Who Owns Amherst’s Future?

By Sarah Marshall

Amherst residents are passionate about what they want and don’t want, from the look of the downtown, residential, and rural landscapes, to the types of housing that can or should be built (and for whom), to our budget priorities.

I have many times heard comments that begin, “When I moved here 40 years ago,” or “When I first came to Amherst…” Frequently, the commenters lament the various changes that have occurred or are proposed. Some of these complaints target new apartment buildings (existing and proposed) in Amherst Center, or the loss of downtown grocery stores, hardware stores, small local businesses, and beloved restaurants.  Such commenters often explicitly demand that Amherst be preserved as it is or restored to what it was. I sympathize with this view, because much of Amherst’s built and natural environments are lovely.

Accompanying this desire to keep-everything-as-it-is, many complain about the influx of undergraduates and graduate students, the decline of families looking to put down roots here, and the high cost of housing.  The influx of students is sometimes blamed for loss of businesses that the long-timers miss and our decreasing elementary and secondary school populations. In my view, the causes of these trends are multiple, and blaming the University of Massachusetts for our woes is an unhelpful simplification.  Even if the University is the cause of our woes, it will not be leaving Amherst any time soon, and we need to look to other solutions.

As we debate, I wonder:

Whose interests should we be prioritizing as we make decisions that will affect the town for the next 20 years or more?  The interests of property owners who have lived here the longest?  The wealthiest?  The poorest?  The loudest? The people who want to live in Amherst but cannot, whatever their marital, educational, or economic status?

At what point does preservation of a small town’s look and feel limit our ability to provide services?  Does privileging quaintness, or the look and feel of the town, effectively create a financial burden that will limit our ability to maintain excellent schools and public services?

Does a preference for leafy, single-family residential areas, or a disdain for apartment buildings, effectively shut out people who “aren’t like us”? Does wanting things to stay the way they are make Amherst less welcoming to BIPOC people and people of moderate or low incomes?

Are we a small rural town, a college town, or a small city? Will we, or should we, become more like Northampton?

What do today’s residents owe tomorrow’s?  How did the generations before us prepare Amherst for its future? What are we willing to invest in?

Obviously, only the people who do live here can vote, but I wonder if we should think harder about the people who are not here yet, and be willing to lose a bit of what we love in order to welcome them into the community.

In my view, Amherst, like businesses in the early days of the internet, will wither if it does not adapt to new pressures and needs. Attempting to force a model of the past onto our present situation will hurt us in the long run.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Who Owns Amherst’s Future?”

  1. This is a fair and reasonable argument. Amherst can grow and preserve what makes it great. We are in desperate need of affordable housing for young families and that should remain a priority.

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  2. Amherst, like the rest of suburban America, should continue to densify. We deserve more apartments and multi-story mixed-use dwellings near downtown. More density means:
    – more diversity
    – better restaurants
    – a larger tax base, which can encourage historic preservation
    – more local music
    – increased foot traffic for established small businesses

    The most progressive and environmentally responsible thing we can do as a town would be to increase the density of the population near downtown Amherst.

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    1. I agree with Evan Naismith’s argument above. But I think we don’t have anything close to consensus in favor of it. I really think the complaints about the aesthetics of big buildings downtown are not specifically about the aesthetics, the look of the structures. No, they’re really about the impact on town life of markedly increasing the number of people living downtown in apartments. With our heads, we recognize that having people living close together in village centers and downtown is now THE environmentally responsible way to go AND also probably great for business development. With our collective gut, however, many of us are still wedded to good old twentieth century residential sprawl, convinced that the truly right way to live as an Amherst resident is in a single-family house, with a yard (aka “green space”), amongst neighbors who live in similar structures. Therefore, NO ONE, no current developer or architectural visionary, could design apartment buildings for downtown Amherst that would escape the hue and cry of complaints from Amherst’s most vocal agents against change. We’re really stuck in a perpetual standoff about how many people living in downtown is good for Amherst, with some alleging that others want to “urbanize” our quaint, charming town.

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  3. I am appreciating this column in the context of the zoning amendments the town council and planning board are in the thick of (last night’s meeting went until 11:30pm). We are currently looking at our town’s definition of apartment building, definition of mixed use building, our parking bylaw and our guidelines around accessory dwelling units. Many of the things you point out in this column are currently at play in those public hearings.

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful column, Sarah. I agree if your argument is that an evolving town is a thriving town. Amherst must change and adapt to change. As a 20-year downtown resident, I do not oppose multistory apartment buildings. In fact, if they are well-designed, show some respect for the scale of the surrounding buildings and, perhaps most importantly, provide affordable housing, I welcome them. I will oppose, however, the kind of development we have seen in recent years, especially the bulky apartment building, 1 East Pleasant St. (thank you Archipelago Investments). These buildings are not designed to meet the needs of families, individuals of modest means, or BIPOC people. We can have leafy streets, the character of a small New England college town, AND multifamily dwellings. I wonder who you imagine “the people who are not here yet” might be?

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