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Pittsfield Approves New Downtown Creative District, Debates Affordable Housing Requirements

A street lined with buildings has a row of flowering trees in between lanes of traffic
Josh Landes
Downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council embraced a new downtown zoning policy after a debate about affordable housing at its virtual meeting Tuesday night.

City planner CJ Hoss says planning for the Downtown Creative District conceptbegan in 2017.

“We had heard for years about some of the concerns about around the ground floor uses, especially that are on North Street and South Street, and their lack of creation of pedestrian activity or street interest on the street to really try to try to provide a cohesive neighborhoods and cohesive downtown Some of the suburban uses that are really parking dominated in the urban renewal area, specifically on the West Street, Center Street area. And that there are a lot of historic buildings that we want to encourage, reuse. And understand that some of our regulations don't necessarily hinder but can really slow down projects.”

The last major zoning classification for Pittsfield’s center was in 2004, when the city created the Downtown Arts Overlay District – which the new district will replace.

“We view this as a real positive step towards streamlining new development and redevelopment downtown," said Hoss. "And something that really clearly illustrates the types of development we do or we want to see or want to discourage within this downtown area. And it's something that once is it's adopted, we feel we can replicate in the future because a number of our more especially commercial dominated areas in the city could really benefit from this type of regulation.”

Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon drew attention to a clause in the zoning ordinance that gives developers a waiver on a demand that they create affordable housing in the city’s downtown.

“There isn't right now an alternative to if, if they really are at a place where they cannot afford to build 20% of their housing stock as affordable housing units, there's no alternative to pay into an affordable housing trust that they can do instead of building the affordable housing units," she said. "That I do find that very concerning. And I think that that is kind of a preemptive, because we don't have an affordable housing trust yet.”

Hoss said the city is developing a plan for an affordable housing trust fund, but isn’t there yet.

“We want to get to the point where this isn't a question about waiving," he said. "It's, if the developer needs help, that trust fund will eventually be that mechanism that we can use to fill that gap. We want the 20% of units in a building to be affordable. It's just, it's good. It's good policy. It's good. I mean, all from every planning perspective. That is, that is what we want. We just financially don't have all the tools to provide right now. And we see this trust fund eventually being one where that there will not there hopefully will not be a need to ever waive that requirement, once we have a funded trust fund that can help support development.”

Moon’s bid to amend the ordinance to remove the affordable housing requirement waiver failed on a 9-1 vote. A subsequent amendment by At-Large Councilor Earl Persip allowing developers to donate to entities instead of the non-existent affordable housing trust in exchange for a waiver on the required 20% affordable housing measure passed 8-2. Moon questioned Hoss about the amendment’s requirements for developers.

“So for the, Community Development Board reserves the right to require reasonable contributions to the Affordable Housing Trust and or an alternative,’ that still does not require them to and that is at the discretion of the Community Development Board. Is that correct?” asked Moon.

“Yes, that's accurate," responded Hoss.

“So theoretically, the developer could get a waiver to not build the affordable housing units and also not contribute to the Affordable Housing Trust and or the alternative,” said Moon.

“Yes, yes," said Hoss after a pause.

The final vote on the amended Downtown Creative District passed 9-1 with Moon opposed.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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