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Moratorium on downtown development?

Nick Grabbe

Darcy DuMont, a candidate for Town Council, has proposed a moratorium on approval of downtown development until new zoning can be enacted. DuMont, who did very well in last week’s preliminary election, is appealing to residents’ understandable unease over the rapid change in the visual landscape of the northern part of downtown Amherst.

But there are many reasons why a moratorium is not the best way to address the issue.

First, it’s probably illegal, and could cost taxpayers lots of money in lawyers’ fees when someone challenges it in court. Amherst did have a moratorium on new construction in the late 1980s, but the reason for its enactment was that we needed to make sure we had the infrastructure to accommodate growth. Legally, that’s a more tenable defense than distaste for the appearance of existing buildings whose location is consistent with the master plan.

Second, that moratorium in the 1980s spurred an escalation in housing prices. That’s because the supply of new housing was stopped while demand continued to grow. Higher property values might be great for those of us who own houses, but they would worsen the problem of young families being unable to afford to live here.

Third, a moratorium isn’t necessary to address the look of downtown buildings. The Town Council could enact Form-Based Zoning, a proposal that Town Meeting rejected when it was proposed for North Amherst and the Atkins area. This could help lead to new buildings that are, in DuMont’s words, “suited to the inviting, historic character of Amherst.”

Fourth, a moratorium would do nothing about the buildings that already exist, or the one planned for Spring Street, which has already been approved. DuMont says she wants downtown buildings to be more sustainable, but ignores the fact that Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant are extremely energy-efficient, and their central location gives hundreds of people the opportunity to live and commute without cars.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, those downtown buildings, plus Olympia Place off East Pleasant Street,  enabled Amherst’s budget to balance this year without major spending cuts or tax overrides. If you say you wish that those buildings had never been built, I want to know whether you’d prefer laying off teachers and police officers or asking residents to pay more taxes.

The annual salary increases for Town employees (a “level services” budget) were affordable this year within the state-imposed limits on tax hikes. But there were large unanticipated expenses, especially for health care. Coming to the rescue was $800,000 in tax revenue from “new growth,” chiefly new buildings, which the state allows towns to tack on to the amount they can raise by taxation.

Amherst residents have expensive tastes when it comes to municipal spending. We pay our employees well, and have a very low teacher-to-student ratio. That’s commendable, but someone has to pay the cost. That someone has usually been residential taxpayers, whose quarterly bills have gotten sky-high. What’s so bad about developers helping to pay the costs of having enough teachers, police officers and firefighters?

It’s curious to me that DuMont, and many other people decrying those downtown buildings, wanted to keep Town Meeting when we voted on a new charter last March. It was Town Meeting that approved the five-story height and rejected Form-Based Zoning! And why do people fixate on that fifth story? There are many buildings in Amherst that are that tall or taller.

DuMont says that she is “not against development.” Let’s hear her proposed strategy for development that would bring in a similar amount of tax revenue.

Before she became a candidate for Town Council, DuMont was a teacher and a climate change activist. I am in complete agreement with her on the urgency of addressing climate change, but I don’t think a moratorium on downtown development does anything to act locally on that issue.

There’s an overall solution that would accommodate the increasing number of UMass students and provide tax revenue to the town, while limiting the kind of downtown development that so many people don’t like.

It’s called a “public/private partnership.” If the state would allow it, this would enable the Town of Amherst and UMass to cooperate on building taxable housing for students on land owned by UMass. This housing could be built on University Drive or, combined with retail and offices, on the former Frat Row on North Pleasant Street, the “Gateway” site.

The Town Council should work with our new state representatives to convince state officials that this would be a good way to help out the community that incurs the costs of hosting the flagship state university.

Comments 14

  1. If sustainabilty and the environment are the issues, then the proposed moratorium is completely backwards–the call should be for a moratorium everywhere BUT downtown and the village centers. Since 2005, more than 1400 new bedrooms have been added in Amherst outside of downtown, while 340 have been added in downtown (projects with more than 10 bedrooms). I am confident that the environmental impact and per-capita carbon footprints of the 340 new residents downtown is tiny compared to most other residents of Amherst (possible exception–students who live in multi story dorms).

    The concerns about aesthetics, form (height, setback), size of commercial areas in mixed use buildings, mix of housing are all reasonable. They are not bases for a moratorium. I think it is worth considering a lower height in the downtown area, with possible height bonuses given to building owners who exceed the number of affordable units that are required -and/or- who give the community some needed assets (community theater, eg).

    Form-based zoning definitely will help address many of the community concerns. These codes are diagram-based (rather than verbal) and are much easier for the public, designers, builders to understand. But getting to a simplified code is not simple! We really need board members and Town Councilors who can listen, communicate, collaborate, and help move the process forward.

    I stand ready to help.

    1. The main question about development for me concerns the immediate future. It will be quite a while before form-based zoning could be passed, and private-public partnerships are negotiated.

