and with car sharing, bike-sharing and efficient and effective public transit, we can break our addiction to fossil fuels, be happier healthier people, and have more vibrant communities.

    But there’s so much more to do if we want to ensure a livable future for our children and we need to move quickly. Science tells us we basically need to stop burning fossil fuels by 2050 if we want any reasonable chance of averting the worst impacts of climate change. That means we need to start the transition now to building the future we seek. Massachusetts is a leader when it comes to climate action, and in the commonwealth, Amherst has historically been a leader as well. And in keeping with that history of leadership, this fall Amherst’s Town Meeting adopted a goal of getting 100% of our energy from 100% renewable sources by 2050, which is widely regarded as the direction we need to go in.

    Now we need to get serious about putting in place the steps to get there. And I for one believe that our current form of government is ill-suited to making the transformation happen. Getting to 100% renewable energy will require thoughtful and coordinated planning and investments. And I don’t believe our current form of government is up to that challenge. We have 5 bodies in town that are all involved in planning and development decisions, but who meet largely independently. And making real investments requires town meeting approval – but if town meeting only meets twice a year for marathon sessions that don’t allow for thoughtful exchange of ideas or debunking of facts, I feel like they can’t understand the full complexity of the choices before them. And so the status quo will prevail.

    Town meeting seems to be good at discrete feel-good actions like throwing $50,000 at a local library, but when it comes to elegant and thoughtful re-envisioning of what it will take to keep Amherst thriving in the face of big challenges like how to transition away from fossil fuels, I am skeptical that our current form of government can deliver the change we need.

  6. I’m still trying to figure out what would be wrong with a densely populated downtown, in which residents shopped downtown and used the Library, the restaurants, and the movie theater. Maybe we could even get a grocery store back, perhaps even a locally owned one. What would be wrong with a downtown in which inhabitants walked the town and used public transportation to get to college campuses, downtown Northampton, and the shopping malls? What would be wrong with a downtown sufficiently “equipped” to cause residents to think twice about the use and ownership of a motor vehicle? I assume that such a place might have buildings that were five stories tall. I’m just taking the piety of the ZE advocacy in Town Meeting last fall and extending it to our future. What would be wrong with a downtown that made retail sprawl fiscally unnecessary, that would allow us to continue to preserve open space AND be able to afford it?

  7. A few thoughts…………..

    What does the B of A building have to do with the charter or with Town Meeting?? That building required a permit, which was granted by either the ZBA or the Planning Board. And if a Special Permit was required, then changes could have been required by that permitting body. There is nothing Town Meeting could have done to prevent it, nor could a Town Council have prevented it from being permitted. I did hear a story that it was the B of A building that led to the creation of the Design Review Board, who can require aesthetic changes to be made to a downtown building design.

    I also agree with Nick that a council will have more opportunity to have discussions before voting on a zoning proposal. However, it doesn’t guarantee such things. There is no way to predict that the council wouldn’t have passed the zoning in one evening that allowed the new buildings to be built. As I said to you in the email you’re quoting from, there were two articles that allowed the zoning changes, but they were connected. In fact, they were two parts of the same article and were linked in the concept that 5 stories were necessary to allow for sloped roofs and of course additional stories would require additional height, which town meeting also agreed to. And many of us agreed to these changes because we wanted to encourage new development downtown that would be attractive. The height of the building is not at all the issue for me or as far as I know, anyone who voted for the zoning changes. I wish I had inserted language into the zoning that would have required sloped roofs, not just have them be an idea.

