A civil conversation, Part 2

Editors’ note: This is the second in a series of respectful conversations about Amherst issues from two different points of view. Click here to read Part 1.

By Meg Gage and Andy Churchill

Andy: Well, some people never learn! Here we are again, taking another whack at our different opinions about Amherst’s downtown. I understand you actually lived downtown as a child, up through your high school graduation. What was that like?

Meg: Yes, but I’m not into glorifying my Amherst childhood. Sometimes it seems there’s some merit in having been around a long time, some kind of extra credit. That’s not my thing.

Andy: Aw, c’mon – how about doing it in a nice, Amherst-y, non-competitive way?

Photo credit Sarah Marshall

Meg: Well, OK. Here’s a quick memory of growing up on North Pleasant Street. We lived across from the Dairy Queen that was next to the Mobil station, where Zanna is now. On summer evenings I’d look across the street from my bedroom window at the college students sitting on the hoods of their cars, eating ice cream cones together. I thought that was the most wonderful thing a college student could do. But it turned out as a Brandeis student I wasn’t the sort to sit on a car hood eating ice cream!

Andy: Wow – a Dairy Queen downtown – I could go for that. I might even sit on a car hood!

Meg: Another memory is of the White sisters, two elderly women who lived across the street, just about where 1 East Pleasant is now. They were the first Amherst girls to have bicycles and were quick to share with pride a framed newspaper article with a picture of them in bloomers with their bikes. Really dating myself here!

Andy: Great memories. And, of course, you’ve seen a lot of change since then. I wonder, does that make you in some way resistant to development downtown? I get the sense that some folks on “your side” are nostalgic for simpler times, when UMass was smaller, there was a grocery store downtown, etc. So, they are reflexively against more change, regardless of potential benefits of downtown vibrancy and revenues to support town services.

Meg: Indeed, I’ve seen a lot of change. But I am not particularly nostalgic for those days, and there were some not-so-great things, particularly related to gender and race. I’m not at all against change, and frankly, I can’t think of anyone I know who opposes all change. Nothing stays the same, and change is an opportunity to make things better, in my opinion. (BTW, there were TWO grocery stores downtown; Louis was where the CVS is now, and across the street, next to the Unitarian Church, was the A&P. There were two shoe stores, Bowles and Mathews, and a hardware store. Also, a drugstore with a soda fountain where Subway is now!)

Meg’s childhood home; Photo credit Sarah Marshall

Andy: Well, Amherst certainly has changed since then!

Meg: The big catalyst for the very rapid change that came to Amherst in the 1960s was the rapid expansion of the UMass student body, from 7,600 in 1963 to over 23,000 undergrads and 4,500 graduate students in 1970. Before then, there was no Echo Hill, no Amherst Woods, no residential areas to the east and west of East Pleasant Street.

Andy: So, whole new family neighborhoods sprang up, presumably to accommodate faculty and staff supporting all those new students. And the malls and supermarkets weren’t in place on Route 9 yet. Once those arrived, the old stores downtown couldn’t compete, I guess. And then, more recently, the big box stores sealed the deal.

Meg: One of the big mistakes Amherst made back then, IMHO, was to zone the big box stores out of Amherst rather than creating terms for them to be built in Amherst, with design standards for signage, scale, set-backs, etc. Perhaps they could have been built along what is now University Drive – or any number of other places away from the center of town. Amherst has always been the customer base for the malls in Hadley, so near the Amherst line. What a shame we don’t reap the tax benefits! An example of Amherst not adapting to changing circumstances.

Andy: So downtown Amherst evolved. It came to feature more restaurants, bars, and small, boutique-style retail, with a smattering of offices and apartments in those buildings that had upstairs space. The recent Archipelago buildings by Kendrick Park have added some housing to the mix. So, the question now is: What’s next?