      How can the Planning Board, which Steve Schreiber chairs, limit special permits and waivers while the not-yet elected Council works to change the current zoning laws? My key concerns:

      1) Is there anything the Planning Board can do differently NOW as the next apartment building proposals come to the Board such as the huge complex between Kendrick and One Pleasant? Will dangerous dorms continue to be built with wood frames from the second story up? It may be “legal,” but it doesn’t make it the safest mode for residents, just a cheaper way to build.

      My daughter was in an apartment fire right off the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park. Coincidentally, another Amherst Regional High School graduate was in the same building. Luckily, both survived, yet such buildings need careful fire protection and procedures. Are there going to be fire drills for Amherst’s new downtown dorms?

      2) How do we know these buildings will not have MORE renters than allowed per unit? Does the town have a signed agreement with the landlords? Will landlords check on how many people are actually living in each apartment?

      Just drive down Shumway Street this fall! Clearly more individuals are renting the houses than are allowed. There are cars parked in driveways, on grass yards and all over both sides of the street. I think that this road is in District 4, where Mr. Schreiber is running.

      3) Does Amherst have the infrastructure and services to support these new apartment buildings?

      4) Why is Archipelago doing most of the five story apartment buildings? Why isn’t there more competition from other builders? Why is Archipelago the preferred contractor?

      Does the Planning Board legally have to accept every new downtown plan coming its way? Is the PB going to continue to disregard the proposals of the Design Review Board such as with the over-sized Spring Street building? To me, Spring Street is the more egregious plan yet – a real bait and switch from the original proposal and totally out-of-place in that area. Maybe we don’t need a moratorium but we sure need a pause.

      We DO need more tax dollars but not from oversized and cheaply built dorms with probably empty lower level commercial space. This is NOT smart growth!

      1. 1) Is there anything the Planning Board can do differently NOW as the next apartment building proposals come to the Board such as the huge complex between Kendrick and One Pleasant? YES. I THINK REPS FROM HISTORIC COMM., PLANNING BOARD, D.R.B., ZBA, SELECT BOARD CAN MEET WITHE DEVELOPERS BEFORE PROJECT IS SUBMITTED TO DISCUSS COMMUNITY CONCERNS. THE D.R.B. CAN BE GIVEN MORE TIME TO REVIEW AND COMMENT. THE PLANNING BOARD CAN HOLD LINE ON WAIVERS AND SPECIAL PERMITS.
        Will dangerous dorms continue to be built with wood frames from the second story up? It may be “legal,” but it doesn’t make it the safest mode for residents, just a cheaper way to build. I WOULD NOT CHARACTERIZE THEM AS UNSAFE, BUT I UNDERSTAND YOUR CONCERNS.

        My daughter was in an apartment fire right off the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park. Coincidentally, another Amherst Regional High School graduate was in the same building. Luckily, both survived, yet such buildings need careful fire protection and procedures. I AM SO SORRY, TERRY. Are there going to be fire drills for Amherst’s new downtown dorms? I CAN’T ANSWER THAT BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT DORMS.

        2) How do we know these buildings will not have MORE renters than allowed per unit? GOOD MANAGEMENT. VIGILANT NEIGHBORS Does the town have a signed agreement with the landlords? SORT OF. THE DEVELOPERS HAVE REPRESENTED AT PUBLIC MEETINGS AND ON DRAWINGS WHAT THE OCCUPANCY OF EACH UNIT IS. THAT IS BINDING AND ENFORCEABLE. Will landlords check on how many people are actually living in each apartment? YES

        Just drive down Shumway Street this fall! Clearly more individuals are renting the houses than are allowed. There are cars parked in driveways, on grass yards and all over both sides of the street. I think that this road is in District 4, where Mr. Schreiber is running. YES, IN FACT THAT IS MY NEIGHBORHOOD. IF I SEE PROBLEMS LIKE THIS, I REPORT IT TO THE TOWN. THE CODE ENFORCEMENT GROUP IS INCREDIBLY RESPONSIVE

        3) Does Amherst have the infrastructure and services to support these new apartment buildings? YES

        4) Why is Archipelago doing most of the five story apartment buildings? NO CLUE. Why isn’t there more competition from other builders? NO CLUE Why is Archipelago the preferred contractor? THERE AREN’T. IT’S A FREE MARKET.

        1. Dear Steve,
          Thank you for your answers last night.

          Of course, I know that the five-story apartments are not technically dorms, but they are functioning as dorms. I will go to the Fire Department and ask about fire drills. Also, I know that a recent town study of Fire Department stated that many more fire/ambulance personnel are currently needed so I’m not sure that Amherst has the infrastructure and services required yet.

          As to your answer about what can be done NOW concerning five-story proposals coming down the pike, I applaud your following suggestion. Here’s your quote:

          YES. I THINK REPS FROM HISTORIC COMM., PLANNING BOARD, D.R.B., ZBA, SELECT BOARD CAN MEET WITHE DEVELOPERS BEFORE PROJECT IS SUBMITTED TO DISCUSS COMMUNITY CONCERNS. THE D.R.B. CAN BE GIVEN MORE TIME TO REVIEW AND COMMENT. THE PLANNING BOARD CAN HOLD LINE ON WAIVERS AND SPECIAL PERMITS.