    I’m glad to see that Nick has mentioned that building will continue downtown whether there is a Town Meeting or a council. I agree. It’s the how and what that matters. A developer recently tried to get Town Meeting to rezone the north side of N. Pleasant St from Brugger’s to McClellan Street as well as the north side of Triangle as far as Cottage, as well as parts of S Prospect. Town Meeting said no to those changes. I argued that it was time for a comprehensive plan of what Town Planners see as the vision for downtown. We know what huge changes can occur with rezoning and want to see a plan, but no plan was offered – just rezone to allow more 5 story apartment buildings to go up in all those places (likely in concert with the tearing down of many older attractive buildings, like those on N. Pleasant). The good news is that the Planning Dept is now holding community forums on the future of downtown. In my mind, Town Meeting did the right thing in not rezoning more of downtown and Town Hall has responded to that no vote with a very appropriate initiative.

    I am curious Nick about your statement : “a higher percentage of votes will be required for the approval of zoning changes than at Town Meeting.” The council will need a 2/3 vote to change zoning; Town Meeting requires a 2/3 vote. Surely, you didn’t add that sentence because a council of 13 will actually require a .69 majority instead of the .67 required by Town Meeting. (as the size of the body increases, the closer one gets to .67. 2/3 is 2/3 .

    1. Post

      Gerry, in response to your last point, state law says that if 20 percent of owners of property within 300 feet of a site proposed for rezoning file a written protest, passage will require yes votes from 75 percent of the councilors (in other words, 10 of them). That’s 77 percent approval required, compared to 67 percent at Town Meeting. And because of the heavy neighborhood as opposed to at-large representation on the council, that’s a high bar. If owners of neighboring property don’t object and zoning changes require approval by nine councilors, that 69 percent is still higher than Town Meeting’s 67 percent.

    2. Two other corrections to your comment, Gerry:

      First, you say: “There is no way to predict that the council wouldn’t have passed the zoning in one evening that allowed the new buildings to be built.” Your statement is incorrect. The Charter requires two reading for any bylaw to pass, which requires that the zoning bylaws be discussed on two different nights at two different meetings. So, there is a way to guarantee that the Council will not pass zoning bylaw changes in one evening and the Commission, you included, put it in the Charter.

      Second, you stated: “I wish I had inserted language into the zoning that would have required sloped roofs, not just have them be an idea.” That concept was the purpose of the form based zoning articles that came before Town Meeting 2 times in 2011 and 2012. An excerpt from the Planning Board Report, describing Form Based Zoning: “Form-based design regulations protect, enhance, and guide the design character of specific areas. They function as an additional layer of zoning design regulations aimed at determining the eventual “form” of an area as it develops over time. Rather than focusing on specific (and usually temporary) details like color, building materials, signs, etc., form-based zoning focuses on making the overall design of the area meet community goals.” In other words, form-based zoning could have required that those buildings fit into the “look” of downtown better. If they had passed, sloped roofs could have been required. But Town Meeting failed to pass those articles each and every time the it came in front of them. You voted against that change to the zoning, both times.

  8. Thanks for that piece of information. As I read what you’ve said, the 75% is state law and applies to Town Meeting as well. Is that right ? If so, then the difference between TM and the council is the 2% difference because 67% of 13 is 8.7 people, which of course must be rounded up to 9.

    1. Post
    2. Post

      Here’s the citation, Gerry.

      MGL 40A Section 5

      No zoning ordinance or by-law or amendment thereto shall be adopted or changed except by a two-thirds vote of all the members of the town council, or of the city council where there is a commission form of government or a single branch, or of each branch where there are two branches, or by a two-thirds vote of a town meeting; provided, however, that if in a city or town with a council of fewer than twenty-five members there is filed with the clerk prior to final action by the council a written protest against such change, stating the reasons duly signed by owners of twenty per cent or more of the area of the land proposed to be included in such change or of the area of the land immediately adjacent extending three hundred feet therefrom, no such change of any such ordinance shall be adopted except by a three-fourths vote of all members.

  9. Amherst’s downtown has had two other five-story buildings for decades: the Ann Whalen House and the Clark House. Many of their residents have been, and some still are, Town Meeting members.

  10. Good to know all that. Thanks Nick. I wonder if zoning changes downtown could ever mount such a local protest. I would say that in residential areas, it could definitely come into play.