Photo credit Sarah Marshall

Meg: Yes, exactly! Let’s do “what’s next,” with a plan! I am very enthusiastic about the Business Improvement District’s interest in developing the arts in downtown Amherst. The benefits of what has become known as the Creative Economy are well established – creative arts as a magnifier of economic success.  It is an evolving concept focused on the relationship between creativity, business, technology, ideas and the arts. North Adams is one of the best examples around. In 1991, before MASS MoCA was established, North Adams had an unemployment rate of almost 13 percent.  In November 2019 (just before Covid), it was 3 percent. Granted, many of the new jobs were in the service sector, but they were jobs that weren’t there before.

Andy: I would add, there’s also room for more people living and working downtown, to provide ready customers for downtown establishments and tax revenues for our town’s infrastructure. But that will require more development, more densification of the downtown with housing and office space, as our master plan suggests.

Meg: Sounds good, Andy, but I don’t see many people moving into the new apartment buildings who work downtown. They are mostly students. 

Andy: Do you actually know that? I don’t, and I’m not sure it matters that much. It’s not like the new buildings are fraternities! More people living downtown is a good thing for the vibrancy of downtown and for tax revenue. We live in a college town; we need to get used to having college students in it, maybe even (gasp) see that as a benefit! More taxable rental units for students would generate more revenues for the town. They don’t all have to be downtown, though – maybe more development on Olympia Drive, or a “student village” approach to University Drive. A topic for another column!

Photo credit Sarah Marshall

Meg: I enjoy living around college students – although I can do without the Blarney Blowout! And housing is a fine idea, but what kind of housing and for whom and where? I’m sounding like a stuck record, but all this needs to be based on a plan! Ideally, Amherst’s new housing would help people in Amherst acquire wealth – one of my big disappointments of building so much rental housing. Rental housing is extractive and profits only the owners and builders – no one else is gaining wealth.

Andy: So, would you prefer condos downtown? Not sure those would be accessible to people without wealth in the first place. And what’s to prevent rich parents from buying them for their college kids? I hear you, but not everyone wants to buy property and be chained to it that way. There is a place for rental units, and for more office space. I agree with your point about needing a plan, though.

Meg: BTW, it may surprise you that I am a big fan of the master plan. I wish the Town were using it as more of a guide than it seems to me is the case. My other gripe about our recent development (and some not so recent) downtown is the architecture of the new buildings. We desperately need design standards that encourage attractive buildings that support a lively downtown.    

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

Andy: I agree – we need design standards to guide development, technically known as “form-based code.” Interestingly, Northampton has just started a process of public discussion about it. And a few years ago, Amherst actually had a form-based code proposal on the table. It would have set design guardrails for the town – and likely prevented the most complained-about aspects of the new buildings. Unfortunately, as you know, Town Meeting voted it down.

Meg: I actually voted for the form-based code proposal in Town Meeting and agree we should look at it again. But back then, it had both technical and emotional aspects and a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the Town that made it difficult to get a two-thirds majority in Town Meeting. Form-based design is perhaps a topic for another column, but at this point I’d rather look forward than backward. It’s way past time to stop bashing Town Meeting!!

Andy: In its later years, Town Meeting richly earned any bashing it gets, most egregiously by voting down the elementary school project (a project I know we both supported).

Meg: Andy, the school vote was more complicated. A majority of Town Meeting supported the school proposal, but state law required two-thirds support. Can we agree it is time to stop bashing – and praising – Town Meeting?

Andy: I will say that Town Meeting is now irrelevant, and I’m glad that it is. But I do think we need to continue to take some lessons from that experience, in which a minority of townspeople decided they knew best, overstepped their role (which was simply to approve the borrowing based on whether the Town could afford the project), and used a variety of insider techniques to frustrate the will of the majority. I worry that we haven’t seen the last of that I-know-best approach, which makes it hard for people to trust each other enough to come together on a generally accepted vision for moving forward.

