Why the hatred of five-story buildings?

Nick Grabbe

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.

Comments 13

  1. Thanks Nick for an excellent piece. While we may disagree with the aesthetics of the new buildings going up in the Town Center, the tax revenue that these properties will generate is very good news for all. Plus, from a sustainability standpoint, density – especially apartment living – is far more energy efficient than the alternative. Amherst’s downtown has many wonderful buildings – but also a fair share of inefficient and ugly structures. As you correctly point out, the buildings going up are not destroying gorgeous historical structures – rather they are filling in existing gaps and replacing outmoded buildings. Vitality in the Town Center is essential to the future of our entire community, and I, for one, look forward to seeing more residents walking around, living, working and recreating there.

  2. here are a few places I see it differently
    – the use of the buildings (private student dorms) is wrong for downtown. If they were attractive 3 story buildings with the young families and professionals we all say we want to attract, I’d be all for it
    – 5 story buildings are too tall for the scale of downtown Amherst. The street is not as wide as a Northampton, so 5 stories are even more looming here. And most buildings in Northampton are 3 or 4 stories
    – What stores and restaurants will open, in response to downtown having several large student dorms? Probably those aimed at students. There’s nothing wrong with students, and I chose to move to a college town (that also has a large family demographic – the character of the town depends on keeping this in balance)
    – Great that there are taxes coming in from this new construction. I’m sure the taxes on my house will not go down, as a result. Or somehow, not even rise more slowly.
    – How about more dorm construction on campus? Though it’s claimed that half of all UMass students live on campus, supposedly a high percentage for a state university, most state universities are in bigger cities, often state capitals, and those towns can absorb that population a lot better than us. Houses in Amherst are supposedly 60% rentals– that’s also a very high figure. If UMass and state government can finally figure out the “public/ private partnership” thing, those on campus dorms can be built. There are many universities that brag about the high percentage of students housed on campus, like it’s a good thing; plus profitable (BU is one).
    – One of the problems with the new buildings is the widespread opinion that they are “ugly.” Could “form based zoning” mandate more attractive design? According to some who ought to know, that answer is YES.
    -The town’s master plan uses such undefined terms as “densification” and “intensification.” Those may have specific meanings to architects, and if so, what are the limits, when it’s too dense? (the term for airplane seats being ever more tiny is “cabin densification.”
    – If you had a choice between an attractive 3 story building, that has a setback/ sidewalk that invites socializing, has some affordable units, has parking in the proper proportion to residents (to say that students don’t have cars is inaccurate – not to mention the supposed 1/3 residents that aren’t students [I question that too]) – and attract developers who can make a reasonable profit with those criteria, would you not choose that over what everyone mysteriously hates about what’s now being built?
    – You quote the head of the planning board, so will I — he says that the quality of construction of those 5 story buildings is fit only for rentals. If that was an owner occupied building, the quality would need to be more substantial.

    Reasonable people can disagree. But if the majority of reasonable people would prefer something very different from oversized dorms downtown, it’s time for the town to say no.

  3. I have had great conversations with Ira, Nick, and many others about these buildings, and the future of downtown.
    Both Nick and Ira have correctly quoted me. One significant obstacle to the development of owner-occupied multi-family housing is the threat of lawsuits, particularly with new buildings. In order for developers to mitigate the threat of litigation (for issues like sound transmission), the quality of construction needs to be increased over that of buildings that will forever be rentals.

    This phenomenon is also true at a smaller scale. The 2 family rental that I can see from my house will always be a rental because of the way it was built (cheap, modular construction).

    The owners of the downtown buildings may very well have a plan to convert those buildings to condos soon?!. I really have no idea about these specific buildings. There are many “podium buildings” (wood frame over steel base) that are owner-occupied.

    Here is a really informative webinar on the topic. You might recognize the moderator.


  4. Great essay, Nick! Well-reasoned and persuasive. Critics of 5-story buildings must realize that Amherst will not stop growing and that growth can either be up or out. Each have their drawbacks, but out = sprawl, less open space and more emissions. If we are to walk our talk re climate change and habitat preservation, the choice is clear.

