Public Comment: What Is A Neighborhood?

Architect's model for proposed development at Sunset and Fearing. Photo: Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals

The following public comment was sent to the town Planning Department on April 12 via the town’s public comment portal. It is posted here with permission of the author.

I have been advised by my representative to pass my thoughts on to you regarding the upcoming zoning board hearing about the development at the corner of Sunset Ave and Fearing St.

I am Connie Gillen. I live at 136 Sunset Ave. We moved here in 1969 and raised our three children here. Our house was built in l910 and was lived in by Charles Marshall, Professor of Microbiology at Mass Agricultural College. Next door lived his friend Ray Standard Baker, a writer and author of President Wilson’s biography. When we moved here in 1969 these two houses had become fraternities – ours had had a fire in it and we converted it to our home. The Baker house remained a fraternity and is ATG today.

All the other houses from the frat to Fearing St were owner occupied. Today eight of the 11 houses are non-owner occupied student rentals. When we moved here about half of the neighborhood residents worked at UMass. The other half owned businesses in town or worked for the town. It was a neighborhood and we joined residents of Lincoln and surrounding streets to form a neighborhood association with monthly potlucks. It is now considered an historic neighborhood.

What makes a neighborhood? We owned and invested in our homes. We thought about the long term. We became friends and looked after each other’s children. We had meals together. We had neighborhood parties. We developed ten acres bordering University Drive into a community farm. We tamed the many chapters of various fraternities that live next door to us and we now enjoy their presence.

We welcome students, but we don’t want to be obliterated.

The developers initiated a proposal for nine condos at the foot of Sunset Ave. Now it seems there are  many apartments, some with four bedrooms each. That usually means eight students with eight cars, not to mention visiting friends in each apartment. Where there were two houses, there will now be a significant number of student rentals with entrances and exits on to Sunset Ave. Student housing is a lot like military barracks. Young people come, get trained, and leave. They do not form a neighborhood.

There is a place for student housing and army barracks. But not at the expense of destroying a neighborhood. The developers will develop the land, but my hope is that the town will consider the quality and historic nature of the neighborhood they join. That would include attention paid to architectural integrity, limits on density, adequate parking and strict management control. It would also be my hope that young faculty, both single and with families, would occupy this transitional space between a traditional family neighborhood and the campus of the students they serve.

Constance Gillen is a resident of the Sunset / Fearing neighborhood in Amherst.

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4 thoughts on “Public Comment: What Is A Neighborhood?

  1. Quality of life is often forgotten ignored in our capitalist culture of short-sighted hustling. The town needs to address such problems immediately.

  2. Undergraduates are not a protected class. The developers of the Sunset/Fearing project could decide not to rent to undergraduate students. Graduate students and faculty are more likely to stay in housing longer and are more likely to become part of a neighborhood.

  3. The same transformation has happened on the north end of Lincoln Avenue – almost all family homes converted to student housing. This phenomenon is gradually moving further and further up (south) Lincoln Avenue. There are solutions to this problem. Actually, let me put it this way. There are better ways to transition our neighborhoods from an unsustainable, no longer appropriate, low occupancy of large homes built originally for a wealthy minority. Transition to student housing solves the low density, low occupancy “problem”, but with an abundance of undesirable side effects. Not only the obvious ones we are all familiar with, but in its current form it sends the wealth of Amherst’s greatest financial resource, student rental spending, to a small number of private enterprises – local and non-local – small and large. We continue to think we can achieve our collective goals of community and quality of life, by harnessing the energy of private, profit making entities through the blunt and inadequate tools of zoning by-laws and other forms of regulation. It is not working. I do not think it will ever work beyond an incremental and marginal manner. Our Town, our Government, our Planning Board, our civic and non-profit entities and each of us individually need to address these issues collectively, decisively and creatively. I have a few suggestions, but I am one person. The way to improve a severely inadequate land-housing development system should arise from the proactive involvement of all of us. All of us that want diverse, livable, friendly, affordable housing, and neighborhoods that are welcoming to everyone including students in appropriate measure.

    Our current tools and methods are insufficient and inadequate for addressing this issue. A new set of ideas, tools and methods are needed. Our collective focus and attention is needed to inspire new initiatives. Consider that 14 000 off-campus students bring $200 000 000 ( yes – 200 million dollars) in rent income alone, into Amherst and surrounding towns. We need to be immensely more effective at harnessing that recourse for the public good. That includes the preservation and expansion of inclusive, diverse, and affordable family friendly neighborhoods, where we all live together; students, seniors, and families of a variety of ethnic and income backgrounds. Here are a few suggestions to get us started

    Housing and land ownership and the abundant resource of rental income needs to be redirected and distributed broadly to individuals and families of all income levels. Owner occupied multi-family buildings allow working class families to live in Amherst with a stable reliable income without public support – think duplex and three decker.
    We need to vastly expand the power and reach of public and nonprofit entities (ACLT, etc.) dedicated to fairness, equity and social justice. Transition from excessive private accumulation of wealth to collective ownership.
    We need to create for profit entities whose mission is driven by social justice and the collective well being of the community to create investment opportunities to harness the billions of dollars that we collectively invest in agencies that are often working to the detriment of the very collective values that we say we want to achieve. For example, a construction company that specializes in new construction or the renovation of large single family homes into efficient duplexes and triplexes while preserving and enhancing desirable historic and architectural qualities of buildings and neighborhoods.
    Is the creative drive of profit making really superior to the creative drive of building beauty, justice and community? I think not. Let’s raise the bar of our expectation of what is possible and actually do it. How fun and satisfying would that be? 😉

  4. Looking at the image Connie provided, my first of many questions is, where do all those cars go when it snows? This is another poorly designed concept.

    Judith Williams

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