DOES THE PLANNING BOARD HAVE A PLAN? A FEW QUESTIONS FOR JANET McGOWAN

A Few Questions For…”  is an occasional feature of The Indy, aimed at helping our readers get to know the folks who are making things happen in our town. We’ll be featuring members of our town government, key town employees, people who lead civic organizations, activists, local educators, prominent volunteers, and residents who are not necessarily well known.  This week we feature a conversation with the Planning Board’s newest member, Janet McGowan.

Janet McGowan, a mediator and attorney, has lived in Amherst for almost two decades. Before moving here, she was part of the Somerville Conservation Commission and worked as a litigator and environmental attorney with a focus on land protection and indigenous people’s control of their land, resources, and intellectual property.  Since moving to Amherst she has worked with a variety of neighborhood groups, regularly attended meetings of the Planning Board and its Zoning Subcommittee, served as an elected member of Town Meeting, and worked extensively (and unsuccessfully) to expand Article 15 of the Town’s Inclusionary Zoning (affordable housing) bylaw. She was appointed to the Planning Board on 5/20/19.  This interview is the first in a series of interviews with McGowan and other Planning Board members

INDY: Janet, I’m confused about the assumption that all growth is good growth—and conversely, that any growth is essentially unwelcome. Can you help me out here, starting with the question of whether there’s a population explosion that makes it hard for people to find and afford a place to live?

McGOWAN: In our general area, people think the population is flat or even going down. We will have a better sense of more recent population trends after the 2020 census. But there’s a big push in Amherst to build new housing and new rental apartments, especially in Amherst center and North Amherst. Why? Because UMass is regularly admitting more and more students but not building enough dorms and apartments on campus to house them. UMass is the largest employer in the area. UMass students and employees want to live here. And so do retirees and a lot of other people attracted to the town’s beauty, culture, restaurants, schools, and small-town lifestyle. All of this puts the pressure on.

To me, the business of Amherst is educating students, tens of thousands of students. It’s a great strength and also a great challenge. Can we accommodate so many students and people who want to live here, and keep all the qualities that make Amherst a great place to live, work, and go to school? I think so, but it will take thoughtful steps and careful planning.

Is growth good or bad? I think the answer is that it depends. Amherst definitely needs to keep changing to keep up with population increase and increased economic activity. New buildings will go up. But it’s not clear to me that we need to build a new unit of housing for each new person, that we need to build on farmland, or that we need to harm neighborhoods.

I’m pretty sure we all want to do everything we can to accommodate new growth by using or re-using existing buildings and already developed areas, like village centers, existing apartment complexes, or the UMass campus, first. We have good examples of that, such as the proposal to use the East Street school for affordable housing and adding apartments to University Drive and elsewhere.

New buildings should add something to our town, be attractive, and fit in. The architecture can be different or modern, but buildings shouldn’t be big and blocky, like One East Pleasant Street and Kendrick Place. Those buildings are too big, too “1980s office park,” and look like they were dropped into Amherst Center. Northampton and Cambridge have buildings that add density, but look good and interesting—and they fit in.

Also, development shouldn’t create problems, like parking issues, and push these problems onto neighborhoods or taxpayers.  Good development creates vibrant places where people want to walk around, stop to shop, eat, visit a museum, etc. Let’s have more of that—the ZBA and Planning Board can require it.

We also can easily use existing houses to accommodate more residents. Nesterly, for example, is a startup that vets and matches students with homeowners.  Other college towns have matching services like this. In Amherst now, an apartment can be added to an already-existing house, a garage can be turned into a separate apartment to house people, or a separate supplemental unit can be built in certain circumstances. We can change our zoning bylaw to allow more small-scale in-fill housing, two-family owner-occupied houses. The Zoning Subcommittee already has some recommended changes and is looking at others.

We need to carefully increase density in existing neighborhoods, making sure that no one area is overrun by students, to ease some of the pressure on housing. It’s legal for landlords to exclude students from rentals and the Amherst Housing Study consultants have suggested this as a strategy to increase housing for low- to middle-class renters and to open up housing for lower- and middle-income families. This could be a condition of a building permit.

