TOWN COUNCIL FOR NOOBS: REGULAR COUNCIL MEETING (10/7/19). THE BIG ISSUE WAS WHO LEADS THE TOWN?

The question of the council’s authority was raised several times at the most recent regular council meeting. While the town councilors are ostensibly Amherst’s primary decision makers, it became clear over the course of the meeting how much they are beholden to the power of UMass as well as the Town Manager.

UMass Student Housing

When I arrived a few minutes before the meeting began, I had a hard time finding a seat. The room was already as full as when the new elementary school was on the agenda. A diverse group of graduate students and their supporters, many with kids in tow, had arrived to express their concern over how UMass was handling the closure of the North Village Apartments on North Pleasant Street. Over the course of the next half hour, while the council discussed another issue, the room filled to capacity, leaving people peering in from the hall.

North Village is a quaint but ramshackle collection of houses for graduate student families. As I saw when my son became friends with a boy from Malawi who lived there, its residents hail from around the world and form a unique, tightly knit international community.

When UMass announced its plans to replace both North Village and the Lincoln Apartments on Massachusetts Avenue, they did little outreach, telling residents in an email that they would be left to find off-campus housing. Because North Village includes a number of children who attend Wildwood Elementary, parents were especially concerned about moving and changing schools. After residents protested, the university committed to re-housing them on campus during construction and offered them spots in the new buildings (once they are completed—two years up the road) at roughly their current rental rates.

Representatives from UMass appeared before the council to outline their plans. Nancy Buffone, Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations, described the financing for the project, which will be done using a public/private partnership (P3) to protect the university’s debt ceiling. P3s have already been undertaken to build student housing at UMass Lowell, Boston and Dartmouth. They allow schools to form quasi-independent non-profit organizations with private developers that can assume the debt for building the project and oversee their construction and operation.

Getting into the numbers, Buffone said that UMass is now the sixth largest residential campus in the U.S. It has 14,300 beds for students and houses approximately 67 percent of its undergraduate students, which is far more than similarly sized universities. Shane Conklin, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities and Campus Services, said that the current plan calls for 730 new undergraduate beds and 165 replacement graduate beds on Massachusetts Avenue  plus 240 replacement beds for both undergraduate and graduate students with children on the North Village site. 

According to a 2015 report on housing in Amherst, there will be 2,000 new students looking for off-campus housing in town by 2020. With only 730 new beds, the current plan would leave a need of  1,270 additional beds to keep pace with growing enrollments, and these numbers may need updating. Sixty percent  of today’s enrollment of approximately 30,500 is 18,300, which is far more than the number of existing beds cited by Buffone and leaves 12,200 students living off campus, although most are already in the housing market and some live outside of town.

Unfortunately for the students who stood up to express how much they valued their current communities and worried about having to enter the off-campus housing market, there is nothing that the council can do to help them. As Conklin admitted, the developer will not be subject to local zoning bylaws or any other town oversight. UMass has no legal obligation to work with the town on this project and the town has no authority over it. And despite partnering with a private developer, the project is unlikely to generate taxes for the town.

Conklin pledged that the university would consult with the town as the project develops, which lead to a discussion about the lapsed University/Town of Amherst Collaborative (UTAC), a joint committee with members drawn from UMass, town staff, and town residents. Tony Maroulis, Executive Director of External Relations and University Events, co-directs UTAC with Geoff Kravits, Amherst’s Economic Development Director. Maroulis expressed eagerness for UTAC to start meeting again now that the council has established itself. UTAC is one of the few ways that the town and town residents can contribute to on-going discussions with UMass about projects like the proposed student housing.

Capital Planning Forums

As usual, the Town Room cleared once the issue of the night had its moment, but the nagging issue of the council’s authority remained, returning later in the evening in a conversation about planning public forums on the four big proposed capital projects. Councilors questioned how the subject of long-range capital planning was being framed and whether the forums should be held under the auspices of the Council.

Discussion began with councilors Darcy DuMont and Cathy Schoen objecting to the title given to these projects by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, who has been referring to them collectively as “One Town, One Plan.” For DuMont and Schoen, “One Town, One Plan” implies that Amherst can easily afford to build a new elementary school, fire station, and DPW buildings as well as undertaking a major library renovation. As a more realistic alternative descriptor, Schoen suggested “Confronting Challenges” or “Finding a Path Forward.” 

When I’ve heard Bockelman present on “One Town, One Plan” over the previous several years, he has painted a very optimistic picture about what the town can afford. He has deemphasized Amherst’s high property taxes and the likely need for several debt overrides to accomplish all four in the near future.

DuMont questioned whether the council should even sponsor such listening forums. She said that she thinks that the council’s role should be vetting proposed projects from an unbiased  point of view. Schoen and Sarah Swartz also raised concerns about whether or not the town could afford all four projects. Councilor Evan Ross responded with surprise upon hearing other councilors questioning whether the town could do all that Bockelman has been saying it can. 

George Ryan interceded with an important point: The role of the council, he said, is not to listen but to lead. While he conceded that listening to the public is a necessary obligation, he pointed out that councilors were elected to lead the town. Since both vetting and independence is necessary for good leadership, he suggested that the League of Women Voters could potentially host these forums. Council president Lynn Griesemer responded that  she was capable of leading a public forum in a neutral manner.

DuMont and Ryan may not yet agree on a direction forward, but their comments signal that at least some members of the council are pushing for more independence from the Town Manager. Hopefully this won’t also mean pushing away from public opinion, despite how slippery it can be.

While the council should certainly lead over the non-elected Town Manager and various department heads, they need to remain sensitive to the residents who elected them. As DuMont pointed out, forums only reach a maximum of several hundred people and far fewer show up. The council has yet to find a way to reach the tens of thousands of year-round residents upon whom their authority truly depends.

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