Saturday, January 31, 2015

Affordable Housing Cushion

Olympia Oaks 42 units now count towards town's Subsidized Housing Index

Amherst town officials can now breath a sigh of relief over our Subsidized Housing Index score.  A letter from Department of Housing and Community Development to Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek brought the good news:

After inclusion of Olympia Oaks 42 units, our SHI stands at 11.18%, up from the last official count of 10.8%.

When a municipality falls below 10% they are subject to the dreaded Chapter 40B, meaning a developer can ride in on a bulldozer and build pretty much whatever housing they wish, as long as 25% of the units are "affordable."

Last spring Town Meeting threw $1.25 million (using Community Preservation Act money) at the problem by giving the money to Beacon Communities to help purchase Rolling Green Apartments for $30.25 million, thereby preserving 41 of 204 units as affordable.

But a quirk in the bureaucracy allows all 204 Rolling Green units to be counted as "affordable" even though only 41 are.

That alone is what saved the town from falling below the magic 10% threshold, because even with Olympia Oaks 42 new units, the loss of 204 Rolling Green units would have brought the town down to only 9%.

Town Manager John Musante recently stated, "Affordable housing is one of the community's highest priorities for this coming Town Meeting."

Of course now that the threat of a Ch40B development is buried, it will be interesting to see if affordable housing maintains its place as a "highest priority."

We're Looking At You Southwest!

Southwest:  Five residential high-rise towers built in the early 1960s, housing 5,500

If UMass students do riot after the Super Bowl tomorrow night the fault will be theirs and theirs alone.

UMass administrators have gone above and beyond the routine call of duty to mitigate rowdy behavior including stern messaging, alternative viewing activities, and -- the smartest thing -- strangling the supply of potential "outside agitators" without a vested interest in the school.

Click to enlarge/read

Unlike the Blarney Blowout -- a BIG reason we see all these precautions -- should rowdy behavior occur it will almost certainly be contained to the UMass campus, most notably the Southwest Residential area.

Although I'm sure Amherst police will see their share of Party House noise and nuisance complaints town wide.

Since the $160,000 Davis Report is the playbook UMass is using, it will be interesting to see how UMass PD responds should the crowds grow too large, and the noise levels becomes almost deafening and then the solid objects start to fly.

When do they don their Darth Vader riot suits?  You know, the ones that incite the crowds to further violence (sarcasm).  At what point do overwhelmingly outnumbered police use chemical munitions to disperse the unruly mob?

 Davis Report

Since anonymity brings out the worst in people UMass should install throughout Southwest plaza areas portable lighting to turn darkness into day.  And call in Massachusetts State Police air wing to hover a big old helicopter directly overhead with a spotlight pointing down.

Complemented by a half-dozen HD camera drones, just to let them know it's all being recorded.

The breathless arrival of TV news cameras always incites the crowd.   Therefore UMass should also request television journalists not use a large commercial shoulder mounted camera, and stick to a more unobtrusive iPhone. 

After all, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out a long time ago, "The medium is the message."

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 increasing 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. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Damn Developers!

Kendrick Place, north town center (before the snowstorm)

The backlash over Planning Board approval of Kendrick Place, a 5-story "mixed use" commercial building with 36 units of rental apartments, and the much l-a-r-g-e-r One East Pleasant Street (80 rental units), which is already delayed by a nuisance lawsuit filed by a disgruntled competitor, has now taken a more ominous form:

Two poison pill zoning articles filed yesterday by Mary Wentworth designed to prevent any such projects from being approved in the future.

 Proposed One East Pleasant Street (also north town center)

Since both projects are located in the downtown "Municipal Parking District" they are not required to provide any parking, although the proposed One East Pleasant will have 36 onsite spaces available.

 Article #1 strike "residential" from parking exemptions in downtown

Under Ms. Wentworth's zoning article #1 developers would be required to provide parking for every single resident, and zoning article #2 gives a higher threshold of commercial space required (thus dramatically reducing rental housing units) for a "mixed use" designation and would require a harder to get "Special Permit".

 Article #2: increase % of commercial, require Special Permit from ZBA

Since these two Archipelago Investments, LLC projects are already approved, they would of course be grandfathered. 

A zoning article requires a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting, so the chances of these articles passing this coming spring are not all that good.

Most of the rational pro-development zoning measures that have come before Town Meeting have failed because of the high hurdle of a two-thirds super majority, but they almost always attracted a majority vote.

Now at least, the shoe is on the other foot. 

Party Place of the Weekend

Salem Place apartment complex Main Street, Amherst

Griffin Veldran, Jesse Korzen stand before Judge Payne Monday morning

In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday in Courtroom #1 two college aged youth took the plea deal offered by the Commonwealth to dispose of their "noise" arrest by Amherst police late Friday into early Saturday morning.

Click to enlarge/read

Pay the $300 Amherst Town Bylaw fine and stay out of trouble for the next four months. 

Meanwhile over in Courtroom #2, three other "college aged youth" (Zachary Calderwood, Jonathan Spencer, Joshua Young) who had appealed their Noise TBL violation last November almost went to a jury trial, but copped a plea at the last minute ... as folks so often do.  

One of them (Jonathan Spenser) did not actually live in the apartment, therefor should not have been issued a ticket, so the Commonwealth dropped the charges against him.  And the other two pled guilty to a civil infraction and had their case put "on file" for the next 60 days.

