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North Adams Planners Give Nod to Language That Could Boost Development
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
05:38AM / Tuesday, September 12, 2023
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Building Inspector William Meranti gives the rundown on the proposed language changes that would allow more parking options in the Central Business District.

The Central Business District, in red, covers the downtown from Ashland to River Street and the corners of Union and Eagle streets. 
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Starbuck's interest in a corner lot in the city sparked a nearly hourlong discussion on the wisdom of giving the Planning Board the flexibility to change setbacks in the Central Business District. 
The zoning language change was brought to the City Council by Mayor Jennifer Macksey back in July. It would give the Planning Board the authority to modify or eliminate the maximum 10-foot setback by special permit, largely to allow parking in the front of a new building rather than in the back.
The planners, immediately following Monday's joint public hearing, voted to recommend the language as Section 4.17 in the zoning ordinances. 
The addition would be: "In the CBD Zone, the Planning Board may, by special permit, eliminate or modify the Maximum Front Setback requirement. The foregoing shall not apply to any portion of a front yard on Main Street."
City councilors debated what the effect would be on the district and a major entrance to the city, as well as the need to change a zoning ordinance instituted only three or four years ago. 
Building Inspector William Meranti said it was a matter of having a developer point out the issue in considering a development. 
"We do change zoning all the time for projects, for development," he said. In this case, he continued, the ordinance wouldn't really change the CBD. "It's the easiest way to keep things the same, give us all the same rules, but you know, have that option."
Councilor Ashley Shade asked if the planners would have some criteria for making decisions or would it be "just a case by case, whoever has the best argument and best attorneys wins?" And what would happen to areas the city wanted to preserve, such Eagle Street? she said
Planning Board Chairman Brian Miksic noted that the board already has wide latitude and that "one of the things that we get to decide whether it fits the character of the neighborhood. It specifically says that."
Bringing up historic Eagle Street was a great question, he continued, because that's the type of environment the board would take into consideration. Miksic noted that when Adams Community Bank built on Eagle, it had to conform by having its entrance directly off the sidewalk. 
"I think that's what the Planning Board should be doing is, is looking at that, like how does this fit into this area and especially, in my opinion, in this downtown area and its historic spaces," he said. 
Attorney Jeffrey Grandchamp confirmed that Starbucks had indicated interest in the lot at Union and Eagle where St. Francis' Church had one stood, along with some additional retail. 
"We fully recognize that parking or, sorry, traffic is an issue at that intersection as it proceeds forward," he said. 
City Council President Lisa Blackmer questioned why the city would allow another drive-through on the busy intersection that also has a Dunkin' Donuts and a McDonalds. 
"It's the gateway into the downtown," she said. "Why would we want buildings and more cars and why in God's name would you put in another drive-up?"
Miksic said it was up to the Planning Board to strike a balance. 
"It is being able to have the option to look at a specific project and see if that works, because that's the Planning Board's job," he said. "Because we have to find this balance between having a pond with a floating duck in it indefinitely and having a business there and they create jobs and they create tax revenue and sales tax revenue.
"I'm going to have a magnifying glass on it because that intersection is a mess. And I don't right now see how anything can go there. But that is for the presentation at that time."
Planner Kyle Hanlon feared that the way the ordinance was currently worded could mean a plaza with parking "inside," so you end up with something like the L-shaped mall with basically blank walls facing the street.
"What we consider the front, they consider the back and we're going to incentivize that at that intersection if we don't have a tool," he said. 
Others questioned removing the St. Francis property or other streets into separate zones, making a change that to them didn't seem to serve a purpose or changing the zoning itself rather than making exceptions for different developers. 
Councilor Keith Bona pointed out the Central Business District covered an array of parking options, from on street, in the back and in the front to on the side.  
"I hope the Planning Board looks at it really well and makes good decisions," he said. 
The only member of the public to speak up was Richard Zona, who pointed out Union Street and Route 2 were part of the Mohawk Scenic Byway. There's a millions in grant funding available for scenic byways that no one had talked about, he said. 
"I just think that having a National Scenic Byway run through the city has great potential, I think it's an asset and I think that it could go a long way towards beautifying that corridor," Zona said. "And I don't, for me personally, changing these few words other than making it easier for corporations to put drive-up windows there and gas stations along that corridor."
The planners voted immediately after the hearing despite a vote not being on their agenda and a regular meeting not scheduled. Miksic said they had check with the Attorney General's Office and been informed they could vote. 
The City Council will take the matter at its Tuesday meeting. 
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