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Aging commercial centers in Amherst are focus of consultant’s concern in update of comprehensive plan

Many commercial centers in Amherst are outdated and need to be rethought, a consultant told town officials Tuesday.

Lee D. Einsweiler of Code Studio, based in Austin, Texas, said the old commercial centers – including the one at Harlem Road and Main Street in Snyder and Northtown Plaza at Sheridan Drive and Niagara Falls Boulevard – no longer fit into nearby neighborhoods the way residents would like and expect. That is why his company has been hired earlier this year to help the town update its decade-old comprehensive plan and come up new zoning that does not overly rely on the need for variances.

“Most communities Amherst’s size and age, their centers have been aging, out and they’ve got a number of these centers that need redevelopment,” Einsweiler said.

According to its website, Code Studio’s work with other communities across the country has ranged from quick revisions of existing codes to paradigm shifts in a community’s approach to development regulation. Einsweiler assured Amherst officials and residents at Tuesday’s Town Board work session that his work will not include making any zoning changes to residential areas, industrial zones or office parks. However, he said, the public’s participation will integral to the process.

“They are the target of the whole exercise,” said Amherst Planning Director Eric W. Gillert.

“We have a very robust citizen participation for each one of the projects that we do, but it seems as though, after the project is approved, people complain that there should have been an opportunity for them to talk about this,” Gillert added after Tuesday’s presentation.

The process for coming up with new planning and zoning code revisions started in late spring and will continue with a series coming stakeholder meetings, or charrettes, seeking public input that will kick off with a workshop at 9 a.m. Sept. 24 at Hyatt Place, 5020 Main St. Subsequent public meetings will take place from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 25 and 27 in Harlem Road Community Center, 4255 Harlem Road, and drop-in open house meetings from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 26 at yet-to-be-determined locations throughout the town. A similar meeting has been scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, 5195 Main St.

The charrette schedule will culminate Sept. 28 with an open-design studio from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., a closed design studio from 2 to 7 p.m.; and a work-in-progress presentation from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Town Hall, 5583 Main St.

“By the close of the charrette, we should have a good idea where the project is headed,” Einsweiler said.

A working committee, under the authority of the town Planning Board, will have umbrella authority for maintaining the comprehensive plan and making recommendation for changes, Gillert said.

“The public’s key role,” he added, “is to be heavily involved in the formulation of the new policy to help us thing about what the future vision for these (commercial) centers is and should be.”


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