And it’s crucial that UMass makes a commitment to house its increased enrollments on campus, whether it is in new dorms, apartments, townhouses, or appealing graduate student cottages! Lots of these ideas were presented in the two housing reports prepared by consultants years ago.  Basically, I think we need to use our already-developed areas better.

INDY: Why do you think our town officials do not more actively explore how other college towns have been approaching the shared problems and joys of being a college town and what the consequences elsewhere have been so far?

McGOWAN: We are a college town! I think that’s a great idea—look at Hanover, New Hampshire with Dartmouth College, or Burlington, Vermont with the University of Vermont, or Davis, California with UC Davis. And look at places that don’t manage it so well…so that we don’t repeat their mistakes! I’d be interested in visiting Storrs, Connecticut, which has UConn’s main campus, and basically created a new downtown. How did that work out?

I have also always wondered at how the vast majority of residents here are college students, including graduate students, and yet our local government operates with almost no input from them. UMass is a huge factor in every aspect of the town and will continue to be. Amherst College is the biggest owner of housing properties here. There’s impact—there are effects—but there’s little or no open, public conversation between town government, its officials and committees, town residents, including students, and officials from the university and colleges. How can this be? How can we solve problems without working them out openly and together?

UMass says it houses 67 percent of undergraduates on campus. It’s less than 50 percent when you count its thousands of graduate students.  And UMass has added more students than beds, so the pressure on available housing stock and neighborhoods continues, especially in North Amherst. Lots of people want to see UMass build more quality campus housing for its students.

INDY: What do other college towns do in this situation?

McGOWAN: Well, Dartmouth University owns commercial buildings in its host town (including one with a hardware store) as a way to keep rental prices lower and small businesses viable. Davis, California has an appealing downtown of small shops and businesses, and is home to a much larger university than UMass. I was just in Burlington, which has a walkable downtown full of small shops and restaurants. Boulder, Colorado wrestles with these issues. It would be interesting to find out how these towns and cities have handled things such as building size, student neighborhoods—Amherst Town Meeting members were active in passing the rental property and nuisance property bylaws that calmed off-campus student behavior and helped stabilize neighborhoods—as well as parking issues and where to put new housing or affordable housing.

We can all talk a bit about these questions later this fall—our Planning Department and Planning Board will be holding more meetings on the future use and development of the center of Amherst, and what residents want to see there. The Zoning Subcommittee is looking at these issues, as is the Amherst Municipal Housing Trust. It would be great to fold in UMass students, and have meetings on campus. We all need to work together—students, downtown property owners, business owners, neighbors nearby, town residents, planning staff, town officials and staff, experts, people from the colleges and university. We’ve got a great brain trust living here!

INDY: Does the Planning Board look at what other college towns have done, what has worked and what hasn’t?

McGOWAN: I’m not sure yet—I am still a new member of the board. I grew up in a college town, Stony Brook, New York, which is the home of one of four flagship campuses of the SUNY (State University of New York) system. I also lived in Cambridge and Somerville for more than twenty years. So I’ve definitely thought about what works and what doesn’t in college towns and cities.

Amherst has done a lot of things right—not filling in every farm field and parcel of open land with buildings, like my hometown Stony Brook—which now has incredibly high taxes, expensive housing, and almost no open land left. Cambridge has very attractive in-fill development and requires developers to build 20 percent affordable housing. Cambridge also gets sizeable PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) payments from MIT and Harvard University to help offset municipal costs. Taxes are low in Cambridge. But housing prices are intergalactic.

I have been attending meetings of the new Community Resources Committee (CRC), a Town Council committee that’s charged with land use, planning, zoning, resources, farmland, etc. It has been looking at the Master Plan paragraph by paragraph with Christine Bestrup, who is the director of the Planning Department. It has also been talking about affordable housing. I don’t think this idea of looking at other college towns has come up there yet, but I haven’t gone to every meeting. One thing that came out early in the CRC meetings is that the Town hasn’t implemented the Master Plan in a comprehensive way

INDY: Not everyone is familiar with the Master Plan. What is it?

McGOWAN: State law requires Planning Boards to create Master Plans, described in dull language as “a statement…designed to provide a basis for decision making regarding the long-term physical development of the municipality” (Massachusetts General Laws ch. 41, section 81). It lists very specific details of what has to be in a Master Plan.

