This letter appeared previously in The Amherst Bulletin
Housing is today’s targeted investment commodity, and Amherst is a prime location given the ever-present pressure for off-campus, student housing. Enactment of the Town’s plan to “densify” the Town Center is coming in the form of high-end, student-oriented apartments, possible through the loose strictures of Amherst’s “mixed-use” building definition.
Since we are fully in the process of adding dwelling units in these mixed-use buildings, let’s make it a win-win for everyone – investors, the town budget, and the townspeople. Let’s also include something for the business community. It is crucial that the ground floors of these apartments offer space for public-facing businesses which can engage our community and draw people downtown. The new buildings so far have provided sub-par solutions as they barely meet the minimum definition of having “retail/commercial space” on the ground floor. In the 5-story student apartments, we see zip car storage, low-key office workspace, one restaurant, empty space, and going forward, proposals for rental offices and hidden parking. The latest proposal indicates a retail area of less than 1400 square feet, equivalent to less than 2% of that building’s floor area!
It is common practice for mixed-use buildings to generate more income from the residential use and to have the excess used to subsidize the retail space. As rents in our five-story apartments are advertised at over $1000 per bed per month, can we suggest that the developers adopt that practice, and even emulate some of Easthampton’s success, by offering more reasonable rents to businesses on their ground floors, businesses that will attract customers from Amherst and the world? Might one of these spaces be Amherst’s version of Thornes, a “compartment store” that can incubate creative micro-businesses?
Let’s also discuss building scale and character. Our downtown’s most charming buildings, which are historic and scaled to our growth pattern and which have housed businesses for a century and a half, seem to be enjoyed by everyone. Can we adopt some of those characteristics of human-scale elements and details in new construction? How about four- instead of five-story buildings, where the fourth story is a peaked roof, hiding all the mechanical equipment? Can we create broad sidewalks and seating areas to encourage schmoozing, or enough amenities to make walking to them, or even just past them, more pleasurable? The style of student-oriented housing we are seeing built is a look-alike prototype invading college towns nationally. Our new monoliths are disrupting the ability of the Town to create a sense of place – a trend contrary to creating “I Amherst” welcoming to all!
Imagine instead our town with a mix of reasonable, yet still profitable, apartments and condos, above local businesses. This needs some creative zoning to allow and encourage adaptive reuse and create density BEHIND the charming, wooden buildings on the west side of North Pleasant Street. Zoning to achieve dwellings for every kind of dweller, without relying on waivers asking for extra height, extra density, and no parking and no affordability, and with no design standards to point to except for surrounding “context”.
We look forward to developing common visions for the Town Center with planning staff and consultants! In the meantime, we encourage the Planning Board to review upcoming projects objectively. We challenge the Design Review Board to uphold existing directives that a project “not create disharmony with respect to the terrain and to the use, scale and architecture of existing buildings in the vicinity which have a functional or visual relationship to it”. This of course includes structures all along the west side of North Pleasant Street. I think most people in Amherst would enjoy public sidewalk space and the social life that comes with it!
Towns and cities are human inventions so let’s continue to grow ours for humans to enjoy. I support a pause, whether with a moratorium or just a slowing down on the practice of pursuing zoning tactics without a strategy, so we can build a place that not too long ago was rated the #1 college town in America. The time for resting on our laurels is gone. We need to plant some new laurels, and not waiver in making Amherst what we want it to be.
Pamela Rooney was a member of the Amherst Planning Board from 2000 to 2006. She is a Registered Landscape Architect and Assistant Director of Campus Planning at UMass Amherst.