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!
23 thoughts on “A civil conversation, part 1”
It’s way past time that we started really listening to each other and doing the long-term planning that could bring us together. The vitriol has been so intense, a lot of us have lost energy and willingness to collaborate. But maybe there’s a way to reboot several of the discussions about our Town. The irony is that we all generally agree on the really important things like climate disruption, voting rights and science, for example.
Bravo to Ms. Gage and Mr. Churchill for engaging in a respectful and substantive discussion. A little bit less of a bravo to some of the comments. I would love to see a little less focus on blame (it is all the fault of Town Meeting…), more focus on what we can do to move forward as a community, and a little more care with the words that we use. An example from Mr. Bryck (whom I respect tremendously): calling the downtown buildings ‘private dorms’ is inflammatory, however much you think it is true. Perhaps it would be better to say ‘new buildings that look to me like private dorms.’
I’m looking forward to Round 2!
to Jim Pistrang and all,
The reason I have said “private dorms” is based on the “if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck” theory, but also, many buildings around the world that house employees of a company are called dorms. It’s not exclusively an on-campus student residence hall.
But in the interest of reducing tensions and divisiveness, I will stop calling the 5 story buildings downtown “dorms.” I will also not call them apartment buildings, as they are mixed use, even if the zoning now allows for a very small portion of the ground floor to require commercial uses.
I’d love to see an end to creating a “straw man,” where you exaggerate the positions of your opponent, and then criticize that exaggeration. If one needs to distort the positions of the opposition to criticize it as you like, maybe the undistorted position isn’t bad enough to criticize.
As the comments taper, I will add my own.
1. The conversation about downtown becomes fraught when it is time for a public body to make a specific decision. Either possibility – for or against the question – imposes real costs. E.g., if the question is whether to temporarily pause construction of mixed-use buildings a “yes” vote delays revenue just when our budget is particularly stressed, while a “no” vote makes possible a building that will not appeal to everyone and will exist for decades. Is it possible for decision-makers to please everyone? Is it possible for them to make a decision without triggering harsh and hurtful accusations?
2. The opportunity for civil discussion is reduced when prejudicial words, phrases, or ideas are expressed. Could we list some to be avoided? For example,
-in the pocket of developers
-dormitories (rather than apartment buildings – they are not the same)
-independent (to imply that officials endorsed by PACs can not think independently)
In my mind, “NIMBY” is not necessarily a criticism but a description of an understandable response to proposed change – each one of us could be a NIMBY. We should expect it, understand it, but not be scared off by it.
Yes, it’s all circumstantial, but I can’t get past the recurring impression that there is a deep-seated animus (and animus is not overstating it) among so many prominent voices in town against, for lack of a better category, People Who Undertake to Build Things, whether it is apartment buildings, single-family housing, solar farms, or parking garages. And, I also wonder whether Amherst residents truly understand that there actually are limits, in a free society, to what a municipality can dictate to a private property owner about what he/she/they can do with his/her/their land, or the structures on it. I think this is why we have a thoroughly shrunken commercial sector, with the burden of paying for public goods falling enduringly on residential property taxpayers.
Richard, I don’t doubt that’s how it looks to you, from your perspective. Here is my perspective: I wish good fortune on developers and builders in building something that has character, utility and relevance for the community. As far as the rights of property owners, I am a property owner (and have been a commercial property owner) and respect the rights and the responsibilities. There is nobody I know (note: I know many of the people you are characterizing wrongly) who doesn’t welcome an ever-improving, healthy and balanced Amherst economy, with a thriving downtown.
I talk to a lot of people about downtown Amherst, and I’ve never met anybody who says that nothing should happen. But I’ve met a lot of people who’d like several buildings downtown – and in our other commercial centers- brought up to their higher and better uses, with attainable and diverse residences as the 2 or 3 floors above a commercial ground floor, well designed, with an appropriate setback where people can stroll and meet and maybe even sit down. And more consideration of if we need a parking garage and where it goes, and also how it can provide ample parking for shoppers and diners, not primarily downtown residents.
