Letter: Town Council Has Failed to Deliver More Democracy, Meaningful Economic Development, Intelligent Rezoning

One East Pleasant Street has yet to fill its ground floor commercial space.

The following letter was sent to the  Amherst Town Council, Planning Board, Planning Department, and Town Manager on October 25, 2021

As you, our public servants, consider the use of mixed-use zoning in our central business district, I ask you all again to realize that the our downtown should significantly provide a vibrant commercial base, where our community and visitors can find goods and services, and socialize as people do in marketplaces worldwide and forever.

If you take the easier path of filling the downtown with several more five story apartment buildings, whether you call them dorms or student housing, with as little commercial activity as allowed by an overly relaxed bylaw, you will solve the short-term problem of landlords, who complain that it’s too difficult to find retail tenants during a pandemic and the rising advent of online shopping.

Ironically, the reason I shop online, as much as I do, is that it seems unlikely that I’d find all that I need in our local stores. When I think I can buy those items nearby, I do. If downtown Amherst is stripped of stores and professional services, we will need to go further afield to find what we need. That is short-term thinking, creating a vicious cycle.

I support such efforts as the Drake, Amherst Cinema, even a well-designed bandshell. But if those are the only reasons for people to use our downtown, we certainly won’t need a Chamber of Commerce or Business Improvement District. Filling downtown with apartments and mixed-use buildings will kill downtown, especially if mixed-use means an apartment building with a token store, in a narrow corner of the building. Even worse is the sub-par idea of a rooftop bar for residents fulfilling that requirement. The community you serve deserves much more talented thinking!

Unfortunately, the Amherst town government chose to ignore the will of 1000 registered voters, who signed a petition, asking for a pause on building permits for six months, so that better planning could be done, versus deferentially suggesting miniscule changes to development proposals which were largely developed by a company beholden to a hedge fund in the Midwest. That distant ownership was not revealed by that developer, until it was exposed, and then the explanation was “of course, that’s how it always was meant to be.”

What is the purpose of all this building of student housing downtown? One might infer, from UMass President Marty Meehan’s published comment, that UMass Amherst (and many colleges and universities) is facing a “demographic cliff,” as college age populations decline. The children of baby boomers are finishing their higher education. And the fewer babies born during/ following the 2008 financial crisis, are now in their early teens. Those impending trends will challenge most colleges.

So, I can see why UMass is not enthused about building more dorms and are fine if our town provides that resource. We certainly can’t be seeing this as clearly as it must be seen if the planning board is chaired by a planner at UMass. We need to do better with our ongoing muddling and mingling of the needs of town versus gown.

Not to mention, most state universities are in much larger cities, than the City Known as the Town of Amherst (fyi, that’s the official name of Amherst). Boston can absorb off-campus students much better than Amherst (even as Boston University says that housing a large percentage of students on campus is one of their best profit centers).

We hear all the time about our housing crisis, as if it’s unique to Amherst, and not a national problem. But our studies of housing production are out of date, and vital statistics are lacking. It is not even clearly known what the population of our town is (full time + school year residents = 40,000, but what’s the real breakdown? What percentage of houses are student rentals, in a town where 60% of our houses are rentals? Curious minds want to know!!)

We have parking studies that say no garage is needed, and then we plan to build a garage,and proceed with rezoning prior to study and planning. Why not plan first, zone later!?   We are asked to trust our councilors, that they will not break their promise, that a garage will only be 3 stories, but there is already talk of a taller one!

And it is claimed that we need to solve a housing crisis by “unlocking” our zoning bylaws, but we don’t know how much we’ve increased our “bed count” since the alarms first went off. And we don’t know if there’s any reason to believe the theory (espoused by the super-majority of the council) that allowing a triplex with an accessory dwelling unit, plus enough parking for those 16 students on a half-acre, in the neighborhoods nearest downtown, will actually lead to any more inclusion, diversity, affordability, or attainability.   That’s a theory of a non-economist on the town council. But a local economics professor, who has created economic plans for presidential candidates, says differently. He says the most profitable customers a town can have are retirees, who pay real estate taxes but don’t use the public schools. But those concerned about the state of downtown development have been called racist, for pointing to the many mentions of “character of the neighborhood” in our own master plan.

Those “best customers” are the people who are most shocked at what’s happening in Amherst. I personally know several that are moving out of town, or seriously considering it. Families might buy those houses, but so might slumlords, who are now increasingly from out of town and buying multiple houses on a block  to quickly change a neighborhood into a student slum. “Student slum” is not a term I like to use. I am quoting a town councilor, who says things like “that area is already a student slum, so why not allow the landlord to do what they want?”

