By Jonathan Tucker
In “A civil conversation, Part 3,” Meg Gage listed some crucial requirements of a good plan for downtown Amherst. They were:
“Setting goals based on a vision”
Whose vision? While I believe that there could be consensus (or, at least, consent) over basic characteristics for the form and function of a downtown, there is unlikely to ever be (and, in Amherst, there never has been) agreement or consensus about most of what that should include. For instance, limiting the height of downtown buildings to the 2-3 stories typical of the 19th and early 20th century would inhibit the ability of Amherst’s extremely confined and small downtown to provide meaningful amounts of downtown housing, diverse retail, or any of the rest of the uses the community has said it wants.
For another instance, despite people’s general impression, Amherst’s downtown boasts a highly diverse range of architecture that reflects the community’s historical evolution and change. Every new architectural form–including the 1889 Town Hall–was in its time greeted with dismay and disapproval. Form-based zoning for downtown Amherst should not dictate the replication or even overweening evocation of historical styles, but should instead emphasize compatibility. Time passes, needs change. Communities need to change with them.
“Clarity about values”
Again, whose? There are always multiple individual voices – usually raised in alarm or dismay – whenever a private or public entity tries to actually put those values on the ground. These Civil Conversations would not be either needed nor happening if that were not true. The Amherst Master Plan is the closest thing the community has to a genuine expression of collective community values. But many will always fight against efforts to bring the Master Plan’s objectives to fruition, usually on the grounds that some imagined perfection has not been achieved. If the community wants what its Plan offers, it needs to proceed to accomplish those objectives anyway.
“Establishing the exact need”
Not only impossible, but, in the process, misleading. Human needs and the setting within which they arise change constantly. The community can (and has) take frequent snapshots of need (housing, employment, transportation, parking, food and retail goods availability, etc.). But trying to measure exactly how much affordable housing (for instance) downtown Amherst needs or will need is by its nature an exercise in speculative generality, not least because it could be very different in a matter of months, depending on wider changes in the economy, etc. Assuming that “exactness” can be achieved creates an unreal expectation.
“Evaluating options for meeting the need including size, location, who is served, etc.”
This is already done, in two ways, through the market analyses conducted by private developers and the studies undertaken by the public sector. In the end, there can be no perfect option, only options that are more flawed or less flawed in terms of everyone’s expectations. Amherst as a community is diverse and rarely agrees with itself about what its needs are or even should consist of. And there are, properly, limits on what the public can dictate to private property owners.
“Creating a business plan – reviewing research and other information about viability, cost of building, operating budget, etc.”
Again, the best the public sector can do in evaluating something like a redevelopment plan for an area is to spend a lot of money and more time than anyone wants developing potential scenarios based on current-day expectations and market conditions, which are themselves destined to be outdated within a few years, if not sooner. There is a persistent myth that studying something and conducting due diligence on economic, physical, and social feasibility (which the public sector absolutely is obliged to do) will then produce a given, mutually-agreed-upon outcome that will come into being by the time anything is built, completed, and operating. That is never true. A downtown plan is a great idea, but all such planning and projective speculation can do is provide a ‘ballpark’ sense of goals and objectives, and a greater familiarity with the moving parts, so that the community can adjust as time passes. Which it will.
“Getting input from everyone who will be affected while there are still options from which to choose.”
Including the option of stopping things, which has for so many years in Amherst seemed to be the principal motivation for insisting on options and choices? For all forms of development there are existing, legally mandated avenues for public involvement and input. None of those can possibly obtain “input from everyone who will be affected.” In some cases, extending public permit processes too widely and over too long a period of time can violate both the rights of those doing the development (public or private) and corresponding land use law.
The best that public process can do (and most often does) is to provide a reasonable opportunity for the immensely diverse cohort of humanity that constitutes “everyone who will be affected” to involve themselves. The purpose of public process is to serve the interests of all those involved. All those involved includes the development rights of property owners and the broad public interests that thoughtful development can serve, as well as those who feel aggrieved by change they do not like.
In the end, the perfect remains the enemy of the good. No development, however thoughtfully and carefully planned, responsibly permitted, and competently executed, will perfectly meet the expectations of all of those who believe their interests are involved. That is why community planning exercises and permit processes have a structured beginning and a reasonable end. People have a right to do useful things with their property and communities have a right to reasonably direct how those changes can occur. But unless that process is in fact reasonable, it is not legitimate.
Jonathan Tucker, an Amherst native who now lives in Northampton, worked in the Amherst Planning Department for 32 years and was planning director for 10 years. He staffed the Planning Board, Design Review Board, Historical Commission and Redevelopment Authority. He served on task forces focused on housing, parking, transportation and conservation.
3 thoughts on “What is a good downtown plan?”
Thanks for this thoughtful and reasonable explanation.
Thank you – your post describes the complications and real-world factors in considering what changes happen in our downtown. Amherst needs more places for people to live; we either build up (vertically) in some places or more densely in many places, or both. We need more businesses downtown – again, either taller or sprawling into the residential neighborhoods around our small downtown. All the easy-to-develop places have already been built on.
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