Special historic district proposed along Amherst’s North Pleasant Street

  • A new or expanded Local Historic District is being proposed for 20 to 22 properties between 196 and 336 North Pleasant St., from the rectory at St. Brigid’s Church, above, north to where North Pleasant and Triangle streets meet. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2022

AMHERST — A business-specific Local Historic District that might offer more protections to buildings and properties in a mostly commercial section of downtown Amherst is a concept being presented to the Local Historic District Commission.

Steve Bloom of Lincoln Avenue recently gave the commission an overview for expanding an existing district, or creating a new district, that would include 20 to 22 properties between 196 and 336 North Pleasant St., from the rectory at St. Brigid’s Church north to where North Pleasant and Triangle streets meet.

Bloom, who previously chaired the North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Historic District Study Committee, said his idea would be to have either these properties added to that district, or to create a third district. The town’s first Local Historic District was centered on the Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street.

The districts provide various protections to the properties and requirements that property owners get permission when making both major and minor changes to their homes, churches and businesses.

Bloom said the idea is to encourage maintaining the existing look of the town while allowing new construction.

“We wouldn’t be curtailing commercial development, we’d be preserving our heritage,” Bloom said.

He said this may be the only way to preserve buildings that would otherwise come down, and potentially create a downtown that looks like a shopping center in Glendale, California.

The properties were considered as part of the Local Historic District created in 2017, at a time when in-fill development was getting underway on the other side of Kendrick Park, along East Pleasant Street, that has included the Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant buildings, and a new mixed-use building under construction at 11-13 East Pleasant.

“I’ve had a change of heart because that perimeter is slated for commercial development down the line,” Bloom said.

Planner Ben Breger, who served as the staff liaison before leaving to work for the state, said the reason west side of Kendrick hasn’t changed is because zoning locks things in the way they are and that limited business, or B-L, and general residence, or R-G, zoning restricts heights to 39 feet.

“The zoning is pretty limiting in the B-L and R-G along there,” Breger said.

Breger said design guidelines, similar to how the Central Business Architecture Committee guides development in downtown Northampton, might better serve Amherst than another Local Historic District.

Bloom said he doesn’t believe that the current zoning is preventing out-of-scale buildings, noting that the corner of North Pleasant and Hallocks streets was going to be an office building that took its design cues from the much larger buildings across the street. He argues developers are looking at what they can do and may be ready to propose developments.

“I just don’t think they’ve gotten around to it yet,” Bloom said.

Moving forward with a study committee could come with a cost, but would mean protections, commission members say.

“I don’t think this is radical at all,” said commission member Karin Winter. “I think this is a no-brainer and the way to go.”

Winter said it might be the best way to protect the old flavor while filling in the backs of properties

Commission member Greta Wilcox said Amherst could take similar preservation steps to what has occurred in Stonington, Connecticut, where new buildings are rising behind existing buildings.

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