I was listening to another of many discussions of town officials, about what is needed to make downtown well-designed. The point was made that online shopping and other trends and forces made it unlikely that Amherst Center would fill up with retail and other public-facing business, so maybe a mixed-use building should only offer storefronts that are half the depth of the building, and maybe put parking and residential in the rear of the ground floor. It made me recall the phrase “purpose-built” which is usually meant as a compliment: that something isn’t over-produced, and also over-priced, by aiming for a particular reason for being. For example, a machine that only operates in your business location doesn’t need to be bloated with features for mobility and remote operation.
It would be efficient to build in Amherst in a way that serves our precise needs, in this case a bit of storefront, and more residences, mostly designed for students. Don’t make what won’t sell, and isn’t needed.
Then I remembered, when visiting Carnegie Mellon University I heard the story of how some early buildings there were on a small slope, because Andrew Carnegie hedged his bet, thinking that if the college failed, he could repurpose the building as a gravity-driven factory.
I have no way of knowing if, in future Amherst, people will begin shopping locally again. Or if there would be more interest from families and professionals and workforce and retirees to start renting or buying dwellings in our downtown. A developer hedging their bets in this situation might make the ground floor more flexible, able to suit a business that needs the full depth; or residences that are designed so that they might appeal to the aforementioned non-student population. Or even design something that creatively accommodates more of a mix of all those types of users.
What is “purpose- built” about the future Amherst Center could include the flexibility to adapt to a very different world, looking at all the ways our town could evolve.
Ira Bryck has lived in Amherst since 1993, ran the Family Business Center for 25 years, hosted the Western Mass. Business Show on WHMP for 7 years, now coaches business leaders, and is a big fan of Amherst’s downtown.