  5. If we want middle class families, we need to provide affordable housing. Giving students alternatives to sharing single family housing may free up some of those units for purchase by families, not speculators.

  6. Every resident and voter has the right to express her or his opinion about any issue, including zoning and development. It is not exploitation, fear mongering or political maneuvering. It is each person’s First Amendment right, and I would appreciate if this blogger would honor that right.

    Of course, Amherst needs development. But the original Master Plan written in 2007, changed by Jonathan Tucker (then the Town Planner), and approved by only the Planning Board in 2010 must be re-examined and re-worked by the Council. It is already out of date and was never approved by Town Meeting.

    I am upset about the development downtown because it appears that the Planning Board, a hard-working group of appointed volunteers, has given our town over to developers on a silver platter. Just because a board CAN give waivers does not mean it SHOULD OR HAS TO GRANT waivers. It is unfortunate that such a powerful board is not elected and will not be elected by the public.

    The new buildings have little or no parking, little or no setbacks, increased height and no green space. Most importantly, there has been no insistence on affordable housing units which are supposed to be a key value of our town.

    In addition (or should I say “subtraction?), I do not think that there are any apartments which are designed for handicapped residents who would certainly benefit from being downtown instead of negotiating wheelchairs over our poorly maintained sidewalks and streets.

    Steven Schreiber, Chairperson of the Planning Board, is running for a Council seat in District 4. He has served on this board since 2009. His comments in this blog seem to take no responsibility for what has happened with structures and how upset many voters are. Safety of these structures and not developer liability issues should be the Planning Board’s responsibility. If Schreiber thinks condos are better, then why hasn’t this Board worked towards that goal with developers?

    I understand that there is NO clear definition of multi-story buildings so that a minimal amount of commercial/retail space (as in the recently over-varianced Spring Street project) can be approved. It does not HAVE to be approved, particularly when the Design Review Board was not satisfied with the project.

    I also understand that commercial/retail space must be constructed with steel. Residential space can use wood frames. With the current large developments, only the first floors are steel reinforced so the other floors can NEVER be retail or office space. This limits flexible usage.

    Here is my take:
    1) Yes, the developments will bring in some money (not lots). We would need 20 or more of such buildings to significantly minimize tax increases. Also, there has been no study on what additional costs these structures will have for own town including infrastructure and services.

    2) The buildings will ONLY help the housing crunch for students. The current planning does not honor the needs of low to middle income families. They are designed as dorms and not for families since there is no parking, green space or playground space. “Starter” homes now rented to students will undoubtedly stay that way.

    3) Perhaps more people will grow businesses. However, there are many empty commercials properties right now. In May through August, the city center will remain a ghost town.

    4) Development is consistent with the outdated Master Plan but the new five story buildings have so many waivers that the quality of life downtown is already negatively impacted.

    5) The buildings are not a paving paradise but will create the need for a multi-story parking garage. The developers need to fund this, not taxpayers. Where is it going to go?

    6) Since the buildings are not full yet, we have no idea about noise, crime, kinds of residents or anything else. This is all conjecture.

    The concern about the five story buildings are not about nostalgia, loathing students, etc. It’s about poor oversight by the Planning Board.

    Alisa Brewer may “love students, even when they’re peeing in my yard, which they do on a regular basis…” (Quote from League of Women Voters Forum, 8/29/18), but many of us feel otherwise.

    Town and gown need to live and work together with fair financial arrangements from the university and a behavioral code of respect for each other. We do not need more OUI’s or other dangerous and inappropriate behavior by anyone including students.

    From blog administrator Nick Grabbe:
    Here are Alisa Brewer’s exact words: “I love students, even when they’re peeing in my yard, which they do on a regular basis, because that’s what Amherst is about. We are about our educational — not about peeing, though we could use public restrooms– it is about the students. I think it’s fine for them to live downtown and in fact this will help educate them on the future of having fewer cars, using public transportation to get around, being practical at the formative stage of their development. So I’m fine with that, although I also embrace a public/private partnership, which we have been pushing for for over 20 years, with UMass and UMass in Boston, but the President’s office is having a little trouble comprehending how we might do public/private dormitories here.”