So yes, by burdening the system via an appeal they avoided the $300 fine, but taxpayers still won by avoiding a jury trial.  And if they get into any trouble over the next two months, the original charges come back into play.

Therefore they better behave themselves on Superbowl Sunday.

Blizzard of 2015: Another Bust?

Town Hall 7:45 AM

Thus far the storm of the century has not lived up to the hype, which is of course a good thing. The scanner was so quiet last night I had to double check to make sure it was on. Which is of course a good thing.

Carry on.

 Miss Emily to Mr. Frost: "Don't believe the hype."

But the wind is still whipping

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bring It On!

DPW supply teepee is one of the busier locations in town this morning

Assuming the venerable Amherst Select Board is hardy enough to meet this evening they will hear a half-year budget update that shows good news and bad news from the DPW budget line:
Original budget, Amount spent, Encumbered, % of budget spent

Good news is of course the ambitious LED lighting retrofit of all the street lights in town is paying off handsomely in electricity savings (only consuming 15% of the budget at the half-way point).

And, almost as important, the new LED lighting in the Amherst Town Room (where the SB meets) makes photos look a lot better as well.

The snow and ice budget is not really 29.4%  in the red, as Guilford Mooring points out the amount shown as "encumbered" reflects a full season's worth of supplies. But he does verify that tomorrow's Snowmageddon will most likely bust the budget:

Click to enlarge/read

Even that, however, should be mitigated by Federal Emergency Mgt Agency reimbursement if things turn out as bad as universally predicted.

The DPW are the unsung heroes at times like tonight, tomorrow and maybe even into Wednesday.

Public safety personnel simply could not do their potentially lifesaving jobs if not for those big yellow trucks keeping the streets passable.  Another good reason to stay off the roads once the snow starts to fly: 

Let the police, fire and DPW do their vital work.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rusty Public Art

Northampton, Old Courthouse lawn, city center

Amherst Kendrick Park

Saturday, January 24, 2015


Amherst College professorial snowman

Snowman corner of Mass & Commonwealth Ave, UMass

An hour later these young ladies were building a mate
Playing field off Commonwealth Ave

Boys will be boys

Friday, January 23, 2015

If You Can't Beat 'Em ...

Mission Cantina 485 West Street, South Amherst

One of the gripes you hear about food carts is that they have an "unfair" advantage over traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurants since they pretty much pay the town only a $100 annual fee to operate.

Restaurants of course either  pay a hefty downtown commercial rent to their landlord, or if they own the building, pay the whopping Amherst property tax that is twice that of neighboring Hadley.  And recently became even more oppressive with the doubling of the Community Preservation Act tax.

But because the lunch cart system, unlike liquor licenses, is not overly regulated it really is an equal opportunity, two-way street.

For instance, Mission Cantina, one of the more wildly successful restaurants located in the heart of South Amherst's microscopic business district will go before the venerable Amherst Select Board Monday night for a lunch cart license to bring their Mexican fare downtown this coming nice weather season.

Currently the town has two active lunch carts, Sun Kim Bop and New York Halal Food but this will be a first for an established restaurant entering the market.

Viva la competition!

Coming soon to a street near you

Thursday, January 22, 2015

But Did You Inhale?

Stan Rosenberg speaking at Kendrick Park last October

Here's yet another reason to love the new state Senate President and actual town "local", having passed the 25 year mark for living in Amherst:  When asked by a Boston radio station if he ever smoked pot State Senator Stan Rosenberg replied, "Did I go to college in the 60s?"

Well ... yes.  Umass actually.  Back when it really was known as "ZooMass".  But not anymore fortunately.
Rosenberg, being the savvy experienced politician, anticipates a referendum question to legalize marijuana for recreational use will be forthcoming in 2016.

After all he's from Amherst, so he remembers the town vote in 2000 where a pot advisory question asking police to "deprioritize" marijuana arrests passed handily1,659 in favor to 981 opposed.

A local election with a much better turnout than most (20.4%) propelled in a large part by students.

With the state-wide referendum process being used to decriminalize up to an ounce of pot back in 2008 and most recently in 2012 legalizing pot for medical uses, it is indeed a safe bet advocates will go for all the marbles in 2016.

So why not be prepared?  Although Governor Baker is opposed to recreational use of pot he supports Rosenberg's formation of the "Special Senate Committee on Marijuana."

Now will somebody please pass the brownies.

End Of An Era

Crop Circles?  Nah, former War Memorial wading pool

Those of you old enough to remember when the Amherst Regional Middle School was called the Jr. High School probably remember as well referring to the War Memorial wading pool as "the little pool."

War Memorial Wading Pool looking a tad forlorn 6/21/13

Built alongside "the big pool" back in 1960 the wading pool has provided a respite from summer's withering heat for generations of Amherst youth, especially those of limited economic means.

The wading pool was closed the last two summers because of a leak which would be expensive to fix (tens of thousands).   And new state regulations that would require removal of the spray unit in the center of the pool, which most kids probably found to be the best part.

Town officials have been talking about replacing the wading pool with a spray park for all too many years now.

Town Manager John Musante is expected to appoint an Amherst Center Recreation Working Group any day now, headed by Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek, to look at an overall plan for Memorial Field, adjacent public schools playing fields, and the Hawthorn property. 

Unfortunately they will take a full year to do their study, so the chance a spray park will be spurting this coming summer is about as likely as UFO landing in town center.