By Andy Churchill and Meg Gage
[Note: this is the first in a series of respectful conversations from different points of view about Amherst issues. Please send any ideas for topics to the editors.]
Meg: So, Andy, what did we get ourselves into here? I do appreciate the opportunity to dig into our different perspectives about Amherst issues and controversies. We worked well together on the Charter Commission, although we were on opposite sides of a bunch of big issues. How about you?
Andy: Hi Meg – yes, we differed on the Charter, but we’ve also found common cause on some key issues, like the need for a new elementary school. And we’re both concerned about Amherst being divided into separate, hostile camps that don’t talk (and more importantly, listen) to each other. I hope we can do better than the national scene in that regard!
Meg: Yes! But, Andy, let’s not be too chummy or this point/counterpoint isn’t going to be very interesting for anyone to read! Let’s talk about downtown. Amherst property taxes are too high – in large part because of fixed, structural facts – a huge amount of tax-exempt property in the colleges and University (later let’s talk about whether they contribute enough PILOT!) lots of conservation and APR land. So, our town leaders are looking at redesigning our downtown to bring in more taxes. But I feel there’s been quite a bit of cart before the horse in that thinking. It sometimes seems the town is willing to build anything that appears profitable regardless of the impact.
Andy: Whoa – slow down a little! There’s a lot packed into that little paragraph.
Meg: OK – fair enough. Say more . . .
Andy: It’s important to make the connection between the services residents are asking for and the revenues we have to pay for them. When I was on the School Committee I became increasingly worried about where the money would come from to pay for our kids’ education, along with all the other things we want, including public safety, roads, sidewalks, libraries, recreation, elder services, social services – the list goes on and on.
Meg: I agree, so far. We want a lot of things that are expensive!
Andy: Our ability to pay for those things is constrained, as you note, by large amounts of tax-exempt land. So, we need to do the best we can to generate revenue from the remaining parts of town. And to keep the full burden from falling on residents’ property taxes, that means we need commercial development somewhere. Our Master Plan says we should focus commercial development in the downtown and the village centers, to avoid sprawl in the rest of town. So encouraging appropriate, taxable development in downtown is important, both to support the services Amherst residents want and to keep the tax burden from going even higher. Do you agree?
Meg: Yes, I do, although we might not agree 100% on what constitutes “appropriate” development. I definitely agree the downtown is a large part of the solution. But it’s not development at any cost. We should be able to build profitable buildings that are not eyesores, don’t injure the streetscape, and house businesses where year-round residents – i.e. not only students – will hang out and spend money. Let’s encourage downtown activity that will generate income for the town, without destroying the downtown we all cherish.
Andy: Okay. Do you think others on “your side” feel the same way? Do they see development in the downtown as part of the solution? It makes a big difference if we’re actually talking about HOW we should develop downtown rather than fighting about IF we should develop it. I think there’s a lack of trust among some on “my side” about that – often it seems like people raise objections to the process or the details of a project as a way of stopping it, not because they are really interested in making it better.
Meg: I truly think the difference is more about HOW to develop rather than whether to develop. That said, my “side,” such as it is a “side,” has a wide range of opinions on the downtown. However, I believe most of the people I identify with want to use good planning tools and updated assessments of how the 21st Century economy works to create a rejuvenated and successful downtown where people want hang out.
Andy: Well, I hope those people include students, because I think they are key to our fiscally sustainable future. More on that below.
In terms of “eyesores” downtown, you may be surprised that I agree with you that 1 East Pleasant, the big building by Kendrick Park, is pretty clunky in its design. Although when I realize that it and its triangular sister (which I like) bring the town almost $2 million in taxes every three years – it starts to look a bit prettier! I do give credit to the developers, Archipelago, for figuring out how to build things again in Amherst, where most others had thrown up their hands and said, “These people are impossible.”
Meg: Have you seen the affordable housing building in Northampton at 155 Pleasant Street? It is a very large 4-story building with 23 affordable units. It is set back from the sidewalk and has an attractive design. Why can’t we build housing like that in Amherst? (Maybe Archipelago needs better architects??)
Andy: Yes, I’ve seen that building – it looks nice in that context; I wonder if it would look the same in ours. But I agree with your larger point, which is that we need some design standards to guide future development. I just want to make sure we are actually focused on generating that new development, which we are going to need to fund the services we want for our town without soaking the residential taxpayers, and not just throwing up roadblocks to make it unprofitable so it won’t happen at all.
Meg: I think most people who have raised questions about development are unhappy with what appears to be unexamined options and inappropriate building style, scale and landscape. People want to know that various options have been considered. Also, some people feel the developers and the BID are calling the shots and there’s little room for additional input and different points of view. For example, I don’t think people on my “side” are automatically opposed to a parking garage, but feel that we shouldn’t change zoning for a specific location until we’ve established the need and scale and considered all possible locations.
Andy: Okay, but I am tired of hearing for each new building, “Where is the parking?” I don’t think we want to encourage individual parking lots for each new project, and requiring underground parking for each building increases costs and makes projects less affordable. Centralized parking is a core feature of developing vibrant downtowns. I love going to Northampton and knowing that there’s a place for me to park where I don’t have to figure out in advance how long I’ll be there. It’s welcoming, and it lets the streetscape serve pedestrians, not cars.
Meg: Yes, I love the Northampton parking garage too — where the coffee is strong and so are the women! But is Amherst proposing student parking because the new buildings don’t have any? We need to unpack that. I know we each have more to say on this topic, but we’re running out of space here. In a future chat, I’d like to talk about the idea of “two sides,” more about the balance between retail and housing, the role of the arts, and form-based development. And do we have the courage to look at how the Charter that we both worked on has turned out?
Andy: Sure, and I would also like to explore our attitudes toward college students. I feel like some vocal folks in town (and I don’t believe you are one of them!) like living in a college town but would prefer if it had no college students in it. On the contrary, I feel like the students are a great resource that we should do a better job of leveraging for the town’s benefit.
Meg: Very funny! A college town with no college students! Yes, I like both living in a college town and living with students around. They make life interesting – at the peak of the recent windy snowstorm, several of our North Amherst student neighbors were in their front yard playing beer pong! So many things to talk about – all useful to unpack! Looking forward to the next round.
Andy: Okay, let’s reconvene soon for Round 2 and continue to argue about – I mean, discuss – the good, the bad, and the ugly of downtown Amherst!