Councilors like those stack the planning board with people who are not known for looking deeper and drilling down. There is little consideration of what the town is becoming, or what so many people in our community don’t want. The “crabby nimbys with time on their hands” are mostly disregarded, but there are more and more sneers from most of the planning board. As well as the town council.

During this time of growth for towns in Western Mass, as people leave cities for safer pastures, I have several family and friends who are looking for a home around here. I am sad to say I have advised them to not look in Amherst. I moved here in 1993 after taking a good look at an interesting town, and deciding to raise my family here. Ask around. Many people agree it’s not the same place. Ask around. You will find many people who are dismayed at how decisions are being made here.

As we face an election, I am hoping that the Town Council evolves into a more of a place with transparency, fair process, public input, and long-range vision.

I would not say that the Town Council has achieved much, democracy wise. The town where only the “H” is silent is very demoralized, in addition to very divided. The Town Council needs to do much more, and be transformed, to do the public service that is their Job One. 

We expect better.

Ira Bryck

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.

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2 thoughts on “Letter: Town Council Has Failed to Deliver More Democracy, Meaningful Economic Development, Intelligent Rezoning

  1. No one speaks better to the vicious cycle of over-development in Amherst than Ira Bryck. Profiteering by developers at the expense of the common good is no way to facilitate town planning.

  2. thank you, Dinah – I am inspired to reprint here what you wrote recently:

    Born and raised amid the high rises of Harlem and Queens, there was a time in my younger years when I thought that New York City was the center of the world, that one could only be happy amid the jarring, cacophonous, smoky clamor of street life, its concrete playgrounds, an insistent jazz pumping in the veins. We were by default the greatest; we were daily survivors of megalopolis. I was sure that any non-New Yorker was some mere vegetable form of human, too dulled or made inferior by an agreeable sappiness manifested in non-urban living. Ignorance of other lifestyles made New Yorkers like me arrogant and full of ourselves.

    But, had I allowed it to seep into consciousness, there lived, parallel to my identified New York self, a wildly different version of me, an Anne of Green Gables, who might walk miles to school on a country lane, and know absolutely everyone in the town. I’d known nothing of life in small town communities, so I lived on children’s literature and fantasies. As a girl, I entertained extremely romantic notions of country life. I longed to be Dorothy of Kansas, if only to sit on a haystack, tap a branch against a picket fence, fall into piles of autumn leaves, and have a dog. I had this notion that horses (male) married cows (female) and had sheep for children. My girlhood fantasy was to marry an English professor in a small village, who wore tweed jackets with elbow patches, who thoughtfully held a cherry-scented pipe and taught poetry in a nearly college, and he lived on a rural lane in a bungalow with an Irish setter, no elevator or parking garage in sight.

    Then at 17, I went to college over 200 miles from NYC, far from the magnetic tug of Gotham. I was gifted an irrevocable change of perspective. And though I returned to the city for a time, the pastoral and small town experience never left me. What had seemed so exotic became a living dream for the other part of what I wanted in my life. I dreamed of green pastures, the rhythmic chirping of evening crickets, and the astounding possibility of knowing one’s neighbors.

    I became a New York city escapee. It was my pleasure to move to Amherst 35 years ago. And while I didn’t start life as a New England small town girl, much of the pleasure and deep satisfaction I derive from living here come from tapping into those early dreams. I love the hybrid and balanced quality of town and gown, of book and plow, of the gifts of intellectual stimulation in the arts and sciences, polyglot exchanges, and still have the ability to walk brooks and trails and the town common, and experience almost everything at ground level. More than that, Amherst is not a figment of my girlhood imagination, but a real place.

    I am concerned about the high-rising of Amherst, the manic addition of new structures in tight spaces, and the fading of clear-cut democratic processes in which these changes have been taking place. I worry that Amherst has begun to lose its special character, and may continue to lose its way, undermined by too much ambition, or the profit motive of some. I see these 5 story structures, and they seem out of place, rude, like a tall, hovering bully at a child’s playground. If I wanted to live in the vicinity of a WTC Tower or a Trump Tower, I need not have ever left New York! It is not a mere skyline which changes a place, but our place in that skyline is part of how we feel when we think of home. Let the university build its monoliths, so reminiscent of the municipal low-income high rises of my youth. May we in Amherst avoid some pituitary accident of shooting mindlessly skyward, without rhyme or reason! I hope to see Amherst remain thoughtfully considerate and self-aware on matters of aesthetics, balance, tradition, respecting the qualities we long to preserve in this place which we love.

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