Amherst ZBA rejects variance for development near Atkins Corner

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By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-12-2024 8:51 AM

Modified: 02-12-2024 1:12 PM


AMHERST — An appeal to reduce the required amount of non-residential space in a proposed mixed-use building at the Atkins Corner village center has been rejected by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The board voted 4-1 Thursday against granting a variance from town zoning bylaws to Archipelago Investments, which had sought to reduce the non-residential component of a project proposed for Gould Way at West Bay Road from 30% to 10%.

“I want the 30%, which I think is minimal and which I think is needed for the neighborhood, and I don’t think the arguments are strong enough to give it a variance,” board member Hilda Greenbaum said in voting against the variance.

“There’s no hardship if they are able to build that building, and I don’t think they are due to be given a variance as a result,” said member Craig Meadows, who also voted no.

Chairman Steve George voted in favor, though he said only because he hoped that Archipelago would return with a higher percentage for commercial space.

Planner Rob Watchilla said he would file the decision in the next week or so, leading to a 20-day appeals period.

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Archipelago Principal Kyle Wilson said the project would have somewhere less than 200 residential units, likely in a three- to four-floor building. Archipelago, which has built several mixed-use buildings in Amherst, won a request for proposal for the development on land owned by Hampshire College.

The limited ground-level commercial space would make sense, Wilson said. “What we’re trying to come up with is a balanced approach that has a little bit of retail and a lot of housing,” Wilson said.

The vote came after Wilson requested to withdraw the application without prejudice, giving him an opportunity to reapply. The board, though, took no action on that, instead preferring an up-or-down vote.

Building Commissioner Rob Morra and Planning Director Christine Bresturp and other town staff had previously met with Archipelago about the project. Morra said an apartment complex would be allowed on the site through a special permit, but each building could have only up to 24 units, and to achieve the appropriate density and coverage, there would need to be seven to eight buildings. Morra and staff instead suggested something better than a bunch of apartments with no commercial space.

“Our feeling at this time was 10% is better than no commercial space in the village center — we preferred not to see that other design, and preferred to explore this design,” Morra said.

Watchilla said it’s unclear if non-residential space can succeed, especially in a part of town with limited commercial activity. “Current market trends are showing less demand for commercial space,” Watchilla said.

Wilson said that due to the topography of the site, stormwater collection and removal of contaminated soil, and to protect the view to the south from Atkins Farms Country Market, the site for the project would have limited ground-level commercial space attractive to tenants.

Zoning Board of Appeals member Sarah Marshall said commercial space would be better closer to Atkins, rather than where it is proposed. “It would be closer to Atkins, it would be closer to their parking,” Marshall said.

Marshall noted she was reluctant to vote on a variance for a bylaw that is so critical to the creation of village centers.

Greenbaum cited the village center zoning, noting town rules originally wanted 100% commercial on the ground floor and the reduction to 30% was already a compromise. “There are uses that could go there that are lacking. Atkins is food. People need a lot more things than food,” Greenbaum said.

“I listened to the neighbors and they support the need for small local businesses, a place that is affordable to do their business,” Greenbaum said.

Zoning Board of Appeals member David Sloviter, who also voted against the proposal, said only 7.5% of the entire building would be commercial, even if 30% is on the first floor.

“There’s not much mixing going on there,” Sloviter said, meaning the proposal is taking a minimal amount of mixing to qualify the project, and reducing it even farther.

“That area is ripe for additional commercial space — there is very little in that area of town,” Meadows said.

Most of those who spoke at the meeting advocated against granting the variance.

Gustavo Oliveira of Country Corners Road said he doesn’t believe the developer made the case and that neighbors want vibrancy and more places to walk. “More bookstores, more coffee shops, there are a lot of uses that we in the community would really, really welcome,” Oliveira said.

Stella Gnepp of Country Corners Road said granting the variance would mean giving up a potential variety of shops and restaurants. “A lot more beyond housing can make it attractive, not just a place to live,” Gnepp said.

“They have not made a strong argument for this variance, so please don’t approve this variance,” said Anna Martini, also of Country Corners Road.

Former Hampshire College President Ken Rosenthal said the hope always was that the vacant lots near Atkins would be housing for faculty and staff, and that the proposed project is consistent with that idea, though the commercial spaces could have more uses and serve the 1,400 students and faculty and people who live at Applewood Apartments and Upper Orchard.

Clare Bertrand of Bay Road said she is confident in the need for more housing in town, and advocated for the variance. “I feel these developers have done due diligence. This site is costly,” Bertrand said.

Nancy Eddy of Applewood Apartments said the developers will need a compromise and should have gone higher than 10%, but the last thing she would want to see is just apartment buildings plopped onto the property.

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