I’m sure that elsewhere in the Indy there will be a full accounting of Wednesday night’s open forum on the 40R overlay proposal for downtown Amherst. Let me give, then, just a few of my takeaways from that event.
First, the town was very accommodating to those present, and ensured that everyone had a chance to speak. I was grateful for that. Second, the consultants, who were responsible for drawing-up the proposal and the design standards it contains, were sensitive to the expressions of concern and opposition that dominated the evening. As the meeting progressed they shifted from the “hard” changes they had made in response to earlier concerns to an emphasis on the trade-offs, compromises, and subjectivities involved in planning.
Two other points, which I knew but insufficiently factored into my thinking, were underscored. First, Christine Brestrup and John Hornik both stressed that this was essentially a housing proposal, and one that proposed a compromise that would encourage developers to include more affordable housing in return for higher and denser buildings. The second point, which is understood by anyone who sees Boltwood Place, Kendrick Place, or 1 East Pleasant, is that five-story buildings are currently allowed “by right” downtown, and from this perspective a 40R overlay provides more safeguards to prevent buildings like those from being built.
To the first point I would respond by saying this is a compromise I would endorse elsewhere in town but not downtown. As I have said elsewhere, more housing downtown would inhibit downtown from serving the entire town; it would make downtown more difficult for those who would like to come in to eat, to catch a movie, and especially to shop. I support mixed-use buildings; the ones we have had for a long time work brilliantly and provide an encouraging streetscape; the new buildings are a different story. But the complications of commercial establishments in Amherst have a long history, and don’t seem to be addressed in this proposal. For residents who live elsewhere in Amherst, once they get in their car they can go anywhere for entertainment, eating, shopping. Most of the “anywheres” provide free, convenient parking. This Chapter 40R proposal treats downtown as one of several districts amenable to this kind of development, but that is a flawed starting place. Downtown is special, unique and fragile, especially now. Chapter 40R building will not help.
To the second point, I would confess a feeling of complicity, since I never really grasped the significance of allowing building by right when it came before Town Meeting. It is true that more tall buildings can currently be built and they could be like the three I have mentioned. The more bad buildings that are built the easier it will be to build the next one. The consultants pointed out design modifications that might make the five stories less monolithic, but it became clear that there would be no relief from the feeling of an urban canyon on North Pleasant Street. If the town wishes to return to three or four story limitations downtown it can do so without relying on Chapter 40R. But it is not a question of denser buildings and more affordable housing, which I could endorse elsewhere in town; it is denser buildings and more housing downtown, which is not a trade-off when other locations are available. It is a commitment to the urbanization of Amherst’s downtown.
One last point needs to be raised. Those who attended Wednesday’s forum heard a speaker imply that a concern for Amherst’s character and aesthetics might have a hint of racism. I want to take that charge seriously, even though I think it was too easily made last night. Many of those who opposed the 40R proposal have been in the forefront of efforts to address racism in Amherst’s institutions and community life. (So have many who support 40R zoning.) No matter; embedded in this charge is a serious, long-standing and uncomfortable truth that all of us need to look steadily at, in our country, our community, and ourselves.
Michael Greenebaum was principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970-1991 and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education. He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993 and served on several town committees, including Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.