Friday, January 30, 2015

ZBA Drones On

Crotty Hall rendering looking from the Northwest

As usual the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting last night went on for over four hours, and as is also somewhat usual they did not come to a final vote on any of the three major items discussed.  And you thought Amherst Town Meeting took forever!

First up was Stephan Gharabegian, arguably the most notorious absentee landlord in the town of Amherst.  Mr Gharabegian owns almost half the houses on Phillips Street, the most notorious street in Amherst.

33 Phillips Street

In this case he wishes to expand capacity for 33 Phillips Street, probably the most notorious house in all of Amherst.

The house is a 3-family unit meaning it can have 12 "unrelated" tenants.  But Mr. Gharabegian had, without official permit, refinished the basement for a 4th unit, thus increase monthly rental income significantly.

And since the bootleg apartment had major health/safety violations -- no second means of egress in case of fire -- it came to the attention of Building Commissioner Rob Morra who shut down the basement apartment until the ZBA hears his case.

Which started on October 2, continued to November 6, continued to last night, and now continued yet again until June 11.

 Stephan Gharabegian addresses 3-member Zoning Board of Appeals last night

Neighbors repeatedly pointed out the detrimental impact that 33 Phillips has already had on the surrounding neighborhood (Fearing Street and Sunset Avenue) as a 3-family, so allowing it to become a 4-family will only make matters worse.

Besides, town officials should not be rewarding bad behavior, since the 4th unit was illegally created to begin with and only comes before the ZBA because he got caught.  Member Tom Ehrgood, waiving a police summary report, said the location was a "magnet for police attention."

The board was a little more receptive to another rental property with a less than sterling reputation, 164 Sunset Avenue.  They generally came to the conclusion that formalizing the house as a two family unit was reasonable, with some conditions that will be hammered out at the hearing continued to February 12.

The most surprising event of the night was a 2+ hour discussion (borderline heated) over Crotty Hall, a sleek new building proposed for 418 North Pleasant Street at the very gateway to UMass.

The Dover Amendment allows religious and educational institutes to pretty much run roughshod over local oversight except for the setback zoning requirements, which are enforced by the Building Commissioner.

In fact they are made even more stringent as the requirements in the Amherst Zoning Bylaw have to be doubled since educational and religious buildings are oftentimes HUGE and can be plopped down in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

In this case the designers did not realize that the 10 foot side setback touching Phillips Street needed to be doubled to 20 feet.  But the Amherst Building Commissioner did. 

Gordon & Crotty Hall. Dotted line top right Phillips Street property

Thus the building was totally designed, at a current investment of $222,000 (85% of which is lost if the building requires redesign), with a 10 foot side setback in mind.  Neighbors on Phillips Street are not happy.  The ZBA is caught in the middle.

Neighbors also complained that the twin building, Gordon Hall, has a noisy HVAC system that drives them crazy from April until October, and the new building will be much closer to them.

Sounding troubled, ZBA Chair Eric Beal said, "This is a hard case for me.  You relied on the 10 foot setback in good faith."

The proposed building is named for Jim and Pam Crotty, who have lived in Amherst for 40 years.

Mr. Crotty, UMass Professor Emeritus of Economics and Sheridan Scholar, spoke about bringing faculty who now work in Thompson Hall to the new building to work alongside colleagues in Gordon Hall:  "It would be superb to get this synergy between faculty and grad students."

Two members of the ZBA, Mark Parent and Tom Ehrgood, seemed convinced the extra intrusion into Phillips Street was not  "unreasonable", especially since the main UMass campus is only a snowball throw away.

Chair Eric Beal was not 100% convinced, however, and wished to see "renderings" of the new building.

The board took a five minute break so architect Sigrid Miller Pollin could pull them up from her computer.  But when the meeting resumed the renderings only showed the impact from North Pleasant Street and not from Phillips Street.

