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Amherst Media looking at Main Street site to build its new headquarters

With a need to vacate its longtime site on College Street, Amherst Media is investigating constructing a building within the Emily Dickinson Local Historic District.

The nonprofit, which broadcasts numerous governmental public meetings for the town, is interested in purchasing two lots at the corner of Main and Gray streets, currently owned by Jerry Guidera, and having the lots rezoned for its needs.

Guidera, Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault and Amherst Media board member Ben Schwartz appeared before the Zoning Subcommittee last week to present arguments to support the zoning change.

Guidera said converting the parcels from general residence to neighborhood business would give the town better controls over the building and preserve the views of the Henry F. Hills House. He recently submitted a letter to the Select Board asking for the issue to be put on the Town Meeting warrant.

“Right now, as zoned, it directs me to building two single-family homes (and) packing them with college kids,” Guidera said.

Zoning Subcommittee members weren’t sure they should take a stand on the rezoning article. Connie Kruger said that while she supports its intent, others want to see the lots remain undeveloped. In fact, Town Meeting has attempted to purchase the lots to protect the views.

Lescault said Amherst Media could enhance a neighborhood that already features restaurants and shops. “I think we’d add a lot to the district,” he said.

The zoning change would allow construction of a building that could house Amherst Media’s administrative offices, a broadcast studio and classrooms, Lescault said.

He said the building would be more than 4,000 square feet.

The site was selected because of its access to the University of Massachusetts and public transportation, which many of Amherst Media’s interns depend on, Lescault said.

In August 2010, Amherst Media was notified by its landlord, Western Massachusetts Electric Co., that it had to leave its home at 246 College St. within a year. Located at that address since 1991, the nonprofit has been operating on a month-to-month lease for the past four years.

Amherst Media regularly tapes and broadcasts over cable and the Internet meetings of the Select Board, Planning Board and Finance Committee, along with sessions of annual and fall Town Meetings. Local-access programs are also taped at its facility.

Guidera said the proposed building fits with the town’s master plan and would be consistent with the architectural style of the district. It would expand the downtown business area to the east.

“We believe the zoning change would benefit the town of Amherst and that such a change would garner the support of our neighbors, both residential and commercial, and the community as a whole,” he wrote.

Guidera said that if the rezoning proposal does not get to Town Meeting, or fails to achieve two-thirds majority, the project wouldn’t necessarily be halted. Amherst Media, he said, could apply for a special permit or go through the site plan review process as a nonprofit or as a movie studio.

Since Amherst Media was notified about its need to move, Lescault said, he and others have looked at 25 properties. He has also worked with Town Manager John Musante to find a suitable site, including examining the former East Street School building owned by the town.

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