Opinion: Build Baby Build

Kendrick Place in downtown Amherst. Photo: The Graphic, arps.org

Editor’s note:  The column appeared previously in The Daily Hampshire Gazette

Steve Bloom

Recently, while tiptoeing from the kitchen past my wife diligently performing her civic duty monitoring yet another Zoom meeting of the “Politburo” — I mean the Amherst Planning Board — I overheard the chair of that governing body declare that Amherst has “one of the best planning boards in the state.”

Well, as you can imagine, I almost dropped my Cheetos. One of the best in the state? Seriously? By what conceivable metric?

Why just here in the Pioneer Valley, our neighbors, Easthampton and Northampton, are eating our lunch, preserving and repurposing historic buildings and erecting new, contextually designed structures of appropriate scale, which complement their surroundings. Towns around Amherst are creating vibrant centers which attract business and foot traffic. They are making themselves destinations.

And Amherst? What are its latest, greatest contributions to humankind? Kendrick Place. One East Pleasant Street.

Oversized utilitarian warehouses, more befitting an office park in outer Palookaville, not smack dab in the center of Amherst, incorporated 1759, home to the likes of Dickinson, Frost, Lester and not one, not two, but three nationally known institutions of higher learning.

Every time I approach town from the north on Pleasant Street, my heart sinks. Maybe it’s the angle, but Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant look like a solid monolith. The sidewalks in front are so narrow and close to the street I avoid walking on them because I don’t feel entirely safe when I do. Not that there’s any reason to go there, just one restaurant. Man, remember the tastings at Amherst Wine and Spirits, the recitals at Amherst Music, the cookies from the Loose Goose?

Remember all the promises for all the waivers? More, better retail? All those families and young professionals who were going to move downtown, the ones who didn’t need parking spaces because they didn’t drive?

Instead we got what we feared we would get and fought to prevent. Drab student housing, which dominates and yet diminishes downtown.

It didn’t have to be. But it is, compliments of our Planning Board.

Before Kendrick Place was rubber stamped by our Planning Board, citizens asked shouldn’t it have maybe, um, slightly more on-site parking? Four spaces, all for Zip cars no less, for a five-story, 36-unit building?

But there was this “study,” you see. Again and again this “study” was referenced by the Planning Board. According to the “study,” future generations won’t require cars. Everyday needs will be met by foot even if there are no supermarkets or amenities nearby. Future generations of parents won’t need cars to drop off Billy at ballet and Allie at soccer, then pick them back up again. There’ll be public transportation for all that. The way this “study” went on, you’d think Amherst had an elaborate subway system like New York or Boston, not a downtown consisting of one intersection.

Some of us pressed back. What “study” was this? By whom, exactly?

Guess what? After some hemming and hawing, the then chair sheepishly confessed there was no “study.” Just a few conversations with his teenage son whose “expert” opinion was that cars were a thing of the past. Kendrick Place was approved, as is, anyway. Next!

Last year, tenants of Kendrick Place applied for 43 street parking permits. Residents of the 78 apartment One East Pleasant Street were using 87 parking permits or spaces. An already-existing problem was immeasurably compounded. Parking spilling over into and despoiling adjoining residential neighborhoods. Congestion created.

Now that’s what I call planning.

Our Planning Board brooks no dissent, whether from within its own ranks or from the general public, whose comments are routinely dismissed as hindrances and/or annoyances. Votes are most often in lockstep. Those who dare to disagree, to not get with the program, tend not to be reappointed. Those seeking to serve from neighborhoods directly affected by the board’s dictates are winnowed out in a frustratingly opaque pre-selection process.

Often our Planning Board hides behind a veneer of wokeness to make decisions, the repercussions of which are anything but politically correct. Carrying water for UMass’s needs and the student housing industry’s greed, they’ve repeatedly accepted absurd avowals at face value, namely that buildings are intended for families and adults, when schematics with coffin-sized bedrooms and the lack of master bedrooms and on-line advertising reveal their true market.

You don’t need an advanced degree, just a shred of common sense, to know what’s coming down the pike if things continue as they are going. More industrial scaled dorms, owned by out of state hedge funds that couldn’t give two cents for the town, just in it for the bottom line. Less community. More bars, more pot dispensaries, more fast food. Less charm.

A huge parking structure behind the CVS eventually, no doubt at taxpayer expense. With maximal densification of residential neighborhoods, gradual then mass flight by year-round residents to protected subdivisions at the outer reaches of town, or, more likely, gone altogether. Block upon block of uninterrupted, non-owner occupied, minimally maintained student rentals. Basically, the town in “It’s A Wonderful Life” if George Bailey had gotten his wish and never been born. Yes, that seems to be the plan

Best in the state? Try zip code.

Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom is former Chair of the Lincoln-Sunset Local Historical District Study Committee and a former member of Amherst Town Meeting and the Local Historic District Commission.

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