The appeal hearing was continued until February 12.  The building plan will also need review by the Amherst Planning Board for a Site Plan Approval.

Church Renewal

Jewish Community Synagogue, Main Street, East Amherst

Two long established Amherst houses of worship are requesting money from the Community Preservation Act pot which recently doubled in size due to the local ballot initiative passed last November.

The question of separation of church and state or using public money for private endeavors hinges on the public purpose of a project.  The Mass Dept of Revenue ruled in 2007 that the preservation of historic structures has a legitimate public purpose.

As a result the CPA committee requires a historic preservation restriction on any funded project so it will stay open to the public in perpetuity.

Angel of the Lilies 

For instance, two years ago the town gave the Unitarian Church in town center over $100,000 to help restore their stained glass window "Angel of the Lilies."

Although, back in 2009 Town Meeting rejected spending $7,000 in CPA funds to fix the roof of North Church in North Amherst center (now a Korean Church).

North Church, North Amherst

The Goodwin Memorial Zion Church adjacent to Amherst College is the oldest black church in Amherst, founded in 1910. Although Hope Church, the only other black church in town. is not far behind, having been established in 1912.

 Goodwin Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church

They are requesting $25,000 to fund a "Capital Needs Assessment & Archaeological Study" for a major overhaul of the entire building (including handicapped accessibility) but in keeping with its sacred historical  significance.

The Church is one of only six buildings in Amherst to make the National Register of Historic Places.

As such, state money via Massachusetts Preservation Project Fund for the actual renovation project would probably be forthcoming in the future, but would of course require the archaeological study and renovation assessment first.   

At the January 20 meeting the CPA committee seemed receptive to the half-dozen parishioners who showed up to support their Church project.

 Steeple lightening damage bottom right

Another historic former Congregational Church in East Amherst, which became the Jewish Community gathering place back in 1976, is requesting $175,000 to right a lean in their steeple.  Last summer it was hit by lightening.

The insurance company will pay to fix the holes but not the 3% lean, which could date back as far as 1927 when a couple of supporting columns were removed to make more room.

Thus the primary purpose of the  project is aesthetic, rather than a necessary measure to keep the building from falling down.

The CPA committee seemed a bit skeptical and their questions to the petitioners bordered on a grilling.

A positive recommendation from the CPA committee is mandatory for a project to come before Amherst Town Meeting for approval, so a rejection from them is a death sentence, which even God cannot change.

The committee will take a final up-or-down vote on the 11 projects before them at their March 3rd meeting.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The North Shall Rise Again

Pine & Meadow Streets (east/west) and North Pleasant (north/south)

In addition to $100,000 in proposed capital appropriations to significantly improve the north end of Amherst town center, town officials are also asking Town Meeting to finance "North Amherst Center Studies & Improvement".

The $35,000 will go towards a study to redo the intersection of Pine/Meadow/North Pleasant streets as well as the adjacent weird junction of Montague and Sunderland Road.

During the 2011 "Form Based Zoning" effort, which garnered more than a majority of Town Meeting approval but came up shy of the two-thirds required,  the road alignment in the heart of the North Amherst commercial village center was an often heard complaint.

Sunderland Road (left), Montague Road (right).  North Amherst Library (center)

Urban Renewal

North end of town center looking towards ever present UMassKendrick Place back right

The long neglected north end of Amherst town center is making up for lost time. 

 Governor Patrick, Kendrick Park 10/21/14 (Kendrick Place developers behind him)

Back on October 21st new Senate President Stan Rosenberg and the outgoing Governor Patrick came calling to announce a $1.5 million MassWorks grant to bury unsightly utilities lines along East Pleasant/Triangle Street corridor.  Now town officials are requesting Town Meeting approve $100,000 for additional "streetscape improvements."

Jonathan Tucker bottom right presents to the JCPC

Planning Director Jonathan Tucker told the Joint Capital Planning Committee this morning the MassWorks grant did nothing for street level improvements, so this $100K request would add  lighting, trash receptacles, benches, bike racks, trees, etc.

