City tries new tack on zoning

Pedestrians now a priority for development

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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Amesbury has come up with a new way to spur pedestrian-oriented development along its commercial corridor on Route 110.

The city last month enacted zoning changes that provide incentives for developers to carry out projects along the corridor that meet Amesbury’s planning goals.

The changes, approved unanimously by the Municipal Council on June 14 and signed by Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer III, allow builders to obtain relief from density, dimensional, open space, and other zoning requirements if their developments include a mix of commercial and residential uses, which regular zoning rules do not allow in that district.

The projects would also have to incorporate pedestrian access from abutting residential areas, and include such amenities as benches and enhanced landscaping.

“Our objective is to attract business to Route 110,’’ said Kezer, calling that effort part of the city’s goal of expanding its commercial tax base to relieve pressure on residential taxpayers. He said the changes are also intended to promote the type of pedestrian-friendly development that is “attractive now versus what was attractive in the ’70s and ’80s.’’

The approximately 2.4-mile commercial section of Route 110 extends from North Martin Road in the west to the Super Stop & Shop plaza at Elm Street in the east. It includes the Macy Street section of Route 110 and part of the Haverhill Road section.

District 1 Councilor Robert L. Gilday, who represents much of the Route 110 commercial stretch and chairs the council’s Ordinances Committee, co-sponsored the zoning measure with Kezer.

“It basically makes it more friendly for people to develop their property on that corridor,’’ Gilday said. “The setbacks are changed, it will be multi-use - you could have stores on the bottom and maybe a couple of apartments or condos on the top. It just makes it . . . easier for someone paying taxes’’ to realize the full value of their properties.

“And once people develop those properties and the value goes up, there will be more revenue for the city, easing the burden on residential taxpayers,’’ he said.

Town planner Nipun Jain said the changes are the latest in a series the city has undertaken to make its zoning rules more reflective of modern planning trends, including measures to spur high density development close to the town center.

Jain said Amesbury first adopted zoning in about 1970, a response to the rapid high-density residential growth in previously rural areas outside its traditional town center.

He said the town at the time simply designated the existing commercial properties along Route 110 as a commercial district. And following the pattern then prevalent nationally, the rules for the district encouraged the development of businesses accessible predominantly by automobiles.

“The site design and building locations were in direct contrast to what the traditional neighborhood development used to be,’’ he said. As a result, the Route 110 corridor evolved increasingly into a road with no pedestrian connections to abutting neighborhoods and with buildings that did not reflect the character of those areas.

Jain said the new zoning changes seek to reverse that trend while also meeting the overall goal of bringing new growth and vitality to a key city roadway. He said the city expects the new incentives to be attractive to property owners because “there are some properties that can’t be developed under current zoning regulations . . . These new flexibilities would make these properties developable, adding value to them.’’

As long as property owners adhere to the standards, “they can avail themselves of relief from setback, open space, parking, driveway access” and other conventional zoning requirements, Jain said. He emphasized that it is up to owners to take advantage of the incentives.

By promoting pedestrian-oriented development, Jain said the changes will also benefit nearby residents by enabling them to walk to stores. Jain said the corridor has several key intersections with significant development opportunities that the zoning changes should enhance.

Included are the intersections at Main Street; at an Interstate 495 off ramp adjacent to Rocky Hill Road; at Elm Street, the gateway of Interstate 95 into town; and at Route 150, which connects to Interstate 495.

Last year, a zoning proposal for a CVS store at the corner of Route 110 and Main Street was rejected by the Municipal Council in the face of neighborhood objections to the size and design of the facility.

Jain said that experience helped spawn the effort that led to the corridor-wide zoning changes. He said the developers of the proposed CVS have come up with a new plan more acceptable to neighbors, which would make use of the new zoning incentives.

He said the zoning changes should also make possible a proposed development on Rocky Hill Road, and open the way for potential development at a former lumber yard site on Route 110 toward the western end of the district.

Jain said the zoning amendments are consistent with recommendations from the city’s 2004 master plan to spur housing and economic development.