OPINION: IT’S TIME TO STOP BEING PASSIVE ABOUT THE URBANIZATION OF DOWNTOWN AMHERST

North downtown Amherst with a view of The Pub and Cousins Market. The area has been targeted for possible redevelopment. Photo: Art Keene

English teachers and journalism professors have always cautioned writers not to use the passive voice in their writing, so when I read that the area downtown between Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant Street “is slated for redevelopment,” my first question is, “Who slated it for redevelopment?” More to the point, who slated it for intensive residential development of the sort exemplified by the recent monolithic buildings disfiguring downtown?

One answer might be the Town’s appointed Planning Board of a decade ago. That Planning Board wrote and approved the so-called Master Plan, which recommended greater density downtown and in village centers. That Plan received no approval from any elected body. In those days, the Planning Board was appointed by the Town Manager. The decision not to seek the approval of Town Meeting was deliberate and silently endorsed by the Town’s Planning Department.

The Master Plan, which is currently caught in a tug-of-war between the Planning Board and the Town Council, never addressed the question of how much density is desirable. Downtown, after all, has been dense for a long time. It has also been inviting to visitors and walkers (who can manage the grade) for a long time. Small and diverse businesses, including restaurants, have been the life-blood of downtown for generations, even though their numbers are decreasing. So have mixed-use buildings. Of course, small businesses have been under threat from shopping malls and on-line retailers for awhile. Now it appears that they are under threat from the Town itself.

I am not a neutral observer of all this. As a member of the initial Comprehensive Planning Committee, I was in on the initial stages of the Master Plan. I saw it move from one set of consultants to another, from a plan for human use to a plan for land use. Before that, in the 1990s, I was on the Town–Commercial Relations Committee, believing then as now that small, independent businesses are at the core of the Town’s vitality. As a member of Town Meeting, I heard developers urge the urbanization of downtown, and I thought, smugly, that this will never happen.

Now it is happening, and I am not quite sure why and how it is happening, Has any elected body approved it? Is it Amherst Forward, which made urbanization one of the planks of its loyalty oath for candidates, that is in charge of the future of downtown? Is it the Business Improvement District (BID) that is improving businesses by throwing them out of downtown?

Downtown Amherst belongs to the entire town. Each increase in residential density makes downtown more fragile as a town center. Sidewalks are empty before lunch now, and then empty out again until late afternoon. I used to have a standard route for walking downtown, from Amherst Books to The Blue Marble and the Toy Box, when I was looking to buy gifts. Amherst Books is hanging on uneasily ( although there used to be nine book shops downtown), but The Blue Marble has fled and the Toy Box is threatened. Downtown does not need any new residential construction, and it doesn’t need any more monolithic buildings to suck the life-blood out of our common Town Center.

So, who has slated the east side of North Pleasant Street for “redevelopment”? What is the trail that leads from the Planning Board of a decade ago to last week’s redevelopment public meeting, where the consultants (who hired them?) presented their proposals? Incidentally, there was much to like in their proposals as well as much to worry about, but that is not the point.

The point is that the Town Council needs to take a position on downtown redevelopment. This is too important to be left to an appointed body. The Council needs to look steadily at what has happened downtown in the past few years,  since the Planning Board endorsed overriding the Zoning Bylaw—and Boltwood Place, Kendrick Place, and One East Pleasant Street were the results. Do councillors want more residential density at the expense of commercial diversity? Do they want an urban corridor of empty streets on which the sun cannot shine?

Who has crafted the new downtown for generations to come? It is time to stop hiding behind the passive voice. It is time for the Town Council, as our only elected body, to take charge.

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6 thoughts on “OPINION: IT’S TIME TO STOP BEING PASSIVE ABOUT THE URBANIZATION OF DOWNTOWN AMHERST

  1. Thanks for this, Michael. I’ve now lived in Amherst for more than 20 years. Along with its human scale and wonderfully varied small businesses, downtown Amherst’s charm is going fast. Can Town Council arrest this? Will it? And if not, why choose Amherst?

  2. Didn’t we call this part of town “Amherst Center” until recently? Was its rebranding as “Downtown Amherst” a subtle but deliberate move (by BID, I believe) to “normalize” urbanization?

