Preservation and Development Can Work Together

By Janet Marquardt

The signs of polarization in Amherst echo those across the country. However, we don’t need to think of “either/or” when it comes to our town’s future. As a member of the Historical Commission for six years now, I’ve come to believe that we should try, within all reasonable measures, to preserve those structures that contribute to the deep historical roots of Amherst. That does not mean that we cannot also construct new buildings with affordable housing and rethink how the town center should function in the future. It does, however, remind us that the quality of architectural design and construction and the arrangement of public spaces should be envisioned to last far beyond our lifetimes. 

There is a concern that it is economically essential to increase the residential density of our downtown and that a failure to do so will lead to even higher taxes and emptier commercial spaces. Sarah Marshall also recently reminded us (see her post, “Who Owns Amherst’s Future?”, of July 22, 2021) that we need to expand our notions of the people we consider “desirable” residents. Current property owners are not the only kinds of faces that will enrich the culture of our town. On the other hand, Amherst will be here long after all of those who are here and who come in the next twenty years. The history of this town is one that draws visitors from around the world and how we prepare for ongoing tourism is equally important to our economic viability.

Preservation is a key element in economic planning because it can make or break strong tourism income. Taking a town like Concord as an example—not a university town but a bedroom community for Boston, hence similarly ripe for dense residential development—their 2016 income from visitors was $334,372 rising to $865,598 in 2019. It’s true that they probably should build more apartment buildings closer to town, and that home prices have kept property in the center in the hands of the wealthy, but it is an example of vibrant street life and thriving bookstores, cafés, and small shops that rely upon the historical attractions of the famous folk who lived and are buried there, not unlike those from Amherst. There are myriad other examples from across New England of towns that value preservation and have lively visitor commerce.

Naturally, there will be widely divergent opinions on what is good architectural design, which styles are appropriate, how public spaces should be constructed, where new growth should occur. That’s healthy and why public comment is welcomed at the Design Review Board, Planning Board, Historical Commission, and other town meetings. These groups bring folks of varied expertise with differing opinions together to make the best joint decisions they can for our future.

The protection of Amherst’s valuable history is good practice. It makes economic sense to look at the environmental impact of new construction versus adaptive reuse, whereby one saves old materials (often of superior, enduring local resources or even from extinct trees), and to reuse buildings whenever possible, even if cheaper new construction seems more profitable in the short run. It also behooves us to consider building behind or around iconic smaller buildings rather than razing and replacing. The Amherst Cinema building project was a good example of this kind of preservation partnership, as were the houses moved from Kendrick Park and the bank building that is now Amherst Works.

Preservation offers an educational value of “away from books” experiences with history, raising questions like “Who lived here? How did they live? What do the styles they chose tell us about what they held to be important?” and so forth. Preservation can lead to emotional attachments that foster community, pride in maintaining neighborhoods, and a sense of belonging to an historic identity. This can be a draw not only to visitors but new residents as well (I count myself in the latter from 2014). When I vote as a member of the Historical Commission to impose a delay on demolition, I am just asking that a bit more time be taken to consider alternatives and look at ways to save, reuse, or move historic buildings. I am not trying to stop development of gracious and attractive additions to Amherst’s future appearance. In fact, I welcome them.

Let’s densify!

By Elisa Campbell

I am afraid that Amherst has become a gated community, not literally, but effectively, based on the high price of housing. I don’t think any of us wanted this to happen.  In 2020, housing prices were already far too high for people with jobs but no family wealth to buy, or, often, even to rent here. 

And during the past year, bidding wars have pushed up the cost of housing astronomically, not just in our area but in any place that is regarded as a good place in which to live in this country.

We do not control the economy of the world, the United States, Massachusetts, or our part of Massachusetts. The only thing we Amherst residents can do is to decide what we are willing to change  to help make things better for people who see few options for them here.  What price are you, Amherst resident, willing to pay, or what are you willing to forgo, as an environmentally-aware, climate crisis-concerned citizen to tackle the housing problem?

Amherst needs more housing of various types, suitable for a variety of lifestyles (depending on age, mobility, and job security, for example) and incomes.

Fortunately, several efforts to build affordable housing in Amherst are under way, including:

  • Aspen Heights – 11 units
  • Amherst Studio Apartments – 28 units
  • New Barry Roberts development on Route 9 & University Drive – 45 units
  • Belchertown Road-East Street affordable housing development – perhaps 50-60 units

While Aspen Heights is built and the Roberts property is under construction, the other projects have not yet broken ground.  However, when built, this number of apartments is not enough to meet the need.

Furthermore, most recent building projects do nothing for senior citizens who have lived here for decades and want to stay, but who cannot find and/or afford an option in Amherst that is on one floor and smaller than their current home. The people I know in that situation have had to move elsewhere.

An important way to increase and vary the housing supply is to densify.  The housing debate in Amherst has been too narrowly focused on what downtown does or should look like. How about our existing single-family neighborhoods: can they accommodate more people? For example: how big is your house? How does that size compare to the size of the house or apartment you grew up in? Can it provide housing for more people?

How about your house lot –  if it was large initially to allow for a septic system but your lot now has town sewer, it doesn’t need to be so large. Are you willing to have an accessory unit built there – even for someone who is not a relative? What if your neighbors decide to build an accessory unit – will you support them?

Regarding the debate about apartment buildings downtown, what is the alternative? The real “alternative” is sprawl. If housing can’t go up it is going to go out. Sprawl – houses spread out along roads, making it impossible to provide efficient services like water and sewer, let alone public transportation.

