Amherst residents who complain about the new five-story buildings downtown could gain some perspective by considering their benefits.
Then, if they still don’t like the appearance of these buildings, or what they represent, that’s OK. But they should balance these criticisms with an awareness of the positive impact of these buildings.
And if this issue is going to be a part of the campaign for Town Council, let’s try to understand all the facts, and the alternatives.
These buildings bring in lots of property taxes. Kendrick Place and Boltwood Place, the only two of these buildings that’ are currently open, are taxed at over $200,000 a year. That’s real money to help pay for teachers, police officers and firefighters, and it doesn’t have to come from overburdened residential taxpayers. When the nearly-completed 1 East Pleasant Street and the proposed buildings on Spring and Pray Streets are open, the total additional tax revenue will be at least $700,000, maybe more. Every year. And because there are few school-age children living there, the impact on the cost of services is much smaller than with single-family housing.
These buildings will ease the housing crunch in Amherst. Every student who lives in these buildings will be a student who is not living in a single-family neighborhood. Counting the North Square project in North Amherst, Amherst will have around 600 new bedrooms available, pulling supply of housing closer to demand. Students will be less inclined to live 10 miles away from campus, commuting and creating more traffic and emissions.
Downtown Amherst will benefit from having more people live there. If we want restaurants and the Amherst Cinema to thrive, there needs to be more foot traffic downtown. We could achieve the critical mass of downtown residents that’s necessary to encourage other businesses to open, perhaps even a food store. In addition to its 42 apartments, Kendrick Place’s ground floor provides office space for 70 high-paying jobs.
These buildings are consistent with the master plan. This road map for Amherst’s future, worked out over several years with massive public input, says that development should be concentrated downtown and in village centers. The goals are to reduce urban sprawl, preserve open space, and keep residential neighborhoods intact. The master plan will be up for review by the Town Council.
These buildings are not paving paradise. 1 East Pleasant Street replaced what was originally an old motel, while the sites of Kendrick Place (shown in photo), Boltwood Place and the Spring Street building were undeveloped. The Pray Street building will replace a restaurant that’s gone out of business, at the site of a former car dealership.
There were predictions of noise and crime at Kendrick Place and Boltwood Place, but actual problems have been virtually nil, according to police. These tenants, many of whom are graduate students paying high rents, are more likely to be studying on a Friday night than drunkenly carousing.
It is incorrect to assert that these buildings are filled with undergraduates. The 140 units at 1 East Pleasant St. is projected to be a third undergraduates, a third graduate students, and a third other tenants.
The impact on traffic and parking so far has been minimal. Millenials are less likely to own cars than baby boomers were. Many Kendrick Place tenants use Zip Cars, bicycles, buses and Uber for transportation, and the developer has leased an underutilized parking lot nearby for those with cars. The new 1 East Pleasant Street will have 38 on-site parking spaces.
Kendrick Place has achieved Gold LEED status for its energy efficiency, and the proposed building on Spring Street will have solar panels.
Still, a neighbor of mine called these buildings “excresences” (which my dictionary defines as “an abnormal or disfiguring outgrowth or addition, as a bunion.”) Why do so many people hate these buildings?
One possible reason is nostalgia. Many longtime residents think of Amherst as a small college town, and don’t like to be reminded that the town has changed.
I have a friend who moved to Amherst a few years ago from a large city. She says she doesn’t like the five-story buildings because they remind her of what she wanted to escape from.
Another possible reason is fear and loathing of students. Police data show that student disturbances have declined, yet memories of student rowdiness (played up by the newspaper) endure. Sure, there are costs to Amherst in hosting UMass, and the state should do more to help us pay them. But there are also many benefits of being a university town, such as cultural opportunities, jobs, a stable economy and liberal politics.
Amherst will gradually get used to the new buildings. When the Tucker-Taft building replaced a gas station just south of the Central Fire Station in the 1980s, many people complained about its appearance. Today, it’s part of the accepted landscape.
So are the mini-strip mall on Triangle Street and the Bank of America branch that resembles a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Both are near Kendrick Place, but you don’t hear people complaining about their appearance.
I am disappointed that some candidates for Town Council are seeking to exploit people’s feelings about the size and architecture of the new buildings for political gain. The Town Council cannot mandate that developers build only three-story family housing downtown. And can we all agree that people who live in five-story buildings downtown should not speak out against five-story buildings downtown?
Candidate Steve Schreiber, who chairs the Planning Board, offers some practical alternatives. The Town Council could enact form-based zoning, or it could offer incentives to developers to build owner-occupied, multi-family housing in village centers. The Council could tighten the on-street parking permit program or require developers to pay into a parking enterprise fund.