The impacted area includes Kendrick Park which has been awaiting a multi-million dollar renovation for a few years now. 

This request is sure to fire up NIMBYs who are still peeved about the Kendrick Place development (rear of top photo slightly to right) and the recently approved One East Pleasant Street mixed use project, both of which will bring significant numbers of residents to live in the downtown. 

Hence the need for basic window dressing. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Troll Food

Although I'm sure my Cowardly Anon Nitwit does not wear a suit and tie

As of this moment I have published 44,842 comments spread out over 3,417 published posts over the past (almost) eight years.  I'm guessing that represents about a 99% publish rate even though I would also guess I disagreed with over 50% of those published.

The 1% I did not publish were beyond nasty, potentially libelous, or threatening to my family.

The first three years of operation I did not "moderate" comments so anyone could publish anything at anytime.  I could of course delete them if needed and can only remember maybe one or two times doing that.

But I can tell you I would lose sleep worrying someone would publish something wildly inappropriate moments after I went to bed, so the comment would stay up until the next morning. 

When someone hits the publish button on a comment I instantly get an email at my main AOL account showing the comment, and from within that email I can either publish, delete, or mark it as spam (which sends it to a folder for posterity sake).

So it takes only seconds per comment.  Yes I do (sort of) try to read comments -- unless I'm driving -- to make sure they are not libelous or threatening, but do so v-e-r-y quickly. 

I would like to think my readers come here for the main articles but I will also admit the ones that attract the highest page views are also the ones that generate the most comments.  So I'm sure people do come back just to read or make follow up comments, thus increasing overall page views.

Trolls are the bane of any Internet community.  The best way to deal with them is to simply ignore them and hope they go away.

Like this guy:

Now I will go back to ignoring him.  Well, after the 2 or 3 seconds it takes to dispose of each comment

Hold Your Horses

First laid out in 1912, Shumway Street is going to have to wait another year for a total renovation -- including water/sewer, sidewalk and of course the main road itself.

The entire street is only 940 feet long, connecting Main Street to College Street/Rt 9 with a neighborhood consisting of eight single family homes and one two-family home.

Like many streets in Amherst that 50 years ago would have been exclusively "owner occupied" Shumway Street has changed by the presence of UMass/Amherst.  Now 4 of the 9 dwellings are rentals.

Perhaps one reason why Shumway Street is eligible for Community Development Block Grant funding which has income eligibility (middle-to-lower income) restrictions.  

The town is going to receive $825,000 in CDBG funds this year and 65% of it must be spent on "non social service" items.

The DPW put in for $727,000 to cover the entire cost of renovating Shumway street but the committee who oversees the distribution of the funds is only recommending $233,742 be allocated.

And since the federal money does not become available until this coming October, the neighborhood improvement project will probably have to wait until next year. 

The town will likely dip into Ch. 90 road funds to cover the other two-thirds funding.

Fortunately our new Republican Governor released an extra $100 million in "roads and bridges repair" funds (Ch. 90), which will result in a $400,000 bonus for Amherst.  

No Guests, No Riot?

UMass Southwest Towers house 5,500 students
Red Sox World Series win "celebration" 10/30//13

Apparently UMass is heeding advice from the $160,000 Davis Report, a postmortem of the Blarney Blowout, by trying to limit the number of guests UMass students can have on campus for Superbowl Sunday.

On the eve of Blarney Blowout the visitors reached 7,000, which should have been a clue that the stage was set for an epic event.  Kind of like radar picking up a sky full of planes closing in your sleeping fleet moored in paradise.

Will it work?  Probably not.  Even without "guests" UMass Southwest area has a h-u-g-e population density with 5,500 college aged youth packed into a quarter mile square area.

And come this Sunday, all too many of them will be under the duel influence of alcohol combined with all those endorphins released by watching large men thump each other on a field of battle.