  11. It would be helpful to me, and maybe others, to see a CAST-IN-STONE SET OF GUIDING PRINCIPLES that a proposed town council would adhere to, and also what principles would be the minimum acceptable standards for an improved town meeting. I’d like both groups (assuming there is a trusted core of people that could draw this up for each group) commit to adhere to: how transparency would be maintained; how to ensure that members of either body would stay amply informed, including about the pros and cons of all options; how money and influence would be disclosed, or even prohibited; how to create barriers for entry, ie: encourages competitive contests for any seat; term limits that make sense; a mandate to respect how a super-majority of citizens (hopefully via online referendum) envisions the character of the town; bring what works about historic town meeting into the digital age; continuous improvement by benchmarking other systems globally, not just town meetings or councils in Massachusetts; how to maintain the proper balance of power (and boundaries) with the university; and your vision, ie: what Amherst will look like in 20 years, if all your goals are met (what will downtown look like? what will home ownership versus rental housing look like? what will development versus open space look like? what will the mix of business look like? what will town centers look like?) I CHALLENGE THE SO-CALLED LEADERS OF BOTH POSITIONS TO CREATE AND PUBLISH THESE DOCUMENTS/ VIDEOS, TO INFORM AMHERST VOTERS ON MARCH 27th.

    1. Post

      These are all important questions that Amherst voters should consider, and I thank Ira for bringing them up. Only some of them, however, relate to the choice between the new charter and the current form of government. Many of them are appropriate questions to ask of candidates for Town Council or Town Meeting. The question that voters need to decide on March 27 is not what policies Amherst will have, but rather what form of government best ensures that decisions about those policies will be made by residents who have a mandate from voters. Charter proponents are not seeking to advance a series of policies, but rather to have a form of government that is more accountable to the voters.

  12. I’m a little lost here in your endless criticisms of Town Meeting. You like increased density downtown and you like the Kendrick Place and East Pleasant Street buildings. They were built under zoning approved by different Town Meetings –and so you want to replace Town Meeting? Because……..? Am I missing something?

    Also, just a factual note, the Planning Board approved those buildings, granting many, many waivers but choosing not to require, as it could, that any affordable housing units be built. The Planning Board could have lowered the height, increased setbacks, and added requirements that would have led to less of a massive (or one could say hulking) look and fit in better with the buildings downtown that are, I believe, much more attractive. But the Planning Board didn’t.

    1. Post

      Either Janet McGowan is deliberately twisting my words, or she hasn’t read the post she’s commenting on.
      I did not write that I “like” Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant. I wrote that I do not have major problems with their appearance, except that I think One East Pleasant is too close to the road. The seven benefits of the two buildings that I listed are facts, not opinions. It’s important to distinguish between the two. It’s OK to dislike the buildings’ appearance and still acknowledge the benefits.
      Whether or not I “like” increased density downtown is not relevant. What is relevant is that the master plan, responding to massive public participation, decreed that development should be focused downtown and in village centers. These two buildings (and the Town Meeting vote) are consistent with that.
      And I was not criticizing Town Meeting for approving the five stories on these buildings. I was criticizing people who use the fifth stories of these buildings as a reason to oppose the charter, unaware that it was Town Meeting that approved the five stories.
      On the second part of this comment, I will defer to Steve Schreiber of the Planning Board for a response.

      1. Nick (and others concerned about how close to the road One East Pleasant may or may not be),
        May I ask that you wait until the construction is complete and the barriers removed before deciding whether the building is too close to the road? I think it’s too early to make that judgment, and I think you’ll be surprised at how much space there really is.