Screen shot of website designed by Anser Advisory Management, LLC

Meg: Well, I hope we can build more trust through better communication, and develop a plan for the future that does have broad support. Thinking about the elementary school situation, I am impressed with how hard the new Elementary School Building Committee and School Committee are working to build trust and transparency and to listen to people’s concerns and wishes for the new school, early in the process and continuously as the process advances. I think people feeling they’ve been heard and their ideas considered goes a long way toward people accepting change, even if their ideas are not followed.

Andy: How about for the next part of this discussion we get more specific about future design standards? Let’s take our readers on a virtual walk downtown. What aspects do we like, and want to see more of? What elements would we prefer to never see again?

Meg: Great idea! See you on the sidewalk!

In Part 3 of “A civil conversation,” Meg and Andy will walk around downtown Amherst and exchange views on the buildings.

5 thoughts on “A civil conversation, Part 2”

  1. It is terrific to have our very own Gail Collins and Brett Stephens debate, and I really appreciate Meg and Andy for their willingness to engage.

    The spirit of this dialogue is so spot on. We are, in many ways, all on the same Amherst team, and there is space to vigorously disagree and still stay teammates.

    Thank you Meg, Andy and Amherst Current.

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  2. Well, I still think it’s worth asking just what is it in our specific political culture in Amherst that is so damned self-destructive, since it might be living on here beyond Town Meeting. All the beneficial changes that Meg cites that did not happen, the forks in the road where we took the path of less development, or simply decided to do nothing, came about through political decisions at key moments. We do not have form-based zoning, even though there seems to be agreement NOW that we should.

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  3. A great conversation that raised a lot of necessary issues.
    Downtown residential uses, for instance. From the age of about 2 until age 6, my parents, my two siblings and I lived in a second floor apartment in a house owned by the Tufts family on North Prospect Street. The edges of downtown Amherst were already filled with apartment uses, and had been since the mid-19th century. I don’t remember going downtown much, but I remember Mr. Tufts, who was very kind, and would crack pecans and walnuts for my brother and myself on a splitting stump in his barn/garage out back. He had his office in that building, and once showed me a boxed set of fancy Colt revolvers that he said had belonged to President Chester Arthur, who he claimed was a distant relative. We moved to former farmscape South Amherst when I was 6 and my world changed.
    Downtown Architecture – The new downtown buildings are examples of what might be called Pacific Rim architecture using indigenous New England materials. It is a perfectly valid architectural choice for downtown Amherst, a sentiment with which the Design Review Board, the Amherst Historical Commission, and the Planning Board all agreed. Until the new wooden building behind the former (and much-lamented) Judie’s was built, downtown Amherst had not seen a new building in 30 years. If you were to survey and document the architecture of downtown buildings (something that has been done at least twice–check with the Planning Department), you would find a highly diverse range of architectural periods and styles represented in downtown buildings. The fact that people are so used to looking at them that they no longer really see them does not mean those buildings were all designed to be compatible or even vaguely similar, except in terms of materials and scale, characteristics that were dictated more by building technology and period economics than by aesthetics.
    One of my favorites is the Richardsonian Romanesque Town Hall, a building whose scale and architecture were bitterly fought over at the time (look it up). It was, of course, something new for Amherst, and a wee bit more prominent and grand than some citizens felt was necessary (they put Austin Dickinson on the building committee, what did they expect?). The new Town Hall caused no end of distress among those who found change too uncomfortable. Quite aside from the need for all communities to allow themselves to grow and change, the architecture of a given downtown does not belong solely to those for whom it is long familiar, particularly as we reach into our sixth and seventh decades. Our communities increasingly belong to our children and grandchildren and new incoming residents, who may have–and are allowed to have–their own entirely different vision for their community. Hanging on to a specific narrow vision of our surroundings for our own comfort for too long is not at all the same as appreciating architectural history. With all respect, it is closer to a form of group pathology.
    Finally, in the interest of amity, I will restrain myself and only echo Andy’s comment that by its last two decades, Amherst’s representative Town Meeting had richly earned whatever bashing citizens cared to direct its way, then or now. However, I agree with Meg that rehashing those issues does not get the community any further forward.

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