    When I came to Amherst in the late 1980s, I was tickled that this paralleled the name of where I lived as a little kid (and later, attended school), Center City Philadelphia, whose name in turn alludes to Centre-ville de Paris, its sister city. (Linguistic aside: Philly rhymes with Paris, though the accents are swapped; geographic aside: the Benjamin Franklin Parkway echoes Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and one can get a weird sense of doppelgänger’s déjà vu looking north from Philly’s Logan Circle, or its corresponding place in Paris and see two pairs of near-identical neoclassical public buildings: The Free Library of Philadelphia….)

    About 3 decades ago, Philly real-estate developers shredded the century-old understanding that no structure would be higher than Billy Penn’s cap atop City Hall, building many 80+ story sky-scrapers rivaling Manhattan’s for their shadow-casting, view-blocking abilities. And at the same time, the name “Downtown” has gradually replaced “Center City” in Philly parlance.

    Do these parallels help locate primary responsibility for Amherst’s new found “height envy”? Look in the pockets of the primary beneficiaries.

  3. Post scriptum:

    In full disclosure, I supported the zoning amendment increasing the Amherst Center height limits by one story, but with the understanding that the Planning Board would enforce the bylaw, particularly the set-back requirements; and I thought the Design Review Board would insist that building “step-back” on the upper stories, not loom over the sidewalks and cast shade over our public (and neighboring private) spaces.

    Somewhat optimistically, I expected well-designed structures — perhaps even beautiful new mixed-use buildings, like one I’d seen opposed a park, a few blocks south of King’s Cross in London — with our local architects contributing their considerable talents. Instead, we seem to have gotten a “tofu block” and a “cheese wedge” and — at 1 East Pleasant — mid-rise version of the old low-rise-motel which housed the Carriage Shops; these are buildings taken from a catalogue or “play-book” followed by developers across the nation to install big “private-dorms” in college towns.

    Unfortunately for using Amherst, these new buildings were developed without the requisite transportation infrastructure. I’m not talking about parking (nota bene: the developers’ dream, and now the BID’s goal, appears to be a new parking garage), but rather, about the public transportation options that would allow people to live and work in Amherst Center, while getting around town — and out of town — without the need for the private car. Amherst still had twice-daily AMTRAK service when these zoning changes were first promulgated; but that moved to Northampton by the time these buildings went up, and now we’re left with Peter Pan and PVTA struggling to maintain limited bus services.

    But hey: all the important high-rise cities eventually put their trains underground, so maybe by 2030 we’ll get to the Boston-Springfield-New York (and Philadelphia! 😉 high-speed trains by riding the Palmer-Amherst rail shuttle (running in a subway under Spring Street, the Town Common, Kendrick Park and North Pleasant Street) to its UMass Campus Center terminus?

  4. Thank you for broaching a topic heard in the coffee shops and after church in our town.
    “…Do they want an urban corridor…”
    In our in town, the local, Archipelago (of S. Pleasant St) seems to. Two buildings now and is it a third across from the ol Lord Jeff? A very similar process the Beacon property North Sq at the Mill District built to what they have there. How closely do the sketches used for promotion match the end product? Not very for the latter – as I know from personally observing the process.

    My thoughts, as I watch the businesses drop off in that ‘district’ (Amherst Market, Porta, Pub, Elena’s Barber) is how do they do so simultaneously?, why do they not reopen as others do across town?, what unseen hands coordinates, who’s pockets get lined, what about the two or 3 apartments in that area – what happens to the residents, and so on.

    I would not like anything more built that creates the corridor effect on that or any Amherst down town (other village centers) street. I was hoping there was a gradient back toward the middle of the block with the 5 stories in the middle, not down on the street scape. I would like siding, scale, materials and massing to match what is across the street on the other side of Kendrick. One BID manager called it quaint. I prefer ‘ distinct and locally significant character’. Not really looking for NY or NJ in western Massachusetts. I can see this done (altho 1/2 million dollar condos) in Northampton where the ol Shaws Motel was replaced. Look at that then compare to 1 Kendrick and 1 East Pleasant. I know my choice (to ring that green space). Again. place the monstrosities back, shielded by human scale development. Is there no sense of place, no artistry?

    Chad Fuller

  5. Thank you, Chad, for your wise comment and your good ideas. I agree with the essential idea of human scale. In fact, I think that idea can be joined to an increase in density that has, as you say, a sense of place and aesthetics.

    I just read a review, in the London Review of Books, of a new book called “Corridors” by Roger Luckhurst. It sounds like something both proponents and opponents of an “urban corridor” might read with profit.

    Michael

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