  7. I welcome the opportunity to meet Terry Johnson, and discuss these issues which are far more nuanced than blog posts allow. Until 2012 or so, there was no new construction in downtown Amherst in a generation. That was a concern to both Town Meeting and the Planning Board, which tweaked the by law to encourage mixed use buildings.. Now that there are new buildings, I think we should take another look at the zoning by-law to fine tune it to encourage more family housing, that is possibly less tall , and with more ground level retail. I note that Terry is a donor to Jim Pistrang’s campaign–Jim and I both support form-based zoning in downtown, and have had some interesting exchanges about this.

    1. Yes, Stephen, zoning and development is very complicated and nuanced. I’m glad you want to talk to me and have talked with Mr. Pistrang. All voters would like to know your decision-making process.

      I think that you could attempt to answer some of my questions about the numerous waivers, particularly about parking, lack of affordable housing units and no handicapped accessibility until the future Spring Street project. I understand that this over-sized structure will have about 50% handicapped accessible units but does not have to rent to any handicapped individuals.

      Please explain these waivers to the average voter such as myself. Just what “tweaking” occurred? Could the Planning Board have “tweaked” in another direction. Please address on these issues on your website, where there is plenty of space to do so. Thank you.

  8. Dear Ms. Johnson:

    You are repeating a false urban legend that needs to be addressed. As others directly involved with the Amherst Master Plan process can tell you, it had numerous formal steps, all of which were conducted in public sessions and for which public records in the form of meeting notices and minutes exist, available for review. Reports on the work of the bodies involved with its creation (Comprehensive Planning Committee and Planning Board) can also be seen online in the Town’s Annual Reports.

    Following completion of the initial community master planning process, ACP Consulting, the consulting firm working with the Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC) completed and submitted its draft plan to the Committee in August 2007. The Comprehensive Planning Committee then appointed a subcommittee to create a final draft to submit to the Planning Board, which under Massachusetts law is the body charged with creation and approval of any master plan. That CPC subcommittee conducted public meetings and community forums, working with staff and the consultant (who was working well beyond their contract) until September 2008, and submitted its final draft to the Planning Board in October 2008.

    The Planning Board in its turn appointed a subcommittee to turn the final draft plan into a final master plan. During 2009, the Planning Board subcommittee conducted regular public meetings, working with staff to review and amend the form of the final draft. The Board conducted two community forums to solicit additional public input. On February 10, 2010, the Amherst Planning Board, following a final community forum, voted to approve the current Amherst Master Plan. All of the public process in putting together the plan, drafting and redrafting its language, was conducted in publicly advertised meetings and forums. Copies of drafts were frequently posted online.

    The resulting master plan was better organized than the original 2007 draft presented by the consultants, but it contained little to no material change in the substance of majority public input received from over 1,000 Amherst citizens over a period of at least four years of public input in the form of forums, public surveys, and hundreds of hours of public meetings, all of which are also part of the public record.

    Objections to the content of the current Amherst Master Plan are the same objections made by a minority of participating citizens, objections that were consistently overwhelmed by the preferences of a majority of the citizens participating in the process, and which were heard but voted down by the public bodies responsible for conducting the process. The job of the consultants and Town staff in the master planning process was to provide technical assistance and advice, and they did that job. Urban legends about the community’s planning goals and objectives being highjacked by sinister caped figures lurking in the drapes behind the throne are just that, urban legends promoted by those whose minority perspectives did not “win” in a multi-year, extensively inclusive public process. It’s easier to blame the hired help than to have to face and accept that a significant majority of your fellow citizens simply disagree with you about the future of the community.

    1. Dear Mr. Tucker,

      I have lived in Amherst since 1980 with the exception of four years, some during the Master Plan final development stages. Thank you for clarifying the history of the process. Your timeline will help everyone understand our upcoming election.

