We need neighborhood policy; Why I like Orchard Valley

By Bob Rakoff

Enough already with the downtown! And stop moaning about open space!

It’s time for some serious talk about our residential neighborhoods.

Sometimes it seems that the only topics that town officials, the media (including this august blog!), and local opinion leaders care about are the commercial revival of downtown and the protection of ever-more farmland and open space. Last fall, when the Amherst Bulletin cut back on home delivery, I was struck by the fact that all of the new pick-up sites were downtown. No drop-offs at Atkins, no village centers, no campus centers.

I do venture downtown for specific purposes, of course: to pick up a book at the Jones, to get my new glasses at Amherst Optical, to grab a slice at Antonio’s. I’ve even been around long enough to know where to park cheaply or for free.

The Orchard Valley neighborhood. Photo by Bob Rakoff

And yet most of us — especially in these plague years — spend more time in our residential neighborhoods than we do downtown. The town’s Master Plan pays obeisance to the importance of residential neighborhoods. Among the goals of the plan are preserving and enhancing the historical and cultural “character” of our neighborhoods, with special emphasis on supporting “cohesive” neighborhoods. Besides emphasizing the maintenance of neighborhood character, the plan also calls for encouraging the development of economically diverse neighborhoods along with village centers that are well connected to livable and diverse neighborhoods.

You don’t have to know much about zoning and land use to understand that these goals are both ambiguous and in conflict with each other. In most communities, “maintaining neighborhood character” is a euphemism for keeping out unwanted elements. These could be incompatible uses and structures like commercial buildings and operations, which are mostly banned in our residential zones. But in practice, unwanted elements also include unwanted people: renters, students, children, people who don’t look like existing residents, who work at different sorts of jobs or come from different socio-economic backgrounds. We shy away from defining neighborhood character because our definitions are not always pretty or politically acceptable. And we are reluctant to admit that by protecting neighborhood character, we are likely undermining the goal of creating diverse neighborhoods.

But Amherst does have neighborhoods that come close to the ideals of the Master Plan, neighborhoods that are diverse in terms of class, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, occupancy status (i.e. rent or own), and family status. Neighborhoods that are relatively affordable. I live in one of these neighborhoods, Orchard Valley, and I believe it is the best neighborhood in town.  I want to tell you a bit about my neighborhood and my neighbors, and then ask what the town is doing and should do to support this fine neighborhood and others like it.

Orchard Valley was built in the mid-1960s. It is typical of postwar suburban-style subdivisions, with its curving streets and cul-de-sacs, buried utilities, and a limited array of house types: 3 or 4 ranch-type houses, and a single, two-story colonial model. Houses are small by current standards, topping out at around 1,600 square feet. But the street view often hides the fact that long-term homeowners have improved and added on to their homes. Half-acre lots tend to blend together in joined back yards. Only a few streets have sidewalks; kids play in the streets. There are many street-side basketball hoops, but no public facilities except for the recently restored Markert’s Pond. The emerging village center at Pomeroy Lane is a healthy walk away along busy Route 116.

Photo by Bob Rakoff

From the beginning, the neighborhood has attracted a diverse group of owners. Both staff and faculty from the university and colleges, along with school teachers, nurses, small-business owners, tradespeople, writers, psychologists and other professionals who live side by side. On my little street alone (which my grandchildren affectionately call Tracy Semicircle) we have racially diverse neighbors from all walks of life and from all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Japan, Canada, the Philippines, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Israel, as well as native-born Americans of European, African, and Hispanic descent. Some households are multi-generational, and some families have occupied their houses continuously from the beginning of the development. Yet these relatively affordable houses do come on the market and sell quickly. In recent years, many new, young families have moved in, attracted by a lively neighborhood culture, the renewing presence of children (and babysitters!), a fine local school, and the fact that the neighborhood reflects the incredible diversity of the town.

The neighborhood has also attracted some absentee owners, who are able to price other buyers out of the market and pack many student renters into these relatively snug dwellings. We have not had the big problems of other parts of town, but this is a worrisome development that current town programs have not been able to address.

Photo by Bob Rakoff

What makes Orchard Valley a thriving, cohesive neighborhood is the sense of a shared life that many of us experience. Successive generations have created a common life defined by the activities of daily and seasonal life: child-rearing, biking, hoops, shared tools and projects. This is a neighborhood of all-season walkers, so we know the names and habits of the neighborhood dogs, cats and kids. People look out for each other. New households and families are quickly assimilated into neighborhood routines.

So, here’s a desirable neighborhood that comes close to meeting the goals of our Master Plan. What should the Town be doing to preserve and enhance the character of this neighborhood? Do we need new public facilities like a playground or more sidewalks? Do we need new Town services like sidewalk plowing in this walk-crazy neighborhood, or a town fund to purchase houses for resale to owner-occupants, keeping them out of the hands of absentee landlords? How about revival of the PVTA bus route that serviced the neighborhood and reduced our dependence on cars?

Pomeroy St./Rt. 116 intersection

The point here is that town decision-makers need to go beyond the rhetoric of “neighborhood character” to fashion programs that actually support and enhance neighborhoods like mine, neighborhoods that come close to the goals of cohesion and diversity of class and race. Does your neighborhood reflect those goals (looking at you, Amherst Woods)? What would help make it so? Let us know.