Amherst board relaxes zoning for big project next to UMass

A rendering of the potential 422 Amity St. project, seen from a new roundabout at Amity Street and University Drive.

A rendering of the potential 422 Amity St. project, seen from a new roundabout at Amity Street and University Drive. Kuhn Riddle Architects

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-26-2024 4:16 PM

Modified: 02-26-2024 11:58 PM


AMHERST — A large mixed-use development next to the University of Massachusetts, providing both market-rate and affordable housing, can proceed to the next phase of municipal review after receiving Zoning Board of Appeals variances that will allow the new buildings to be taller and to contain more apartments — 85 in total — than allowed by town zoning.

The Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously Thursday to approve the variances from Amherst’s dimensional regulations, citing a hardship based on soil conditions while also noting that the project, 422 Amity Street, is consistent with existing development patterns.

“I like the idea of this project — I like the idea of putting more mixed use with residential at that site,” said Chairman Steve Judge. “I think it’s woefully underutilized right now.”

Thomas Reidy, an attorney with Bacon Wilson PC of Amherst, representing UDrive Amity LLC and its principal, Amherst developer Barry Roberts, explained the reasons for seeking the variances. Reidy said they were the only financially feasible way to do the project on the 5.3-acre site where the former Rafters Sports Bar and Restaurant was located before the building’s conversion into a since-closed marijuana dispensary, while a second building on the site is the offices of Encharter insurance and other tenants.

The first variance is from dimensional regulations in the limited business zoning district, allowing UDrive Amity to reduce both the additional lot area per housing unit, normally 4,000 square feet, to 2,500 square feet, thus increasing the allowed apartment count from 53 to 85. The other variance allows the buildings to rise to 57 feet, above the normal 45 feet in the limited business zone.

Reidy said it was important to pursue a mixed-use project, since an apartment building would be capped at 24 units. This project can have a variety of one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments, with plans for 259 beds.

Ten affordable units, two of which will be reserved for people making 60% of area median income, are included, along with the ground-level commercial space.

“I think it’s important to keep commercial on the first floor, really for the public good,” Reidy said. “That’s what this site wants.”

Fits with possibleU-Drive overlay district

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The project also appears to fit in with the Planning Board’s consideration for an overlay district for much of University Drive that would allow more dense development on the western side of the street to the Hadley town line, where there are largely single-story, strip-mall-style developments.

Planning Director Christine Brestrup said the Planning Board’s work is a parallel track to this proposed development, with increased housing density possible. Such an overlay district has a lot of potential and limited anxiety from neighbors due to its proximity to UMass and because the street is already developed and has significant traffic to and from the campus, she said.

Planning Board member Bruce Coldham told the Zoning Board of Appeals that planners are trying to create a circumstance, through an overlay district that would be voted on by the Town Council, where such variance requests aren’t necessary. “We want to see University Drive look more like this than it does now,” Coldham said.

Zoning Board of Appeals member Craig Meadows said the development seems like an excellent project that fits well within what the town is looking for, including preventing conversion of single-family homes to student rentals.

Board member Everald Henry said he would like to see more affordable apartments. This advocacy will be made to the Planning Board when it reviews the project and sets conditions.

While board member David Sloviter said he doesn’t look at the project as having a hardship, he supported the appeal. However, he said he is concerned that a roundabout at Amity Street and University Drive, as shown in the plans, depends on a MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant and UMass providing land for the intersection to be reconfigured.

“I’m not a big fan of hope as a plan — I like plans as a plan,” Sloviter said. “That intersection already has issues with the traffic volume.”

With UMass being a partner in the grant and conversations about providing the land, Brestrup said the roundabout is likely a go. “If this project doesn’t happen, then our chances of getting a MassWorks grant are diminished,” Brestrup said.

The development is receiving favorable comments from residents who spoke, including Andrew Leinung of Amity Street, who offered his “unbridled support” for the project. “More housing and more commercial activity is supremely beneficial to our town,” Leinung said.

Laetitia Lafollette of Dana Street cited rising property taxes, including paying for the new elementary school building, as a reason to support such developments. “Amherst desperately needs a development project like this, a $40 million project, to help bring in much-needed revenue,” Lafollette said.

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