It’s amazing to me that some Town Meeting supporters are pointing to the size of the two new buildings at the northern end of downtown as reasons for retaining the current political system. The size of these buildings was approved under the current system!
That’s right, five stories in this part of town are allowed because of a Town Meeting vote in 2013. There are some questions about that vote, and I’ll get to them.
But first, let me speak to those who don’t like the appearance of Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, which is under construction.
Whether it is the buildings’ size or architecture or what their size represents that you dislike, I can understand your reactions. Many people in town feel this way. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the way these buildings look, though One East Pleasant seems a little too close to the road for a building that size. This is largely a matter of personal taste.
Kendrick Place has an unusual shape, but it seems to arouse more negative comments than the Kentucky Fried Chicken style of the Bank of America branch across the street (shown in photo). And then there’s the strip of stores on Triangle Street.
The two new buildings conform to the long-debated master plan, which urged that development occur downtown and in village centers, in order to preserve open space and residential neighborhoods.
It seems to me that you can dislike the appearance of these buildings and still acknowledge their many benefits to the town.
First, they promote downtown revitalization. If we want businesses, restaurants and the Amherst Cinema to thrive, we need more people living downtown. If there are enough downtown residents, we will see more service businesses – maybe even a food market.
Second, these are among the greenest buildings in town. They received Gold LEED certification for energy efficiency, and Kendrick Place has four Zip Cars (for only 42 units) and 40 bike racks. Their central location means fewer car trips.
Third, these buildings bring in lots of property taxes. Kendrick Place’s owners paid $165,966 last year, and 1 East Pleasant’s taxes could be double that. That tax money helps pay the salaries of teachers, police officers and firefighters.
Fourth, Kendrick Place provides 70 high-paying jobs on its ground floor, helping the downtown economy. Mass Mutual located these jobs there to help recruit computer science and cyber-security students from UMass.
Fifth, these buildings address the pent-up demand for housing in Amherst and help reverse the trend of students living in residential neighborhoods. Many of the residents of Kendrick Place are graduate students.
Sixth, problems with traffic, parking and noise have not materialized, as some had feared. Kendrick Place tenants have relatively few cars, and those who do have cars can park them in a previously underutilized lot on Pray Street. One East Pleasant will have 38 parking spaces, though none were required. Police report few noise problems at Kendrick Place.
Seventh, the proximity of Kendrick Place to the nearby intersection was vital to securing the $1.5 million state grant that partly funded the roundabout and burying utility wires underground.
Whether or not voters approve the new charter on March 27, it is likely that housing development will continue in Amherst. There’s a plan for a housing development on Spring Street, behind the Masonic Temple, and construction of the 130-unit North Square in North Amherst is due to start soon. UMass has plans for a 1,200-bed dormitory and a 150-room hotel and conference center.
Regarding that 2013 Town Meeting vote, some members have said they were “misled” into approving the five stories, and the word “mendacity” has been used. I was not present for this session, so I contacted three knowledgeable people who were.
They said that critics have conflated two separate items, the method by which the height of buildings is measured and the allowable height and number of stories. I took their explanation to one of those critics, Gerry Weiss, who responded that he expected sloped roofs to be part of a five-story building.
“Developers wanted more height, which would allow more stories, under the pretext of being able to use sloped roofs in the design,” Weiss wrote to me. “They argued successfully that it would be unfair to count the height of those roofs since they would be uninhabited. I, like many in Town Meeting, felt that was a reasonable argument and a reasonable idea to bring more development downtown, and key to this was that the new development would be attractive.”
To me, this difference of perception illustrates the complexity of zoning. That’s why it makes sense to have a democratically elected Town Council, meeting regularly, make these decisions. The council will be able to deliberate about zoning proposals over weeks and months, not just in one night, acquiring more information and citizen input before making a decision. And a higher percentage of votes will be required for the approval of zoning changes than at Town Meeting.
Recently, an anti-charter group posted a comment by a resident who predicted that the council will be composed of people who “think that downtown should be filled with 5-story buildings.” When I told him the facts, he responded, “I didn’t remember that it was Town Meeting that approved 5-story buildings.”
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