It is impossible not to see how Amherst’s downtown is changing, with the construction of five-story residential buildings of contemporary design along East Pleasant Street and as Town Council considers multiple zoning changes to “densify” downtown. One zoning amendment currently under consideration could further dramatically reshape Town Center. This one concerns two Limited Business (B-L) zones, one along the north side of Triangle Street between the high school playing fields and the roundabout, and the other along the west side of North Pleasant Street between Cowles Lane and McClellan Street.
These two areas, each only a couple of blocks long, are very different in character. The Triangle Street blocks contain one-story buildings of 20th-century vintage and no particular architectural merit. The zone along North Pleasant Street, in contrast, consists almost entirely of buildings from the 19th century that constitute an important part of the Town’s architectural heritage.
Town Council asked the Planning Department to examine ways to “unlock” zoning in both of these B-L districts to enable more housing and/or retail space to be introduced. The solution that the planners are currently proposing would create an overlay district 100 feet deep, on which three-story buildings that are as much as 39 feet tall would be allowed, with minimal setback from the sidewalk and street. (Some Council members have suggested that the height be increased to four stories.) The back portion of these blocks would remain subject to current zoning regulations for the B-L.
These two different B-L districts require two different approaches to zoning. Let’s look at the “historic B-L” along North Pleasant Street. The first block houses Brueggers, The Henion Bakery, Share Coffee, and Hair by Harlow, along with many other small businesses and a few apartments. The second block contains three historic homes that have been adapted and are used for professional offices, a dermatology clinic, and several apartments. All of these historic buildings sit within the 100-foot proposed overlay district. If the Planning Department’s proposal is adopted, it will create a powerful incentive for owners to tear down the historic buildings because they can make higher profits by erecting taller buildings in their place. Theoretically, the developer who already owns the entire first block could build a three-story building that would run the entire length of the block, with a glassy facade very near the sidewalk.
I have implored Town Council and the Planning Department to create a second option here — one that would prioritize retaining the historic buildings but would also provide for increased residential and commercial space behind them, essentially creating a “historic overlay” in front, allowing removal of later additions, and relaxing the setback and lot coverage requirements behind.
- The Master Plan calls for preserving the town’s historic resources, to “ensure that the community’s heritage and unique character are preserved and passed on to future generations.” The Amherst Preservation Plan specifically identifies North Pleasant Street as a district to protect. “Zone for What’s There,” it urges.
2) The Zoning Bylaw itself enunciates this policy (Section 13.0): “Finding that the economic, cultural and aesthetic standing of the Town of Amherst can best be maintained and enhanced by due regard for the historical and architectural heritage of the Town and by striving to discourage the destruction of such cultural assets, it is hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures of historical and architectural significance, located within the Town of Amherst, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.”
3) The first of the Design Review Principles (Section 3.204) states: “Every reasonable effort shall be made to preserve the distinguishing original qualities of a building, structure or site and its environment. The removal or alteration of any historic material or architectural features should be avoided when possible.”
4) Almost all of these buildings are included in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, a database of the state’s historic cultural assets, having been the subject of various campaigns of research and documentation carried out under the Town’s auspices since 1988. (See https://mhc-macris.net)
5) These two blocks present a harmonious streetscape of buildings of similar size, height, texture, materials, and proportions. Their styles — Greek Revival, Italianate, Classical Revival, and Queen Anne — mirror trends in architectural fashion typical of New England towns in the second half of the 19th century. The spacing, scale, and setback of the buildings in the second block, which borders Kendrick Park (our newish secondary Town Common), are in keeping with those found along historical town commons across New England. Together with the adjoining blocks to the north, they constitute a consistent and appropriate edge for Kendrick Park. They are as valuable as an entirety as are the individual structures within the district.
6) These buildings have been adaptively reused (and will doubtless continue to be adapted in future if allowed to survive), to serve needs that have only grown in recent years, as large new student-oriented residential buildings have pushed out numerous small businesses elsewhere downtown. They house a bakery, florist, coffee shop, several hairdressers and barbers, dental practitioners, attorneys, a social service agency, until recently a local artisanal jewelry shop, social workers, a driving school, a dermatology clinic, and approximately a dozen apartments. They are working on the town’s behalf, providing services and amenities that residents value at rents that modest enterprises can afford. With so many small businesses having been displaced by the large new buildings on East Pleasant Street, we need them all the more.
