Opinion: Zoning Plans That Are Out Of Whack

Photo: Hawaii State Public Library System. Creative commons

Editor’s Note: A version of this column appeared previously in the Amherst Bulletin.

Those of us trying to pay attention to zoning changes being discussed for Amherst are engaged in a game of “whack-a-mole” as proposals morph, but do not solve the problems they are supposed to address. Rather, they promise to supply more undergraduate student housing, degrade neighborhoods, and remove any reason to visit the Amherst business district. 

Since I moved to Amherst 10 years ago, I’ve seen half of the “amenities” that I enjoyed in downtown disappear. I am not expecting Amherst to revert to last century, but we are losing even compared to 2011. The northern end of “downtown” is now a “desert” for residents and visitors. We got Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant Street, with one restaurant and horrendous streetscapes. Now the retail establishments between those two buildings are shutting down. Will infill be other super-sized, super-expensive apartments?

It is ironic to discuss having more housing close to downtown amenities with no plan to preserve and attract the amenities that make Amherst an appealing place to live and visit. All of which begs the question – is there a plan to bring retail establishments to our Town Center? What are Town government’s plans for our General Business (BG) district? 

Let’s also consider the evolution of proposals to “unlock” the Limited Business districts (BL), which are intended to provide a transition between downtown and adjacent General Residence (RG) districts. 

A grant-funded, consultant report proposed a “40R overlay” covering the downtown and BL. The MA website describes 40R as facilitating “Smart Growth” to promote affordable housing, mixed use, attractive communities, open space, and community participation in the decision-making process. Who wouldn’t support those ideals? Regretfully, the consultant report incorporated few of these lofty goals — and interviewed no residents in preparing their report. They made presentations to the Planning Board, but how would an average resident know that the agenda item “40R” referred to a discussion to completely revise central Amherst development guidelines?

The initial proposal envisioned a canyon of four- and five-story buildings right up to residential neighborhoods, replete with extensive asphalt for parking. Residents pushed back, not because they were against smart growth, but because they were FOR creating a livable space that someone might want to call home. In response, the consultants managed a few cosmetic adjustments that did nothing to create an inviting neighborhood, and the revised proposal remained objectionable. Not only were recommendations a problem for abutters but, as it turns out, owners of some “developable” properties thought 40R had too many restrictions and not enough carrots — the proposal was shelved.

Importantly, although the 40R district covered the BG (bringing lofty goals to downtown), it would have done nothing for the BG, as a developer could use the existing underlying zoning, which right now allows five-story buildings up against the street. No developer would choose to follow 40R in the BG.

Whack, whack. Two proposals down for “unlocking” the BL, and no help for the BG. 

Next, Town Council asked the Planning Board to make it possible to add housing to the BL by removing zoning “footnote b.” How is an educated resident supposed to know what that means?? Fortunately, even the Planning Board balked at how that would impact BL density and character. Whack again.

That brings us to the current “zoning overlay.” Alas, it has been recognized that people need sidewalks that are not just squeezed between a sheer building wall and a foot of grass abutting the road. Though proposed building height in the BL has been decreased from five to three stories and some affordable housing required, the financial incentive to build apartments catering to students prevails. When the few remaining stores are forced out during construction of new apartments, the north end of downtown will be further desertified. 

I say WHACK to the “zoning overlay.”

Then there is “Footnote m,” which limits density in the General Residence districts. Surprisingly, more densification is already allowed than one would think; currently, six units are allowed on three-quarters of an acre and nine units on a bit more than one acre. Removing “Footnote m,” as proposed, would allow nine units and fourteen units, respectively.  We’re talking about covering 40 percent of a lot, more than half of which would be parking. This is not a change that promotes workforce and family housing. It will be more student rentals that erode neighborhoods, and more backyards paved over with parking lots and dotted with trash bins.

Students need housing, and so many are aspirational to give back to the community. Can’t we better integrate student housing with the needs for affordable family and workforce housing, stable neighborhoods, and a vibrant downtown attractive to all?

I regret that I am not a developer or a planner, nor do I have expertise in economic development. But I expect there are those who do and could summon the wisdom, resources, subsidies,and incentives to plan something better.

What I have seen is not creating workforce and family housing, is not making the town a destination, is not the Amherst that anyone would want if they had time to keep abreast of all the proposed zoning changes coming at us all at once. Residents are just trying to get through this pandemic. But show them a picture of Amherst in twenty years with what has been proposed, and I assure you, 90 percent would cringe, or rejoice that they have their acreplus on the outer edges of town.

Postscript: It appears that indeed Amherst Town Government does have a plan for the BG —fill it with five-story student dormitories with no parking or any business amenities for year-round residents! Yay!

Elizabeth Vierling is a Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UMass Amherst and an Amherst resident. 

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Zoning Plans That Are Out Of Whack

  1. Your letter covers so many important issues. The desire of the town council to allow more student housing in town center in an effort to enhance the vibrancy of town center is ill advised, based on history. We had many businesses , amenities in town center when we moved here in 1974. There were 2 shoe stores; 2 privately owned pharmacies; a hardware store; shops that featured jewelry, leather, jeans , music , and related items; a wonderful grocery store; fabric and yarn shops…and more. Except for the jeans store, and the fun Faces, and Mercantile, the students headed for Northampton, or the Malls after they opened. The towns people seemed to patronize the area and Holyoke Malls . With towns people going elsewhere, neither those left nor the visitors could sustain these businesses. What professional surveys have been conducted? In the years we have lived in town, nary a survey was presented to us re our desires for the town. In fact, our town meeting members seemed to hide, and not interact with members of the precinct. II am especially concerned about the lack of parking provided by the 2 existing monstrosities, and the proposed one. The residents have apparently tied up a lot of the permit parking, and also leave vehicles on unrestricted town streets, in some cases for weeks at a time. I appreciate the thought that is evident in your letter. I sent a letter to the Town Manager and to my 2 council members, however only one of those members ever responds to me.

  2. Joann, your observations are excellent, but you need to add another element: the impact of shopping online. Students and town residents once supported many bookstores and several music stores in town, These have diminished in number and those remaining struggle. Colleges no longer send students into town to buy required texts, because students can access these through the internet or read them electronically from their campus libraries. This has had a huge ripple effect on restaurants and other town businesses. Building more housing in town will certainly not change this pattern. The future for businesses in town is to create family friendly places, e.g. bowling alleys, performance arts spaces, fitness centers, pet stores, etc. Online has little impact on such.

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