It includes everything from looking at housing needs and goals, inventorying and protecting natural, historic, and cultural resources, strategies for economic development and employment expansion, deciding where development should go, how cars, bikes, and walkers should move through town, and setting up a plan for funding capital projects, like a new DPW [Department of Public Works] building, a new fire station—all sorts of policies, goals, and strategies to get there. Everything is in there.

A Master Plan provides guidance and a road map—and it’s malleable. Amherst’s Master Plan dates from 2008 and was adopted by the Planning Board on February 3, 2010. The Planning Board also adopted the Amherst Housing Market Study (2015) and Housing Production Plan (2013) as part of the Master Plan. By the way, both of these need to be looked at and updated, since the numbers are out of date—five years is the generally accepted limited to project out. It would be helpful to know and analyze what has happened here since 2013.

Amherst has implemented parts of the Master Plan but not comprehensively and I think that’s hurt the town. Section 10 on Plan Implementation talks about allocating enough money to implement the Master Plan as one of the very first orders of business. Another is to monitor and evaluate implementation by setting up a Master Plan Implementation Committee (MIPIC) to issue bi-annual reports on all Master Plan actions, work with Planning Board, identify problems, solutions, and revisions. What of this had been done?

Well, one of the Master Plan’s list of specific actions is to identify appropriate sites for new town facilities for school, fire department, public works, and other municipal facilities! Another task is to set up a process for sorting out competing interests on pieces of land.  Look at our current conflicts over siting the DPW building next to a neighborhood. And where and how to upgrade school buildings. I also think if we did a better job of assessing and taking care of the town’s operating needs, building maintenance, and capital planning, in 2019 taxpayers would not be faced with the possibility of two tax overrides, four proposed capital projects, and a backlog of work on roads, sidewalks, athletic fields, school buildings, etc. Could focused implementation of the Master Plan fix every problem? No, but I think we’d be in a better place as a community. Also, the Master Plan is supposed to be revised every five years. If that had been done, hopefully we would have noticed that the plan forgot to talk about creating affordable housing by changing zoning bylaws. This means requiring affordable units in new rental housing developments. Lots of towns and cities do this but Amherst doesn’t.

By the way, the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust just proposed an affordable housing policy, sparking great interest in housing issues. They are talking to UMass, the Town Council, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, CRC, etc. They’re looking for feedback on their policy and getting a great dialogue of housing issues going. They’re holding a Fall Housing Forum meeting on November 4 at the Unitarian church at 6:45.

INDY: Could you explain what’s in the Master Plan in general?

McGOWAN:It identifies Amherst’s community values, including general principles. Our Master Plan includes important  things like:

* protecting our farmland

* protecting our natural resources

* supporting our village centers

* protecting the quality of our neighborhoods

* supporting our neighborhoods 

* preserving existing housing

* developing new housing that will increase diversity of housing resources

* protecting our cultural resources

* protecting our historic resources

INDY:What do you mean when you say “neighborhoods?” When the Town was looking at how to update our schools, one of the arguments for consolidation was that “there are no neighborhoods.”

MCGOWAN: I never really understood this point. When my children were in elementary school, we certainly considered ourselves to live a neighborhood and Fort River School was the elementary school of every child in that neighborhood. I see a lot of value in that.

INDY:You referred earlier, by the way, to “Amherst center.” Recently, I’ve been hearing “Downtown Amherst,” as if we have a downtown. What do you make of that?

McGOWAN:Yes, I’ve noticed that too. Longtime residents tell me it was always called Amherst center. Calling it downtown gives it a city vibe but it really is a few streets and two or three intersections.

INDY: What is a village center?

McGowan: Well, “village center” has planning and zoning bylaw meanings. The area around the Munson Library was once a small, thriving village center with a post office/general store, a library, an elementary school, a church. The Atkins area is now considered a village center but it probably wasn’t when it was an apple orchard and a farm stand. Pomeroy and Route 116 is considered a village center now. And “village center” is a zoning designation, which affects what can be built and how it can be built.

