Downtown businesses seek renaissance

By Nick Grabbe

We lost Judie’s, Bart’s Ice Cream and the Lone Wolf during the pandemic. Amherst Yoga, the High Horse and M&M Links are also gone. Head Games, Amherst Barbers and Lit are all in the past. Amherst Copy & Designworks has relocated to Hadley.

A series of microgrants helped keep other struggling downtown businesses afloat during the pandemic, paid for mostly with private fundraising. A.J. Hastings’ business was down 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and Amherst Books’ business was down even more.

But now things are looking up. Negotiations to bring a food store and a music and performance venue to downtown Amherst are under way. Powerhouse Nutrition has opened at the Bart’s site, Mexcalito’s taco bar has opened where Shiru and Rao’s Coffee used to be, and Garcia’s restaurant is opening soon at the former Bertucci’s location. The Spoke, La Veracruzana and Go Berry are expanding their offerings, and two new restaurants called Protocol and Hazel’s Kitchen are preparing menus. Downtown is even getting a lingerie shop on Main Street called Art of Intimates.

The post-pandemic renaissance in downtown Amherst was recently highlighted on Capitol Hill by Mike Kenneally, the Massachusetts secretary of housing and economic development. Kenneally held up Amherst as a model of a town addressing the economic challenges created by the pandemic.

To learn more about these downtown initiatives, I sat down with Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District, and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. They said that although much has been accomplished, some key decisions are coming up.

“It’s amazing what we could create here,” said Gould. “The forward momentum could proceed if politics doesn’t get in the way.”

Amherst has always taken comfort in the stability provided by the University of Massachusetts and the colleges, and when they were mostly shut down during the pandemic, we were reminded of how vital they are to the local economy. Now UMass is expanding its retail and restaurant offerings on campus, creating a new challenge for downtown businesses.

One answer is to bring more people to town. Using a $116,655 state grant, the Chamber has launched a marketing campaign to draw people from outside the area to Amherst’s hiking trails and museums as well as our campuses. A video promoting tourism on digital platforms and showing things to do here has had two million views, Pazmany said.

“The fact is, this is an incredibly beautiful place to live and visit and should be a destination for people,” said Gould. “The goal is to have people be here for more than a dropoff of students.”

The popular new playground at Kendrick Park already provides a destination for parents of young children. Plans for a live music and performance space at the former High Horse site will be detailed in a future post on this blog. Outdoor dining is due to continue next year.

Naomi Darling & Ray K Mann

Gould presented plans for a bandshell on the Town Common – to be paid for by the non-profit Downtown Amherst Foundation – to a supportive Town Council on Monday. And the project to beautify the northern part of the Town Common is proceeding.

The BID engaged a consultancy called Civic Moxie to advise on strategies for pandemic recovery. Its recommendations included investing in arts and culture, making zoning more business-friendly, and helping to navigate the permitting process at Town Hall.

But a complete renaissance “hangs in the balance,” Gould said. The election on Nov. 2 will determine whether the Jones Library expansion and renovation project can proceed and whether there will be a two-thirds majority on the Town Council for zoning changes to revitalize downtown. The Town Council will vote on a proposed zoning change would make possible a parking garage behind the CVS store. More spaces are due to be created on the eastern side of North Pleasant Street through angled parking. Gould supports all these initiatives.

There will never again be a full supermarket in downtown Amherst, but there could be enough people living downtown to support a food store, Gould said. Negotiations are ongoing with a business seeking to operate a store selling dairy, fish, meat, eggs and other food supplies at a specific location.

“Talk about a game-changer,” Gould said.

The two controversial five-story apartment buildings in the northern part of downtown have provided an increased density that promotes commerce, she said. Graduate students are stepping outside these buildings to go to Henion’s bakery, and young professors are bringing their shoes to Paul’s shoe repair store, she said.

“We could turn this into a highly-sought-after place to visit, to live, retire and raise families,” Gould said. “But it would be hard to convince business owners to come to a downtown that’s anti-development.”

5 thoughts on “Downtown businesses seek renaissance”

  1. As a downtown business owner for 25 years, I am really impressed with the energy and dynamism of the BID and Chamber leadership. Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould are the right people, in the right place at the right time.

    There are many reasons to be hopeful about the future of Amherst and having skilled people working to attract grants to support local business is wonderful. Their vision of the arts and culture playing an expanded role in drawing folks in from near and far is spot on.

    Thank you Nick for writing so hopefully and drawing attention to this important topic.

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  2. It’s good to have Mr. Bryck weighing in here, and I hope he will do it again. Let’s get him a guest column (somewhere), and let’s try to figure out a way to address issues in some sort of orderly, respectful way. If he expects me to see the town’s leadership as somehow corrupt, or in bed with developers, I can’t do that, but I want a chance to read him anyway. We need more people like him to venture out of the tribal cocoons in town (mixing my metaphors) and allow us to ponder where we agree and where we can agree to disagree. My sense is that many people who’ve been active in town have given up on this. If we have political actors in town who thrive on conflict and do not seek some attempt at reconciliation, or at least a narrowing of the areas of disagreement, we’re in big trouble. I do think that the voters are going to get some clear choices in the fall, and we’ll see what happens. I like living in a genuinely representative democracy, with big, wide-open, vigorously debated elections. I think we have that now, in two districts near downtown and at large, and I feel good about it, even if certain candidacies don’t go the way I had hoped.

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  3. It seems misleading to characterize people as “anti-development” who think that 5-story apartment buildings filling downtown, with a tiny space for a first-floor business, makes 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 business with 2 or 3 levels of apartments, with a diversity of occupants, including attainable/ affordable housing, above. 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 everyone there didn’t like what was happening with those huge buildings. More recently, a petition for a moratorium (where no building permits would be issued before there was a very 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; then proceeded with a barrage of zoning bylaw proposals.

    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’s 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 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 its houses being student rentals (often over-occupied, often over-priced, often under-maintained), be more diligent about those problems, so that families and young professionals can compete to own a house. It is not anti-development to suggest that our housing prices are so high because of (a) that’s happening everywhere, an (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 some members of the Town Council and Planning Board is “densification.” That idea is undefined and there is no mention of “limits to growth.”

    Many of our community members agree with all I’m saying here. I do not object to stores and restaurants, or reasonable up-cycling of some of our more decrepit buildings. I do want to preserve those buildings that make our town attractive – in creative ways that are not overly-jumbo and user-unfriendly. I don’t want a Town Council and Planning Board that thinks wholesale deregulation of zoning is the Big Answer. I don’t want a Planning Board chair who is a senior planner at UMass. I 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.

    I don’t want a town where “the powers that be” are stoking the same division that plagues us nationally.

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