      1) Development
      I personally agree with the basic tenets of the now outdated Master Plan, and I agree that careful development is important, as I stated above. However, I cannot abide the kind of waivers which have been granted so far. Can you explain to an average voter as myself why there were so many waivers concerning increased height, no setbacks, little or no parking and no affordable housing units? It can’t be all about the (minimal) tax revenues the town will receive for such an influx of residents.

      2) Capes and drapes?
      I have been a public school teacher from preschool through high school in Ohio, the State of Washington and almost 25 years at the now-closed Mark’s Meadow School here in town. I would not refer to either you or myself in the pejorative term you used to describe a town employee, reminiscent of my Mississippi grandmother.

      We have both been public employees, and we know we may be challenged from time to time by the residents we serve. This can happen as a paid employee or as a member of a volunteer board or committee. Political debate is the basis of our democracy.

  9. Good morning Terry:
    The Zoning By-Law (ZBL), approved by Town Meeting, purposely has at least 3 kinds of adjustments that can be made by the Planning Board (PB) or Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). In order of difficulty, they are:
    1. Waiver–PB and ZBA
    2. Special Permit–PB and ZBA
    3. Variance (close to impossible)–ZBA only

    Town Meeting approved these adjustments to give the PB and ZBA some negotiating ability. Some parts of the ZBL –eg, minimum lot size– are not negotiable the Planning Board

    There is part of the ZBL that requires buildings to be zero feet from a property line in certain districts, or–if not zero– then it must be ten feet or more. That makes no sense.. The Spring Street project could have been built with a zero setback. The neighbors (the town) asked that it be moved slightly–to 2 feet. That triggered a Special Permit request. We approved it, because it was satisfactory to both the town and the developer.

    I am an architect and a professor, but it took me at least a year of being on the Planning Board and Town Meeting to understand the nuances of the Zoning By Law. That’s not right!! That’s why I really support both a) a complete rewrite of the zoning by-law, and/or 2) form-based zoning–so that zoning is not so opaque.

    Terry, I see that you have donated generously to David Reffsin– my neighbor, my friend, and my political opponent in District 4. David seems to be campaigning–in part– on a platform of no more “high-rises” and more “creative footprints” for mixed use buildings. While I am not sure exactly what he means–the only “high rises” are on UMass property–I really think that the council and community could benefit from a crash course in community design, so that we are at least speaking the same language.
    This is a good example: https://www.micd.org/

    Coincidentally, my own students will be looking at the parcels of land between Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant in a design studio this fall. As part of their investigations, they will be looking at use, height, form (roof shape), and the possible adaptive reuse of Bertucci’s as a community theater.

    I really do look forward to meeting you. We could meet at the new Share, across from One East Pleasant, and talk about these issues.

    1. Stephen,
      This is the information that voters need. Thank you. The Gazette and Bulletin do not have enough reporters or the print space to explain these complicated issues. I hope you will include some of this information on your website as well as in future blogs. The PB minutes are very informative but not necessarily explanatory.

      The use of Bertucci’s for a community theater or other community use is a great project for your students. However, we all know that another huge building is in the works on that property all the way to One Pleasant Street. Will the developers ask for as many variances/special permits as the ones we already have?

      What can you and the Planning Board do to insist that the new giant apartment building will have affordable housing and/or be required to rent to handicapped citizens? What can the Planning Board do NOW while voters wait for zoning laws to be changed by the future Town Council? What do YOU propose as a candidate to do about parking?

      I would gladly meet with you. I know that you are a busy full time professor and classes start tomorrow. I will ask Nick to give you my email address, and we can plan a time which is convenient for you. Thank you!

      1. Hi Terry
        Nick sent me your email.

        I think the Design Review Board did a great job in relaying concerns to the newest developer (Bertucci’s site).
        The Town needs to relay consistent messages to developers, before their projects are presented to the town boards.
        I don’t know if we have been doing that. What would happen if they offered Bertuccis as a community space? And offered 10% affordable units, even thought their project is by-right? Would that make a 5-story building more palatable?
        I definitely think we should consider dialing back to 4 stories in that part of town, and consider 5 stories only if some pressing community need is met on site–affordable housing, community space, food co-op, etc.

        I definitely don’t know the answers, but I think I know the questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *