Letter: Don’t Let Dense Student Housing Downtown Crowd Out What Makes Amherst Center A Nice Place To Be

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They say, “If you build it, they will come.” Which raises the questions: If you build what? And who are “they”?

If we build duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, apartment buildings, accessory dwelling units (aka tiny houses in backyards) in the general residence (RG) neighborhoods near Amherst Center, will it create enough supply for the supposed demand for housing in Amherst?

Or will it create a housing glut? It has been several years since a housing study was done — longer than the rated life for such a study — and several hundred new dwelling units have been built since then. Since then, it has been predicted that college-age populations are declining. Since then, we’ve faced global crises that may disrupt our town’s major industry, higher education.

We are also relying on an aging master plan. Town planners and councilors have cherry-picked their favorite parts from that plan, largely ignoring the urgings in that plan about how crucial it is to preserve neighborhood character. Instead, some town councilors charge that “character of the neighborhood” is a “racist dog whistle” by “white homeowners, afraid of change.”

This from the very same councilors who have expressed fears that they need to “do something” to show that they are “doing something” as they prepare for this fall’s elections.

It is also said “it’s not about doing things right, as much as doing the right things.” Educated voters will not re-elect someone who does wrong things well.

It seems wrong to design the business area on and around Triangle Street, the so-called “buffer” between downtown and the RG neighborhood — much of it historical — to encourage highly densified residential units, instead of attracting new business. Dense residential might be a no-brainer for a developer, but what will it do to our central business district? In this case, the easy way is not the right way.

It is a harder path to attract what people want downtown, aka reasons to go downtown. A place to get breakfast, to buy a shirt, to get an ice-cream cone, to go to businesses that help you get your errands done. Those are the kinds of things we said we want, in a series of listening sessions held by the Planning Department a few years ago. We want movies, food stores, neighborhood businesses. The listening sessions made it clear that we don’t want Amherst Center to be more 5-story dorms (featuring no setbacks, no affordable units, no parking, no aesthetics). We don’t want dense student rental units to crowd out what makes Amherst Center a nice place to be. See here.

It was mentioned recently at a town government meeting that the design of affordable housing is often unappealing to its intended users, leading to project failure. If you build it wrong, they won’t and don’t come. Also, if you don’t build it, they won’t come. (There are reasons “they” come or don’t come.)

The stated purpose of densification is to increase affordability. But Amherst is not out of line with many other towns in our region. If anything, our housing prices are inflated because of the cash flow/market value of over-occupied student rental housing. It is said “if you can measure it, you can manage it.” We will not correctly manage this problem without measuring how the prices of student rentals have risen, in response to the high costs of renting in the 5-story private dorms in town. 

Economists would explain trending increased rents as “what the market will bear” after the high rents in those huge downtown dorms act as “anchors,” just as Starbucks anchored the price of coffee so high that other coffee shops realized they could charge more, too.

In hoping to balance the supply of, and demand for housing, consider that we have an abundance of demand that supply will never meet. Many people would gladly move to Amherst to be closer to work and school. The more we build, the more they will come. You may ask, “When does densification become overpopulation?” It’s a good question, one that we are not even trying to answer.

Prices will probably only get lower when densification makes our neighborhoods unneighborly enough. With footnote M removed from our zoning bylaw, a half-acre plot would be allowed to have a triplex and an accessory dwelling unit, with over a dozen unrelated people living on that property, and that includes the requisite parking spots. How many of those, on your block, would depress the price of your house? Does that method work for you, decimating your largest investment?

When Amherst’s boards and councils discuss these weighty matters, various members will comment, “I don’t understand what we’re voting on.” And yet, they may soon vote to “unlock” the area, as they like to say. 

Zoning is not a thing that should be “unlocked.” It is the method used to ensure that land is used with consideration for the community in order to maintain quality of life. It is the thing that prevents one person from swinging their arms too close to another person’s nose. It communicates to developers that “this is what we want, and we support you in building it.”

It is also frequently mentioned in meetings that there is money to study the situation. How about aligning the BID, the Chamber of Commerce, the town boards and committees, and community input to get a clearer grasp on where we are at and where we hope to be? 

Mistakes we make today will last for generations. I am asking for you to get this right, as it is so easy to get it wrong.

Ira Bryck has lived in Amherst since 1993, ran the Family Business Center for 25 years, hosts the Western Mass Business Show on WHMP, coaches business leaders, and is a big fan of Amherst’s downtown.

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5 thoughts on “Letter: Don’t Let Dense Student Housing Downtown Crowd Out What Makes Amherst Center A Nice Place To Be

  1. I urge Amherst citizens not to be panicked by scare tactics claiming that the town council and planning board are endeavoring to drastically “densify” downtown Amherst, or to cave in to “developer” interests. The document the officals are working from is a product of serious and prudent deliberation, designed to increase density to a limited extent, in order to attract renters and businesses to downtown — and to several other sites in east, west, and north Amherst. To those who believe the 5-story apartment buildings are ugly, I can only say that not all of us agree. To me, they seem solid and handsome — but people disagree on aesthetics. But they seem well within the scale of our town. What we need is an adequate public parking garage, like the handsome and superbly functional one in downtown Northampton. And, of course, we need the state to invest in at least one more high-rise dorm on the UMASS campus, to draw student back to campus and out of formerly single-family neighborhoods. In any event, there is no way back to “ye olde village.” Once Covid passes, and the two high-rises’ commercial spaces on the ground floor go into operation, we will see how well these new buildings have done in increasing foot traffic and commercial activity. But, if we want Amherst to be a place that welcomes at least some measure of less well-off people– i.e., people who don’t live in half-million-to-million-dollar homes and don’t much care about the rate of property taxes — then we need both increased residential and commercial properties to expand the tax base.

  2. I welcome Frank Couvares’s comment since it contains a point of view not often found in the Indy and could lead to a useful exchange of the sort our town sorely needs. So let me start by what he and I might agree on and what we probably disagree on. We agree that increased residential and commercial properties are needed, Increased residential properties are needed not only to expand the tax base but also to expand the rich diversity of Amherst’s population and especially encourage families to live in Amherst and make it possible for them to do so. We need to encourage small businesses, especially those that invite downtown street traffic, and invite increased professional business development in our village centers. Mr. Couvares and I disagree about downtown. We disagree about what has been built there recently and we disagree about plans for greater density in the future. I will let others decide which of us they agree with. But there is a larger and more fundamental disagreement about downtown – the importance of aeasthetics, preservation and scale to the economic vitality and the quality of life – that is still being argued. I regret recent comments that choose to attack these concerns as “dog whistles,” although Mr. Couvares has not been part of that attack. They are not incidental or secondary to the economic and social concerns; they are complementary.

    Mr. Couvares says that after Covid there is no way back to “ye olde village.” He is right, and those of us arguing for aesthetics, preservation and scale have to check sentimentality and nostalgia at the door. There ought to be grounds for civil discussion, disagreement, negotiation and compromise on these views about our future, Mr. Couvares’s letter is a contribution to that.

  3. Thank you Ira for your continued attention to this matter that is so important to so many of us. Thank you for including the link to two Public Forums on Downtown Amherst. I urge planners, board members and Councilors to look at what Amherst wants downtown. I did not see that anyone said they want more “solid and handsome” five story apartment building. Frank, I do not think the buildings are ugly, but I do think they do not add anything positive to our downtownscape. They should be situated elsewhere. Since those building arrived it is clear that rents have gone up more than usual. Unofficially affordable units have been lost. Unlikely rents will ever go down. The best we can hope is that they stop going up so fast.
    A largely overlooked, but realistic and effective way to make home ownership more affordable to middle income working class people and families is to put the wealth of Amherst into the hands of its residents. Too much of our natural resource of land and housing is owned by commercial entities and a handful of individuals. A working class family with a duplex or an attached rental unit can afford to live here, pay our high and ever rising taxes, make our neighborhoods diverse and family, elderly friendly, and provide rental units more affordable than almost all recently built units. What steps and actions do we need to take to make this happen? I have a few ideas, lets discuss and figure it out together. We are a community, we love our town, there is no reason not to believe we can work together to make Amherst, a diverse, welcoming, attractive and affordable community for its residents.

  4. with respect, to Frank Couvares: (1) when people consider the potential consequence of removing footnotes and installing overlays, and are therefore skeptical of the town’s tactics, that’s not us using “scare tactics” (2) I am not anti-development, and neither are my fellow complainers – we should invite developers to propose how they will build what is wanted and needed, that balances what is quaint/ historic/ “good bones” about Amherst Center, as befits a small New England downtown (3) if you follow the action, you will see less “serious and prudent deliberation” and more tolerating public input and all kinds of cherry picking pieces of aging plans and studies (4) Yes, people disagree on aesthetics, but design standards, and specifications for parking, affordability, setback, et al should not be ignored or waived or so open to interpretation (5) why would we not want the actual, current data on all that has changed, since our past-rated-life master plan and housing study were done? (6) the 5 story buildings predated the pandemic, so they do have a track record of adding 1 restaurant, 0 stores, 0 affordable units, and an unknown (but likely very small) number of families/ young professionals/ retirees (7) wanting Amherst to not be overpopulated and poorly planned does not mean stifling diversity – many who complain about these issues are insisting on more affordable and inclusive housing, throughout the town (8) Amherst’s average home price is $385,000 according to zillow; that averages neighborhoods like Amherst Woods and the small lots of the RG, and all others (9) great to expand the tax base, but let’s do it by building what is wanted and needed — I agree with Michael Greenebaum’s comment, that more engaging and curious public discussions are required here, and not just because “smart growth” theory says it’s crucial. Thank you

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