Sprawl is an environmental disaster eating up green space, elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley if not in Amherst, but surely influenced by our local decisions. If we collectively say NO to building “up,” does that contribute to the suburbanization of our locale (especially hill towns, such as Pelham, Shutesbury, Williamsburg, Goshen, etc.)? If so, do we care? Or are we collectively interested only in what we, as individuals, see and experience? Are you willing to see all the open fields covered with houses? Every woodland ? Even the ones you see regularly and love?

I want humans to stop occupying so much space. I want other species to have places to live their lives and continue to exist, hopefully even thrive. I am extremely distressed at what we “Homo sapiens” have done and are doing to the planet we live on – including but not limited to the climate crisis, which is clearly horrible.

If you agree with me then recognize that we have choices to make. Some choices are about downtown: can we accept new buildings of a size and design we aren’t used to, that other people can live in?

Please think – where do your kids live? How large is their place? How about your grandkids – what kind of housing do they need right now and where are they going to live? Do you think kids and grandkids of people you don’t know need and deserve a decent place to live? If so, where? Surely, at least some should have the option to live here.

Let’s make it possible.

Amherst House Prices Shoot Up

by Nick Grabbe

A flurry of home-buyers caused sale prices to jump in Amherst this spring, with houses often selling for more than their asking prices.

“It was such an unusual time, and we were all walking around scratching our heads,” said Kathy Zeamer, a spokeswoman for Jones Realty. “Even realtors who have been in business for 40 years said they’d never seen anything like this.”

“Frenzy” isn’t too strong a word for the bidding wars that real estate agents saw over houses that were well-maintained and priced reasonably, she said. She offered some eye-popping examples:

  • A two-bedroom house on East Pleasant Street (shown at left) was listed for sale at $299,900. In three days, there were 50 showings and nine offers, and it sold for $345,000 to an out-of-town buyer.
  • A house on Middle Street was listed for $599,900, and someone bought it the first day it was on the market, for $612,500 – in cash.
  • A house on Amity Street was listed at $665,00 and sold for $708,800 in four days.

(For a list of recent sale prices of single-family houses in Amherst, click on “Recent House Sales” at left.)

If you already own your house, this white-hot market means it is now likely worth more than a year ago, and your net worth just went up a notch. My own Amherst house, which I bought for $66,000 in 1984, is now worth about six times as much. This hot market also works well for people who have just sold a brownstone in Brooklyn for $2 million and want to buy a house in Amherst and still have plenty of money left over.

But for middle-income people and first-time home-buyers, it’s been a frustrating time. And this price run-up has increased the already-wide wealth gap in Amherst between people who own homes and those who rent.

During the pandemic, many people living in urban areas and working from home figured they could do that just as easily in Amherst. Some were attracted to the cultural and outdoor activities in the area, and some had family members here, Zeamer said. Many sales this spring were to buyers from urban areas.

“They come with a lot of cash, and look at the prices of properties here, and it looks like quite a bargain,” she said.

It’s hard for a local buyer to compete, Zeamer said. Presented with a cash offer, many sellers don’t want to take the risk that a bidder won’t be able to get financing. It can take four to six weeks to get a mortgage commitment.

Some bidders have taken to writing letters to the sellers pleading their cases, or even agreeing to waive inspections or pay closing costs, she said. But many companies counsel against writing letters to sellers “due to the possibility (or even the perception) of favoritism that may be interpreted as discriminatory,” Zeamer said.

One buyer sold his house in California for $5 million and bought a house in Amherst for $1.4 million, said real estate agent Nancy Hamel. “A first-time buyer putting down 5 percent might as well not even make an offer,” she said. “FHA buyers don’t have a chance. How do you compete with that kind of money?”

Another reason for the frenzy is that there have been fewer houses for sale than usual. Normally, there are about 100 houses for sale in Amherst. By mid-June, there were around 10.

“Many homeowners did not want people coming through their homes during the pandemic,” Zeamer said. “Since vaccines have become available, people are more relaxed about opening their homes.”

Another attraction for buyers is that mortgage interest rates are very low now. Many people worry that inflation will cause them to go up next year, so they figure that now is a good time to buy.

Although your house is worth more now, you are paying taxes on only a portion of its value. But that will change.

Many houses have sold in the last few months for 30 percent more than their assessed value, which is Town Hall’s estimate of how much a house is worth. It is calculated to determine how to distribute the property tax burden, but it takes a while for assessed values to catch up with increasing sale prices .

For example, a house on Aubinwood Road, assessed at $338,900, recently sold for $485,000. A house on Baker Street, assessed for $290,300, sold for $450,000. A house on South East Street, assessed at $365,800, recently sold for $532,000.

Property taxes are due Aug. 2. Your annual property tax is calculated by dividing your assessed value by 1,000 and then multiplying by the tax rate, which was $21.82 in the fiscal year that just ended. The tax rate for the new fiscal year has not been set yet.

The median assessed value for a single-family house is $365,650, with an annual tax obligation of $7,978 in the fiscal year that just ended.

Assessed values will likely increase next year to reflect higher sale prices this year. That will probably cause the tax rate to go down. But tax bills always go up because the amount the town needs to raise in taxation always goes up by slightly more than the 2.5 percent limit set by state law. Changes in assessments don’t directly cause tax increases and happen every five years or whenever the average sale price is more than 10 percent above assessed values.

The frenzy of buyers is now past. “It’s calmed down a little bit, and in the summer things slow down,” said Zeamer.

But the price of a house in Amherst is likely to remain high.