Amherst considers new design standards for construction projects

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AMHERST – Ongoing development in downtown Amherst, including the construction of five-story mixed-use buildings to replace 20th-century commercial projects, has been authorized by city councils and committees in recent years.

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

To change that and give the city more control, Amherst officials will soon embark on a project to create downtown-specific 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 Council during a discussion on Wednesday that the focus will be on visioning the main downtown commercial corridor, as well as adjoining properties.

“We’re not saying we’re going to promote commercial development in a residential area, but we can have design standards and, if there’s going to be big changes, say what we want it to look like,” Malloy says.

The Planning Department is finalizing a Request for Proposal for the project which will cost up to $100,000 and involve extensive community engagement over a year or more, with the goal of having a cohesive vision for the downtown core, codified with downtown design standards.

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

The draft RFP indicates that streetscape standards, building and architectural standards, and other standards will be used.

Specifically, the proposal states that “Streetscape standards may include such things as sidewalk widths, 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, entrances, plazas, pocket parks, glazing, height limits , volume limits, upper floor reverse, mechanical/solar equipment, first floor commercial and residential uses, car curb crossings, signs, lighting; architectural types/styles, themes.

Final standards include density recommendations, facade treatments and lighting.

Malloy said Ithaca, New York has done something similar that provides a level of detail and tells developers what kind of ingredients the city wants.

Although the city master plan provides general guidelines, it does not specify the width of sidewalks or the number of windows a building may have.

The consultant’s finished product, Malloy said, could extrapolate and apply the design standards to other areas of the city, including village centers, where similar commercial development could occur.

Planning Board Chairman Douglas Marshall said he appreciates the city may be able to provide more information on building articulation, which is not being done in the current review process. .

Board member Janet McGowan said she was excited about a design process with the community so agreement can be reached on what people want and residents can be comfortable as filling continues downtown.

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

District 3 Councilwoman Dorothy Pam told planners the consultant needs to know what clues will guide the development, whether the city will follow the Brutalist-style architecture of the University of Massachusetts or the more classical design of buildings closer of the town hall.

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

But she cautioned against removing any buffer zone between the dense commercial district and nearby residential neighborhoods. “I hope you don’t allow skyscrapers on both sides of Kendrick Park,” Pam said.

Scott Merzbach can be contacted at [email protected]

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