I think the village center  idea is a great one but I wish there was a mechanism for the Planning Department and Planning Board to work with the businesses and residents there to thoughtfully create and implement plans there. Right now, there’s intense focus on “downtown’ or Amherst center but not on the village centers.

INDY: How can the public have meaningful input into the look and feel of the town?

McGOWAN: I don’t know the answer to this question, after living here for sixteen years and making comments at many project hearings and public forums. It certainly has been difficult to have an impact.

Several North Amherst public forums had inconclusive results despite strong resident participation. Residents there who tried to get changes to the North Square Project were almost completely shut out by the ZBA panel. I went to one ZBA hearing and was quite shocked. And ground was recently broken for a third large building in the center of Town on Spring Street behind Grace Church. It will have no parking and no affordable units, and will have quite an imposing look to say the least. The Design Review Board voted against this project, and Amherst residents, as well as the church, raised many objections that weren’t addressed.

I think the Town is pretty good at holding forums, but not so strong at implementing their results. The Planning Department held two out of three public forums that were planned, asking about the look, feel, and activities of Amherst center. Lots and lots of people went to these forums. I’m not sure if or how these ideas have been implemented.  I went to the second meeting and there was almost no support for Kendrick Place or One East Pleasant Street. Actually, people were angry about them, their look and feel. The third public meeting was cancelled but it will be held in late fall.

Recently, the Planning Department has been exploring the idea of rezoning much of the “downtown” B-L (Business Limited) area with a 40R overlay district. A 40R overlay district effectively would override our current town zoning requirements.

It allows developers to build even larger buildings, with many more units and greater density than is now allowed, in exchange for a 20 or 25 percent affordable housing requirement and more flexibility in controlling the look of buildings.

I find all of this hard to agree with for a bunch of reasons.

1) We need to adopt a uniform affordable housing requirement for developments throughout Amherst, not just here or there. That’s the problem that needs fixing. I think the Planning Board and Planning Department have dropped the ball by not recommending a zoning change (which consultants suggested in 2013 and 2015) to require 15 percent affordable housing in all new developments over a certain size. In fact, the past Planning Board actively opposed Town Meeting efforts to require a 10 percent affordable housing requirement for special permit projects!

2) The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals have a lot of control over the size and look of buildings under our current Zoning Bylaw, and the Design Review Board’s authority can be changed from just being allowed to make recommendations on downtown projects to having its approval be required.

3) The 40R zoning change, and the increased density and building size it would permit, would have a profound impact on Town, especially the new historic district on the edge of UMass. It would affect the residents, neighborhoods, and historic buildings and houses alongside South Prospect Street, East Pleasant Street and the east side of Kendrick Park. It would affect Kendrick Park itself, parking, and the center of Amherst as a whole. So far, I don’t see a detailed analysis of impacts (positive or negative) or a detailed plan on how to consult with neighborhoods, businesses, and town residents. But there is time. People really care about Amherst and I want them to be brought into these decisions.

INDY: Briefly, what goals would you like to see the Planning Board adopt?

McGOWAN: It’s urgent that we need to recommend that all new housing developments over a certain size include at least 15 percent affordable housing units (or 15 percent space for affordable units).  We need to figure out ways to get housing built for lower- and middle-class people, not just for wealthier people. We need to implement the current Zoning Bylaw correctly, when issuing building permits. It is complicated, to say the least. 

I see the Planning Board as having a leading role in planning for Amherst, working hand-in-hand with the Planning Department and Town Council but also with our community. We should consult with the public and the professionals, see what other college towns do, and help implement the goals and strategies in the Master Plan. We have the lead role in changes to the current Master Plan.

I see how much time the Planning Board and Planning Department spend on permits for projects, and now have a great appreciation for their hard work and dedication. Permit applications take a lot of time—reading, reflecting, asking questions, gathering information, thinking about revisions…all of this shows Amherst’s vitality, but it also makes it harder for the Planning Board to sit back, look at bigger issues, and figure out a path ahead.

Editor’s Note: There will be a public forum on the Master Plan on Monday October 28th in the Town Room of Town Hall.

  • 5:00 p.m. – The Planning Director will provide a primer on the current Master Plan
  • 6:00 p.m. – Public Forum on the Master Plan as required by Section 2.13 of the Town Charter

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