Also, I have heard from too many people in Amherst that consider our town center unappealing, but say “at least we have Northampton and Easthampton.” We need to build that better mousetrap, which is more than densification and clunky private dorms. We need a downtown that is interesting, practical, and fun.
This is all our problem, and the divisiness is not getting us closer to solutions, so less characterizing would be good for all.
So in conclusion, thank you Meg and Andy for this friendly dialog.
Thanks for this positive and informative conversation. As a newcomer to town it is only recently that I have begun to realize the depth of division that exists around the change of governance for Amherst. I jumped into the parking lot debate and quickly got tossed into a non-existent group that is perceived to be anti-development.
This conversation is great because I know that I am not alone in wanting a lot of economic development for downtown. As Meg notes, it’s about what constitutes economic development. In my mind, there should be jobs, services and people all over downtown. I don’t object to any of this happening across the street from me. I do object to a 40 foot plus garage with zero setbacks anywhere in town, not just near where I live. I support a strong and sustainable downtown—lots of shops, young and old people, activities, noise even—people noise that is, not leaf blowers, a town that will be thriving for the next generations.
I don’t believe cars are the way of the future, so I would not support a garage anywhere (or any other major infrastructure investment) without proper study, analysis and impact assessments on the environment and the people who will live around it. I do support downtowns like that described in the Master Plan where people and our living environment are prioritized over cars.
Lots of people who don’t support the overlay to approve a new large garage downtown also want to see economic development. These are not mutually exclusive. Let’s do it thoughtfully with data, and in consideration of climate change and the huge challenges ahead for managing our precious natural resources.
I support dense development downtown, alongside walking spaces, canopy trees and ice cream shops for those hot years ahead. More people should be living in and near downtown, and they’re welcome near me. More conversations such as this one will make that change happen.
Looking foward to Part 2, Rani Parker
The problem with opposition to parking structures in downtown Amherst is that ignores Amherst’s reality. Amherst is an employment center in a semi-rural setting. A very high percentage of the employees (and many of the students) at Amherst’s various institutions, most particularly UMass, do not live in Amherst, or anywhere along any of the bus lines that serve Amherst. They live in rural bedroom communities within a large catchment area, spreading out from Amherst, where public transit is not available. There are studies that demonstrate this. This catchment area for residents who use Amherst daily extends far beyond the immediately abutting communities around Amherst. The populations of those communities total somewhere around 90,000 people. Some, but by no means most–much less all–of these outlying folks could be accommodated in new housing development in Amherst. It would overwhelm the community.
Of necessity, as well as by choice, these outlying folks must use personal transportation to go from home to work or school, and back again. It is one of the enduring challenges of semi-rural living. Bicycling is an option for people who live within ready cycling distance of their destinations. Since the majority of outlying residents who regularly travel to Amherst live well beyond that range, an option that is further limited by seasonal weather, bicycling as well as public transit can serve only a discrete and limited percentage of the population of people who for the conduct of their lives must come to Amherst every day, much less those who are simply choosing to come. That leaves larger, self-propelled personal vehicles as the only manageable option.
Whether their personal transportation consists of large SUVs or hybrid sedans or electric cars or solar hovercraft, when they reach Amherst, they need a place to store their vehicles. This also applies to the majority of the numerous cultural tourists who visit Amherst year-round, the people traveling into Amherst from rural bedroom communities to shop, visit restaurants, go the movies, hit a bar and listen to music, or whatever their purpose.
Until we master teleportation or develop as-yet-unforeseen affordable ways to provide flexible personal transportation that occupies no space when not in use, downtown Amherst–in order to function and meet the needs for which it has always existed–will require a sufficient supply of parking to serve the needs of all of those who travel to Amherst by vehicle. Spreading parking out in dribs and drabs throughout a downtown center, which has been past practice, is environmentally unsound, creates traffic problems, and occupies space that would better serve for pedestrian use, green space, or additional building development. It is therefore significantly more responsible and functional to plan for and build large, centralized, vertical parking structures that occupy relatively little space, that take cars off the street, and that convert drivers into pedestrians who then walk or wheel to their destinations under their own power.
