SMART GROWTH AND GOOD FIT – REFLECTIONS ON AMHERST’S DOWNTOWN

Kendrick Place apartment building viewed from the south. Photo: Art Keene

There used to be a game – perhaps there still is – with the object of fitting cars into parking lots or personal items into suitcases seemingly too small to accommodate them.   As I recall, it was called Parking or Packing or something like that. Maybe it was called Sardines. I’m not sure. Each level of the game could be solved, although the solution was neither obvious nor intuitive.

Michael Greenebaum

In Amherst this game is called infill, and it is being played by builders, developers, and planners. The rules of the game can be found in an almost fifty-year-old document called the Report of the Select Committee on Growth (SCOG). The SCOG Report sets out the basic principle by which Amherst’s land-use planning has been governed: the trade-off between density in downtown and village centers on the one hand, and the preservation and enhancement of open spaces on the other. This is widely supported. I have lived in a condominium in Echo Hill South for three decades and I am profoundly grateful to the planners of this development for their commitment to this principle. The highly compact blocks of townhouses are surrounded by many acres of woods, ponds, and fields that enrich my life daily.

The SCOG Report made one other recommendation, which is central to development downtown: “[T]he Planning Board [should] study the feasibility of relatively high density development through greater variation in structure heights, land usage, multiple-use structures, and the preservation of viable residential neighborhoods in the area between the center of town and the University.”

This Report was endorsed by Town Meeting.

Forty years later the Planning Board approved a Master Plan, as required by the state, but chose not to submit it to Town Meeting for approval. Embedded in the Master Plan is the following statement: “Certain portions of the downtown, village centers, and specific districts and neighborhoods may be appropriate for higher densities of development. The Town should update its regulatory code [Zoning Bylaw] to ensure that such development is permitted and encouraged, particularly as infill and redevelopment initiatives are pursued.”

Some residents were alarmed (and made suspicious) by the decision of the Planning Board – an appointed body – not to seek the endorsement of Town Meeting, an elected body,  for the Master Plan. Subsequent attempts to rethink the zoning regulations so that they would support “infill and redevelopment initiatives” were proposed to Town Meeting, and were not approved at the 2/3rd level required by law.  These efforts would have substantially replaced the focus on permitted uses in the zoning bylaw with a focus on the building’s form and its relationship to its surroundings. There is good reason to think that this defeat is an important reason town boards and committees, as well as builders and developers, were so enthusiastic about abolishing Town Meeting.

This is a sad episode in Amherst’s history. I am particularly saddened because I believe in planning and was a member of the original Comprehensive Planning Committee. I think that if “form-based zoning” based on the relationships between buildings and their physical environments hadn’t felt so much like a collusive effort between the town and developers it might have received a better hearing at Town Meeting. In general, I like the idea.

Neither the SCOG Report nor the Master Plan give criteria for deciding how dense is too dense or how high is too high. The idea of increasing residential density downtown seems to violate the idea that downtown belongs to all of us. The three new oversized buildings – Boltwood Place, Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant Street – bear no aesthetic, historical, cultural, or physical relationship to the rest of downtown, to Amherst’s past or even to Amherst’s hopes for the future as found in its planning documents over the past fifty years. They crowd out street life, make significant demands on infrastructure, and are thick and unattractive. On sunny days, Kendrick Place throws a huge shadow across Triangle Street; that’s an apt metaphor for the whole of recent downtown development.

Fifty years ago I was bowled over by a book called Notes Towards a Synthesis of Form, by the architect Christopher Alexander. In it he develops the idea of Good Fit, which is the desired relationship between a “form” and its “context.” The sad thing that has happened downtown is that even though the new big buildings have never achieved good fit with their physical environment, they are now part of the environment in which new construction should fit.  This is indeed an ominous thought.

I don’t go downtown much any more. I’ve lived here almost fifty years and for most of that time downtown was notable for its street life, shared by old and young, student and worker, children and parents. The town made real efforts to encourage that street life; the benches along North Pleasant Street were put in place, art began to appear unexpectedly enmeshed in building exteriors. The town’s only supermarket was downtown, as were two drug stores, two hardware stores, two shoe stores, two men’s clothing stores, and nine (count ‘em) book stores.  Just as important, the streetscape itself was inviting and even endearing. Think of the buildings just to the west of Kendrick Park, or the lovely shapes and roofs on the north side of Kellogg Avenue.

Amherst has a history of building bad buildings. The Police Station, the Bank of America building, and the Tucker-Taft Building offend by their size, their scale, their heaviness and their relationship with their surroundings. That they are now joined by the three millennial buildings I mentioned earlier, has changed and downgraded Amherst’s downtown dramatically. Builders and planners have further designs on our common civic space; they want to create an urbanized corridor north of our main intersection as well as build up south of it. They will try to persuade the Town that these new big buildings are fulfilling Amherst’s planning goals as identified in the SCOG Report and the Master Plan, just as the Library Trustees will try to persuade us that a larger library in the center of town is in the best interests of this library-rich town.

So far, I am not persuaded, but I fear that with these big buildings already in place it will be easier to build the next bad buildings downtown. But perhaps there is still time to preserve our village centers. Now that we are being asked to consider “Smart Growth” in our village centers, it might be good to consider “Good Fit” as well.

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1 thought on “SMART GROWTH AND GOOD FIT – REFLECTIONS ON AMHERST’S DOWNTOWN

  1. I don’t think it outrageous to assume that one can use the form of a building to get some sense of its function and the purpose of those who built and financed it. In the case of One East Pleasant street, to take one example, it seems clear that it does not address sprawl and the loss of open space in Amherst. The high rents and small size of the “apartments” in this building, most of which are efficiency studios, indicate that they can function only as alternative and privatized student dormitory rooms. The infill of town center with buildings of similar design will not be useful for families or long term residents of any other kind. Thus, they will not have any impact on the increasing and accelerating use of the opens species left in Amherst for single family houses. They will not reduce single family auto trips to the large big box retail and supermarket sprawl developing in Hadley, and will thus contribute to the increasing drift toward climate change. They well, however, free UMass from the obligation to provide public dormitory space for its growing student population. The purpose of the developers is high rent and profit, not community, land or environment.

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