The following is a response to a blog post, “Downtown Businesses Seek Renaissance.”
It seems misleading to characterize people as “anti-development” who think that 5-story private dorms filling downtown, with a tiny space for a first-floor business, make our town worse off. I applaud every new business coming downtown, and personally spend a lot of time and money to support our central business district. I donated to the effort to bring a music venue downtown. I fought for a garage in the mid ’90s. (That resulted in the inadequate Boltwood lot, sorry to say.)
Others who have been demeaned as “cranky nimbys with only time on their hands” have repeatedly supported the idea of first-floor businesses with 2 or 3 levels of apartments, with a diversity of occupants, including attainable/ affordable units. They’d have adequate setback, appealing design, match the character of our town, and much more.
It is not anti-development to encourage much more public participation and planning. “Listening sessions” conducted by the planning department several years ago made it quite clear that almost no one there liked what was happening with those huge buildings. More recently, a petition for a moratorium (where no building permits would be issued before a few months of better planning), was signed by 1,000 members of our community. The Town Council simply dismissed it, saying it would take much longer than that to do a proper job, and proceeded with a barrage of zoning bylaw proposals that were so inconsistent that (rumor has it) they are pulling back till after the election so as not to be observed supporting such a willy-nilly collection of “plans.”
It is not anti-development to oppose allowing 24 people to live on a half acre (plus their cars!) in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown (triplex plus accessory dwelling unit). It is not anti-development to suggest that before we rezone the CVS lot for a parking garage, we consider all the locations that would not pour traffic into a historic neighborhood. It is not anti-development to suggest that apartment buildings not be allowed without some strategy for parking cars of the occupants, other than filling up local streets and spots intended for shoppers and diners. It is not anti-development to notice that UMass’ parking lots are full, and the overage are on our local streets.
It is not anti-development to suggest that UMass build more housing on campus, instead of foisting the student housing problem onto downtown. UMass President Marty Meehan has predicted a “demographic cliff,” where the student population would plummet — because the children of baby boomers are almost all past college age. I can see where they would not want to invest in dorms, even after the problem of public/private partnerships (private companies building dorms on public land, aka UMass) is reportedly solved. They do not want to be stuck with empty dorms, if and when this prediction comes to pass.
It is not anti-development to suggest that Amherst, with many of the 16,471 off-campus UMass students renting houses (often over-occupied, often over-priced, often under-maintained), be more diligent about those problems, so that families and young professionals can compete with investors to own a house.
It is not anti-development to suggest that our housing prices are high because (a) that’s happening everywhere, and (b) the cash flow of an over-occupied student rental house is too alluring for investors to resist.
This is the town where “only the H is silent.” But public input has been minimized. There are well over a dozen mentions of “character of the neighborhood” and “public input” in our master plan, but the word that has enthralled the town council and planning board is “densification.” That idea is undefined, there is no mention of “limits to growth,” and the people who are evading building affordable units in those private dorms depict “character of neighborhoods” as a “racist dog whistle.”
Many of our community members agree with all I’m saying here, beginning with the 1,000 who want a pause. Those people are not objecting to stores and restaurants, or reasonable up-cycling of some of our more decrepit buildings. They do want to preserve those buildings that make our town attractive — in creative ways that are not overly-jumbo and user-unfriendly. They don’t want a town council and planning board that think wholesale deregulation of zoning is the Big Answer. They don’t want a planning board chair who is a senior planner at UMass. They don’t want a developer that over-develops, and then sells out to a hedge fund in the midwest. They don’t want a town where there are so many planning board meetings to get all this done that meeting minutes for many of those meetings don’t exist.
We don’t want a town where “the powers that be” are stoking the same division that plagues us nationally.
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 seven years, now coaches business leaders, and is a big fan of Amherst’s downtown.