Jonathan, I see how much energy you still have around past decisions with which you disagreed. As we look to the future, I think we all need to find a way of moving beyond stereotyping and pigeon-holing people we disagree with. Maybe we can avoid phrases like: “the community’s obstructionist NIMBY/change-nothing-ever cohort.”
Meg: Part of that is doubtless true, but conversations that ignore the realities with which Amherst is faced are pointless exercises in making people feel good. If you want to try to find common ground upon which to solve Amherst’s very real problems, you need to build that ground out of agreement on what is very real.
Well, Jonathan, we agree, I think, that a prerequisite to solving a problem is agreement on what the problem is. Maybe we should focus more on building shared understanding of the problems we face. But building shared understanding requires good communication, which is impossible in the face of snarky insults, name calling and maligning motives.
Amherst has previously attempted different, more ‘amenable’ downtown design requirements in the past, through a proposal for form-based zoning (the plans for which still exist). Similarly, a proposal for creating a mixed-use corridor between the Triangle/East Pleasant intersection and the campus that included the west side of Kendrick Park was considered. Both were shut down and/or defeated at Town Meeting by the community’s obstructionist NIMBY/change-nothing-ever cohort. Those proposals could be resurrected and re-examined. In the meantime, however, Amherst has no one to blame for the bulk of One East Pleasant Street but itself.
It needs to be understood just how very small and narrow is the area of mixed-use business zoning in downtown Amherst. For substantial stretches along North Pleasant Street, it is only a single property deep. Under the current zoning, from a developer’s perspective, in order to make the development of any given property worthwhile, the development needs to be maxed-out on that property. Northampton – -the ‘alternative’ comparative community discussed — has much more extensively areas, in particular including corners at intersections, that are zoned for mixed-use commercial development. Sometimes those are several properties thick/deep. Check it out online at Northampton’s city website. In fact, during the One East Pleasant Street permitting process, a comparative visual analysis and discussion of the two communities’ developable downtown areas was presented to and considered by the Planning Board.
Anyone who wants downtown Amherst to have even vaguely similar opportunities for ‘more restrained development’ of the kinds possible in Northampton, or of any kind, needs to consider re-examining previous proposals for accomplishing that goal. The notion of expanding the area of the downtown business districts in Amherst should also be on the table. We can imagine how much support even the idea of considering that latter possibility might receive. Sometimes the real-world aspects of an obstacle and a community’s most pressing short- and long-term needs have to take priority over the ’emotional resonance’ of any proposal to address those obstacles and needs. Change, like growing up, can be hard. But we still have to do it.
Thanks for doing this. Has there been any talk about the Current doing a podcast? This conversation seems like it would fit that format perfectly.
We never thought of that! We would definitely need technical help. Thanks for the suggstions.
Friends, we spent 18 months together during Charter Commission meetings, much of it in the Community Room at the Amherst police station. As you enter the building, there is a plaque, and on that plaque are the names of the people who made that building happen. Including the Chair of the Select Board, Edward “Ned” Markert, who was known to say, “Amherst, where people are educated beyond their intelligence.” Perhaps he had a point.
When I was on Town Meeting,, our assignment was to watch the 2015 Actuary’s Report. There, I was introduced to the term “horizon.” For example, zoning has a 50-year horizon, with ten years before you even know if it is going to work. And the zoning horizon is really 250 years, how long it will affect the residents.
I taped the 2015 Actuary’s Report and watched it three times, stopping the tape whenever I had a question and asking former Finance Director Sandy Pooler. And in the weeks leading up to the vote, I made a point to attend ALL of the precinct informational meetings and sat next to Sandy, to see his reactions. We had a standing joke between us, “Imagine trying to explain ‘Delta’ to Town Meeting.”
Speaking as a resident of downtown Amherst, as a sole-proprietor for 50 years, and as a board member of the Amherst Housing Authority overseeing 441 low-income housing units, Amherst is a dump. Every morning I see a woman from my building in a wheelchair haul herself up that awful sidewalk on Kellogg Avenue past the post office, going to the bus. If you think downtown Amherst is “cute” and should be preserved, you should talk to her.