    2. Hi Janet
      The 240 volunteer Town Meeting members who meet twice a year sometimes amend and/or pass zoning by-laws not easy to interpret. As you know, TM is the legislative branch and the Planning Board is the executive branch. That’s part of the check and balance you like so much. The PB must interpret laws passed by TM.
      The inclusionary zoning bylaw says that housing projects requiring a special permit must include affordable housing, but there are many special permits–live music after 10 pm, signs larger than normally allowed, etc. Surely TM didn’t intend for by-right housing projects –that happen to have live music after 10pm–to be required to provide affordable housing.
      The PB looked at the minutes of the public hearings, and determined that the intent was only for special permits for use. That interpretation was backed up by town counsel. The PB tried to fix the problem with legislation that addresses your concerns, but it was voted down by Town Meeting. (I think you voted no).

    3. With regard to the “many, many waivers” granted to Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, here are the facts:

      Kendrick Place received two waivers: for a sign plan and for a traffic impact statement. The applicant eventually returned to the Planning Board and submitted a sign plan. A traffic impact statement was deemed unnecessary because there would be at most four vehicles entering and exiting the property at any particular time. The zoning bylaw doesn’t require an analysis of pedestrian traffic.

      One East Pleasant received no waivers.

      If special permits are what was being referred to, Kendrick Place received special permits to:
      * increase maximum lot coverage from 95% to 100%
      * increase maximum building coverage from 70% to 75%
      * increase maximum height from 55’ to 56’10”
      – all minor adjustments in the judgment of the Planning Board.

      One East Pleasant received special permits to:
      * increase maximum height from 55’ to 60’
      * modify the side and rear setback requirement from 0’ or 20’ (a confusing regulation that permits a zero setback but not one foot or nineteen feet) to 4’4”, 5’4”, and 5’0” at various points.
      The adjustment in height enabled a taller ground floor which in turn will allow delivery trucks, trash pickup, etc. to access the interior of the building rather than park on the street.

      1. To Rob’s point, the zoning by-law (ZBL) seems to use the terms “waiver” and “special permit” without any particular rational reasoning. Neither are defined in MGL or in the ZBL. The zoning by-law uses “waiver” for things like signage, traffic impact; and “special permit” for things like live music after 10, signage (also), building dimension, building use.
        Town Meeting passed the inclusionary zoning bylaw that says “all residential development [of a certain size] requiring a Special Permit…” shall provide affordable units. Planning Board had to interpret what Town Meeting meant. We did look at the minutes from the public hearings–the intent was special permit for use (not live music, signage, dimensions). However, Planning Board also recognized that developers seeking special permits for dimension, are working on a bigger playing field (than those who work completely within the by-right dimensions). We proposed a fix that would require developers to provide affordable housing in proportion to the increased bulk. That fix was defeated by Town Meeting.

  13. Representative Town Meeting supporters are now claiming that members of the legislature were “duped” by the various town boards that proposed the zoning changes that opened the door to greater downtown density. They’re saying this in defense of Town Meeting.

    I think most Amherst voters will see this as an example of a legislative flop, and yet another reason to replace our RTM system with a Town Council, where the more duly elected officials will have the time and resources to dedicate to zoning changes, so that we’re not “duped” again by proposed changes? In their zeal to frame the new Town Charter debate through the binary lense of pro- and anti-growth, Representative Town Meeting loyalists are, in effect, under-cutting their own arguments.

    It’s long past time to set up a more reasoned and mature governance system, with a legislature that can meet regularly to deliberate on zoning and other complex issues that are the tools we use as a community to tackle our short- and long-term challenges.

    1. If a super majority of Rep. Town Meeting was duped, then Rep. Town Meeting doesn’t work. It might be true that a large majority of TM members wait until TM to get their information, and base their decision on the first or last person to speak. Zoning by-laws are the only Town Meeting articles that are required to be vetted at public hearings in advance of Rep. Town Meeting. Those public hearings attract maybe 10 Town Meeting members (out of 256). I want legislators who pay attention earlier in the process, who ask hard questions at public hearings, and who show up at the legislature ready to make an informed vote.
      I’ve never heard of a Council that thinks it was duped by one of its boards.

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