7) Those in the block between Cowles Lane and McClellan in particular provide opportunities for community with welcoming front porches, sidewalk tables and seating, and modest landscaping. Public green space and human scale make them readily accessible.
8) Most of these buildings already provide parking for their customers, clients, and tenants — an increasing rarity in downtown Amherst. Business owners here have emphasized how crucial parking is to their economic success; to the extent that the Town is successful in attracting residents who live without a car, it is equally important that it protect and encourage the creation of spaces for basic everyday services for customers who must drive to reach them.
9) This district reflects our town’s history and its evolution. The block between Hallock and McClellan Street might be nicknamed “Carpenters’ Row” because it comprises three sturdy and handsome homes built by Amherst’s leading carpenter/builders for their own families. This section of Town was favored by workingmen in the latter half of the 19th century, many of them skilled craftsmen in the building trades. Some were parishioners of St. Brigit’s Church, which was originally located slightly to the north on North Pleasant Street. Historians and social historians today are as interested in learning from modest dwellings and working-class neighborhoods as in studying the dwelling places of the captains of industry, prominent business owners, and community leaders. Such workforce neighborhoods are often lost; Amherst is fortunate to have preserved this one, where Irish immigrants and African-Americans were often neighbors. It can teach us—and generations to come—a lot.
10) It’s the green way to go. As preservation expert Prof. Max Page of UMass has written, “Nearly half of all greenhouse gases are produced in the construction, demolition, and operation of commercial and residential buildings…. We need to save and reuse…old buildings because demolishing and replacing them contributes to the problem of climate change.” The greenest building, the saying goes, is the one that’s already built.
11) These buildings already contribute to the town’s economic vitality and—particularly in conjunction with Kendrick Park—have untapped future potential. Research shows that visitors and shoppers in the post-pandemic, Amazon-dominated era will be looking for “experiences” along with their goods and services. They will seek out unique shops, not the repetitive offerings found in every look-alike, bland mall. Clusters of historic buildings have the potential to deliver varied human-scale visitor experiences, as Lenox’s Church Street, Newburyport’s Inn Street, or Great Barrington’s Railroad Street amply demonstrate. Retail is not “dead” in these places — nor on Main Street in Northampton or Cottage Street in Easthampton — and it need not be condemned to death in Amherst. A thriving commercial zone in the “historic B-L” will entice out-of-town visitors who alight at the intersection near Town Hall to walk the entire length of the business district, encountering downtown Amherst’s other attractions along the way.
12) Residents overwhelmingly favor preserving these buildings. For many, they are the essence of Town Center’s slightly quirky charm and small-town ambiance.
The 2005 Amherst Preservation Plan, which was written before Kendrick Park was fully realized, included these findings from extensive questionnaires, interviews, and public meetings (Appendix B-2):
“…for Amherst citizens, open spaces and farmlands, dotted with historic village clusters, are what define the town’s historic character.” (p. 61)
“…historic buildings received the greatest number of ‘most important’ votes [on a questionnaire about what preservation efforts to prioritize]… Participants in the interviews and public meetings voiced similar sentiments.” (p. 61)
“Interviewees and public meeting participants concurred with the need to preserve…the historic buildings along North Pleasant Street.” (p. 62)
In 2017 the Town conducted two downtown planning forums with activities designed to elicit responses from residents. Activity 1 at the second forum involved seeking online comment on photographs of Amherst’s downtown and a number of other U.S. communities. Respondents overwhelmingly rated a view of the historic B-L “generally like,” while they rated photographs of the Kendrick Place structure “generally dislike” by the same margin.
Each of these historic buildings has done yeoman service to our Town for more than 130 years and one for almost two centuries. Once they are gone, they cannot be brought back. If you agree that they should be preserved, please join me by emailing Town Council to make your views known. Perhaps they’ll listen if they hear from enough of us.
Suzannah Fabing Muspratt is a resident of Amherst
Issues & Analyses is an occasional feature of The Indy, offering longer articles that take a deep dive into a subject in order to help readers understand some of the complex issues facing this town and the mechanics of municipal government. If there is an issue in municipal government that you would like us to take on in these columns, please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org