Otherwise, you might consider swallowing your pride and listening to Sandy, who said that in actuarial science, “The longer you kick a can down the road, the bigger it gets.”
And the can, with rising inflation and rising interest rates, is about to start growing exponentially, so this is our last chance. The train is leaving the station,
And if you don’t like the way downtown Amherst looks, then you can thank Town Meeting for that, because they failed to pass “form-based zoning.” And we (and our grandchildren) are going to have to live with it for the next 250 years. But maybe we can make it worse!
Finally, somebody stating cold, hard facts. I am very familiar with Kellogg Avenue and its horrendous sidewalks. Of course, you could be describing the bulk of the sidewalks in Amherst that have gone without upkeep for decades. Recently, those same crumbling sidewalks have become much more dangerous because of the water that collects in the depressed areas and freezes, creating unusable, extremely hazardous slick surfaces. You have to ask yourself why so many people walk in the streets rather than on the sidewalks. I believe that I have also witnessed that same woman or someone else like her negotiating the Kellogg Avenue sidewalk to reach the bus stop. It’s shameful, but goes unnoticed by most in town. Amherst has neglected its infrastructure for years and it particularly impacts those with disabilities and the elderly. In the meantime, we have funded electives that we cannot afford. Our schools are also overfunded compared to most other districts in the area, with an extremely high per-pupil cost. Meanwhile, our police department is short 8 officers and our fire department has been understaffed for years. I have talked to police officers parked on Chestnut Street about the pervasive speeding and stop sign running near the entrance to the schools located there, and they always say the same thing: “We are understaffed and there are not enough officers to patrol the streets effectively.” This is all fine and good until someone gets hurt or killed trying to cross the street as a motorist runs the stop sign traveling in excess of 40 miles per hour. Believe it or not, the speed limit on Chestnut is 25 mph. Just yesterday I witnessed someone speeding down Chestnut Street while smoking weed and texting at the same time. I knew that they were smoking weed because their window was partially open and I could smell it. Do you want your kids crossing the street in front of them? We have all gotten too comfortable living with the decrepitude of our town and the ongoing mismanagement.
Andy and Meg–thank you very much for being willing to publicly start this kind of conversation. I believe and hope that it will be one of the ways to help bring back conversations between people, generate consensus, and help us to move our town to successfully address many of its current challenges. Keep up the conversation!
Good start. I look forward to future posts with more specifics. For instance, how to encourage businesses downtown for residents – at a price residents will pay, and with parking convenient to those businesses – since we’re in constant competition with both Hadley and Amazon.
Amherst’s answer to Gail Collins and Bret Stephens! Thank you for this conversation. Interestingly, I don’t see a lot of daylight between Meg and Andy. These are two intelligent, articulate people who care a great deal about the future of Amherst. I came to Amherst over 20 years ago largely because it is a college town. I live downtown and my house is more or less surrounded by off-campus student housing. I often DO feel that I would like to live in a college town without college students. Their behavior is frequently atrocious, and I could easily fill a lot of space talking about that behavior and my theories about why it’s so atrocious. I have no objection, per se, to college students. I object to noisy, disrespectful, unneighborly, and entitled college students. I object to absentee landlords. And I strongly object to the high-priced dormitories that are Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant. (Like Andy, my inner architect finds Kendrick Place less objectionable than the hulking behemoth that is 1 East Pleasant.)
What to do? Although this would never happen in a million years, I would put a stop to absentee landlords for single-family houses. My wife and I have rented rooms to students for over 15 years without a single incident that require a police response. The house next door (owned by one of the better landlords in town) has police visits nearly every semester. If the owner lived in the house and rented rooms, there would be no police calls.
I agree with Andy: The town cannot insist on an individual parking space for each unit of new housing. I agree that people need an easy place to put their cars. Better, of course, would be policies that powerfully discourage “scatter site” housing development (the wastefulness of serpentine streets, huge lots, and total absence of shops and other services of places like Amherst Woods, etc.) in favor of greater downtown density. Policies that encourage walking, cycling, and use of public transit. As climate change continues, people will of necessity find themselves living in closer proximity to one another. They’re going to have to learn to get along with each other.
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