As 2030 draws to a close, we can look back at the astonishing accomplishments in Amherst over the last 10 years since the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic brought much of the town to a worrisome pause. The University was virtually shut down, Amherst College had become a hermetically sealed bubble, Hampshire College was struggling to stay alive, and our downtown businesses were struggling. And at the same time, we were stepping up to respond to the reckoning around race that had become a top priority for the nation and for the town.
At that time there was conflict around zoning and about what kind of development would be best for Amherst. But through a series of facilitated community conversations, it turned out the conflict was not so much between people who wanted development and those who didn’t. It was more about what kind of development people wanted. The conflicts were resolved when everyone, including the Town Council, agreed on a policy that any change in the zoning bylaw had to be specifically linked in some way to advancing the Town’s Master Plan. Having a Master Plan also meant the Town could develop a broad strategy to achieve the Master Plan’s goals, with zoning being only one of many available tools.
The Master Plan seeks to protect the historic and cultural aspects of our downtown and Village Centers, so while plans to build a variety of profitable, off-campus student housing moved forward, those developments were located in parts of town where they didn’t undermine protection of historic and cultural spaces and a vibrant downtown life. Amherst has come to better understand and more intentionally manage the tension between meeting the needs of students, which is profitable, and meeting the aspirations of year-round families and adults, which requires more planning, creativity, and incentives to be successful.
Because in 2030, Amherst is the home to many artists from other countries and cultures, the enthusiasm for lively village life has brought forward many diverse musicians, dancers, poets, and performers. The new flexible performance space on the Town Common—developed thanks to the Rotary – has supported many diverse cultural performances, as has the second flexible performance space at the north end of Kendrick park. Moveable platforms and wiring in the trees and on poles with mobile light boxes mean these two spaces can be used for large and small, rowdy and intimate, avant-garde and traditional events. The lighted area on the Town Common features summer square dances that draw hundreds, as well as the popular June Moon Ballroom Dance and, in partnership with the UMass Music Department, the revived Jazz in July festival.
This great coming together sparked a tremendous outburst of creativity and particularly adventurous experiments in bringing more cultural and arts activities to our downtown and village centers. There was a particular burst of cultural arts from the various cultural and ethnic groups already living in town but whose cultural life had been invisible.
Research on successful 21st century downtowns concludes that modern-day downtowns thrive when they have a vision for the future; enhance existing assets; use education and incentives, not just regulation; pick and choose among development projects; and pay attention to community aesthetics. People go downtown less to buy things they need and more for experiences – yoga class, hair salons, Pilates, movies, dinner, coffee with a friend, theater, the library, dance, and concerts. And when people come to town for self-improvement or entertainment, they also buy things like books, clothes, gifts, and flowers, all part of enhancing the experience of being downtown.
Veteran legislators Jo Comerford, now MA Senate President, and Mindy Domb, Speaker of the Massachusetts House, have been able to increase UMass funding in order to provide extensive consulting and technical advice in creating and expanding the various arts venues in town. The Theater and Music Departments as well as the Isenberg School of Management have provided invaluable advice. Corporate donors, as well as individual benefactors, have helped pull it all together.
The new live music club in the former Bertucci building is reminiscent of the Iron Horse except the food is better and there are many more local performers as well as spoken word programs, poetry slams, and Afro-Caribbean music festivals. The old fire station is now a live theater venue with a state-of-the-art black box theater that hosts the famous Stars of the Future Summer Theater Festival. There is rehearsal space and a videography studio on the second floor of the dramatically revamped former Bank of America building, thanks to another creative partnership between Barry Roberts and Amherst Cinema who bought the bank building 8 years ago.
Roberts and Amherst Cinema have turned the ground floor and part of the new second floor into a series of small boutiques, a mini-version of Thornes Market, helping small businesses succeed by shared infrastructure and reduced costs. Today, in 2030, some may not remember the monstrous former bank building with pretentious, non-structural pillars, 45 degrees out of alignment with every other building in town, and with appalling energy waste. Transforming that building was one of the few things on which pretty much everyone in Amherst agreed. Fortunately, John Kuhn had designed a remodel that has created the historically appropriate Roberts Building that is now abuzz with small shops, rehearsal spaces, a dance studio, and an after-school videography program.
The Town’s 4th Annual White Night Festival this year surpassed all expectations. Modeled on similar all-night events in Melbourne and in several European cities, this dusk-to-dawn party transformed the downtown through creative lighting, installations, exhibits, street performances, film, music and interactive events all through the town’s streets and sidewalks, parks, cultural institutions and public spaces. This year people came from all over Western Mass. The Meade Gallery outdid itself with student mimes interacting with the art throughout the museum. The Amherst Historical Society held a light show projected onto the building with characters from Amherst’s history performing in sync with the light show. The Emily Dickenson Museum featured short, improvised scenes throughout the homestead with high school thespians performing imagined interactions that might have happened there. Bread and Puppet came to town presenting a traveling procession and performance on the Common and in the alley between the Amherst Cinema and Roberts building. Concerts were featured in front of the exit from the underground parking behind Judie’s and at Kendrick Park. There was even a dance performance on top of the new parking garage behind the Amherst Food Coop (formerly CVS).
A highlight of our early summer in Amherst is the kite flying competition, held at the Cherry Hill Golf Course. Sparked by the extraordinary kite skills of former Amherst College undergraduate Amir Kahn, an exchange student from Afghanistan and a national Afghanistan kite champion, competitors make their kites entirely from materials purchased at A.J. Hastings. LSSE holds annual kite-making workshops in the parking lot behind Hastings in preparation for the contest. This year the contest drew hundreds of spectators to Cherry Hill, and many of them ended the afternoon at the Clubhouse buffet catered for the event. Needless to say, LSSE came out ahead.
The Town capital budget is stable again, thanks in part to Amherst College’s decision to match Williams College’s bonding of a new elementary school in North Adams. Amherst College put down money to help build the new elementary school. At the request of the Town, Amherst College also provided land for the new DPW building with a one-dollar 99-year lease. The new Fire Station is at the old DPW location. The compromise on the needed Jones Library renovations is finally concluded and construction should begin soon. While the plan does not please everyone, it achieves the 3 primary goals: fixing the structural problems with the roof, increasing the space, and maintaining the historic appearance of the building on Amity Street.
Modeled on Nantucket’s 2006 referendum to ban national chain stores from village centers, in 2023 Amherst did the same. CVS could have been grandfathered in; however, having a comparable store on University Drive and in deference to public pressure, they closed the North Pleasant Street store early in 2024. Everyone was thrilled that the new Amherst Food Coop was able to purchase, renovate, and move into the building by the end of that year. The new parking garage behind the Coop features solar panels on the roof and a lovely, pastoral mural and a row of trees on the west wall, shielding North Prospect Street residents from the garage. The Main Street Bistro has been flourishing at the former Subway location for the last five years, with outdoor tables during three seasons and bringing energy to the intersection.
Because the Town saved so much money by reducing energy costs, through the Net Zero bylaw, it was able to pass on some of the savings to Town employees with $5,000 annual stipends for those living in Amherst.
One thing that has helped make all of this possible was the Council’s decision to create the Advisory Committee (ADCOM), similar to the 2018 proposal made by the retiring Town Meeting Advisory Committee. The ADCOM carries out research, directed by the Council and its committees, to explore the impact of new plans on different constituencies and different interests, to explore alternatives, and to learn how other communities deal with challenges. It has been particularly helpful in identifying unintended consequences and points of view that enthusiastic advocates may not have considered, or perhaps do not want to consider. Good government needs tools to balance the enthusiastic advocates with the broader interests of the whole community, particularly those whose voices are more tentative. This process has been key in the developments over the last 10 years in Amherst.
Meg Gage is the now-retired founding director of the Peace Development Fund and the Proteus Fund, national organizations based in Amherst that organize within philanthropy to advance campaigns related to peace, human rights and democracy. She is a graduate of ARHS and taught at the high school. She served on the recent Charter Commission and is currently the Chair of the Participatory Budgeting Commission and on the Planning Team of the District One Neighborhood Association (DONA).