          Who is going to initiate these great ideas! Are you going to do this? Should I write all the above boards and committees? More careful planning has to be implemented NOW before the zoning laws are changed. Many, many voters are upset.

          And why were so many waivers and special permits given for the first few buildings?

          1. I should give credit to those ideas to my fellow Planning Board members, who discussed these exact issues at our last meeting. The Planning Director is checking the legality of the pre-meetings. A number of people have written to us about the need to slow the process down for potentially controversial projects.

  2. Darcy DuMont’s moratorium idea is her response to the concerns she heard as she knocked on doors and talked to her future constituents. She wrote about it here:
    https://darcyfordistrict5.org/uncategorized/the-development-residents-want/

    This idea shows Darcy listens and will take bold, independent action for her constituents.

    You mention that Darcy has been a teacher and a climate activist, but your audience may not know that she was also a lawyer. I’m sure she’ll help the Council come up with a legal solution that will give them time to fix the approval process.

    Darcy doesn’t need to offer an alternative to downtown development because she isn’t against development. But I’m sure she will continue to offer alternative ideas because she’s a creative thinker.

    1. So this bad idea for a downtown development moratorium came from the grass roots, and Darcy is simply channeling it. OK. I’m interested in listening, too, but I’m also interested in good judgement, before the bad idea makes its way into campaign literature.

  3. Was this really a serious idea from Ms. Dumont, or simply a whistle intended to signal to a certain sizable group of voters in District 5 that there’s precious daylight between her and the other 3 candidates in that race? For me, I can respect (and even vote for) a candidate who says, mid-campaign, “never mind, I got over my skis on this proposal.” But she may instead double-down on this, because (and Ms. Rose’s comments seems to confirm this) she thinks the moratorium idea is working for her, whether it ever gets implemented or not.

  4. Just an update on my question on whether District 5 Town Council candidate Darcy DuMont supported or opposed the badly needed elementary school in 2016/17. I sent her a FB message asking her that question on Sept 6th. She did not answer it. Since Sept 6th, she has posted and shared other things on FB, so it’s not like she hasn’t been on FB. I don’t know about anyone else in District 5, but I want an answer to that question and in the absence of an answer, I can only guess that she opposed the school and is playing politics in pretending not to know people are interested in her answer. That says almost as much as her answer would to an honest question. I’m not going to vote for her because I don’t want to start our town council with the same high-handed unresponsive representatives like we had in Town Meeting. District 5 voters should consider this when they make their decisions.

    By the way, here is the FB message I sent her on Sept 6th that was not answered: “I am a voter in District 5 and I was wondering if you supported or opposed the new elementary school when it was up for a vote with the town’s citizens and in front of the town meeting members in 2016/17? Thank you. Brian Scully”

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      Author

      Brian, I sent Darcy a similar email, with similarly neutral wording. She has not responded. But I’m not going to give up. I’m going to email someone who knows Darcy well and hope that he/she is able to convince Darcy that there will be consequences if she tries to avoid this issue.

      1. Thanks for doing that, Nick… but I guess I’m thinking and I’ll bet a lot of other people in District 5 are thinking, if it takes you to specially contact Darcy DuMont to answer a simple, basic question one of her potential constituents has, like about whether she supported or opposed the elementary school in 2016/17, how can we expect her to answer our questions when they are about other problems we might have with the town government once she is on the town council?

        My thinking is, if a candidate does not answer questions while they still are trying to get your vote, why on Earth would we expect them to answer our questions once they HAVE our vote?

        Thankfully, there are better choices available in District 5. 🙂

  5. Nick you said: “There’s an overall solution that would accommodate the increasing number of UMass students and provide tax revenue to the town, while limiting the kind of downtown development that so many people don’t like.

    It’s called a “public/private partnership.” If the state would allow it, this would enable the Town of Amherst and UMass to cooperate on building taxable housing for students on land owned by UMass. This housing could be built on University Drive or, combined with retail and offices, on the former Frat Row on North Pleasant Street, the “Gateway” site.

    The Town Council should work with our new state representatives to convince state officials that this would be a good way to help out the community that incurs the costs of hosting the flagship state university.”

    Just to be clear: Select Boards well before me, and during my eleven years of service, have all talked at length on multiple occasions to multiple levels of UMass about exactly this, and have worked hard with both Ellen and Stan on it.

    *It is not a new conversation.*

    *And* we do need to keep working on it, and we need Town Councilors who continue and improve the collaborative partnership, not just those candidates who haven’t been there who say it’s not fair that it hasn’t happened yet.

    Let’s also remember that one of the big stumbling blocks is one our residents indeed value: using union labor on such projects.

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      Author

      Alisa, I did know that Select Boards had been working on this for many years, and I heard you mention this in your final comment at the at-large candidate forum. I did not mean to imply that it was a new idea.

  6. The real failure of the antis mindset is that this kind of proposal doesn’t include a solution or take into account the reality of our municipal budget. As Nick rightly notes – point 5 – new construction provides much needed revenue and diversification of the tax base. (No, taxes will never go down.) If the proposal was to put a hold on new construction and stop social services funding while we debate a new zoning plan, I think the general response would be more skeptical.

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