I went from skeptic to supporter on Jones Library project

By Nick Grabbe

I confess that I used to be skeptical about the $35.3 million project to expand and renovate the Jones Library.

I have been a regular visitor to our beautiful library for 37 years, and have always thought that it met my needs very well. I rarely had a problem finding my way around its many rooms, and the children’s room seemed adequate to me.

After the pandemic made me unable to go inside the library for 15 months, I felt sad that the project would make the building inaccessible during construction. Since I know Carol Pope, the designer of the lovely garden behind the library, I sympathized with her desire not to have the expansion infringe on it.

But I will be voting “Yes” next Tuesday on the referendum to affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in support of the project. As Councilor Alisa Brewer related one resident’s succinct message to her, “To refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective.”

I’ll summarize these four perspectives, but truthfully, I have two other reasons why I’ll be voting “Yes” that pertain to the kind of town we want Amherst to be.

Finances. The library project is a great deal for taxpayers. The Town’s $15.8 million share of the cost (only 39 percent) is being borrowed and will not cause a tax increase. A “No” vote would mean spending about the same amount on the repairs that are needed because of 30 years of deferred maintenance – with no state money! After a minority at Amherst Town Meeting rejected $34 million in state money to help finance a new elementary school, which will now be much more expensive, it makes no sense to now reject $13.8 million in state money for an improved library. Re-establishing credibility with state funding sources is critical. A campaign to support the project has pledged to raise $6.6 million. The library project is not an unnecessary expense; it’s an opportunity to buy something we need at a bargain price.

Climate. The library project will represent a major step toward meeting the Town’s climate goals by moving away from the use of natural gas. It will result in a significant reduction in energy use even though the amount of floor space will increase. I don’t understand the reasoning of some climate activists who maintain that the project will result in a net increase in energy use because of the new materials to be used and the old ones to be discarded. Several local energy experts have said unambiguously that this project as a whole represents a big win for climate action.

Education. The Jones Library has a responsibility to the many visitors who come to Amherst to see the archival materials related to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and others in Special Collections. There have been at least four water leaks that resulted in damage to rare books in the past five years, due to a malfunctioning heating and cooling system. In addition, the Jones Library provides 16,000 hours a year of English as a Second Language instruction, and the space provided for this important service is inadequate.

Social justice. As I transitioned from skeptic to supporter, I realized that my own needs for the library could not be my most important consideration. I had to think about the physically disabled people who can’t fully use the building, the residents who rely on the library for computer use, and the newcomers who can’t find the bathrooms or meeting rooms. Most of all, I had to consider the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be using the Jones Library in the coming decades.

All of these are important factors. But for me, there are also two overriding issues. The first one relates to the reason why we’re having this referendum in the first place. It’s all about democracy.

The library Trustees who were elected to their posts worked out the details of this project. Voters favored Trustee candidates who supported the project over those who didn’t. Many Town Councilors backed the library project in their campaigns three years ago and were then elected in a high-turnout, competitive election. Opponents of the project have had ample opportunity to state their case. Council President Lynn Griesemer was, like me, skeptical before she fully considered all the reasons to proceed with the project. The vote on the Council to support the project was overwhelming.

But that was not enough for the determined opponents. They circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the library project, and were not deterred when they failed to collect enough certified signatures. Even though some who signed the petition said they misunderstood its purpose and asked for their signatures to be removed, the opponents went to court. They forced taxpayers to pay for much legal consultation, and then the Town Council scheduled Tuesday’s referendum, which is what opponents were seeking. I hope a “Yes” vote will put an end to the debate.

I was a member of the Charter Commission, and I remember saying that the “voter veto” provision that’s been invoked by library opponents should make overturning a Council action “difficult but not impossible.” I now regret that the commission did not restrict this “voter veto” to Council votes that were closer.

When you lose a political battle, as the library opponents did, instead of continuing the fight, it’s better to accept defeat. The “voter veto” provision of the charter should be used only when the Council vote was close and there’s good reason to believe it does not reflect public sentiment, or when there’s been new information or some change of circumstances.

One of the key principles of democracy is that sometimes you have to live with results you don’t like.

The other overriding issue for me is the willingness of library opponents to use deception in their campaign. Many of us received a postcard last weekend with a manipulated image of a wrecking ball about to strike the Jones Library building. The facade of the library will not be demolished during the renovation project, but the opponents apparently believe that some voters will be influenced by this false image. (This postcard shows why referendums are risky; residents who haven’t paid attention to an issue are more vulnerable to this kind of deception than a town council.) I don’t want to see this brand of smash-mouth politics become standard practice in Amherst’s political campaigns.

Library opponents have also been spreading false rumors. No, the project will not cause a tax increase, and no, it will not mean the closure of the branch libraries. We have debunked all of those rumors here and here. I don’t mind disagreement about important local issues — that’s inherent in a democracy — but I support the old-fashioned notion that facts matter.

It’s OK to be skeptical of proposals made by Town officials, but it’s important to look at the facts. By voting “Yes” on Tuesday, we’ll be doing more than just voting for an expanded, energy-efficient, accessible library. We’ll be casting a vote of confidence that Amherst can move forward in updating our public infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.

Fiscal sustainability: Some modest proposals

By Bob Rakoff

The Town of Amherst is not fiscally sustainable without significant changes. The major problem is that nearly 50 percent of the land in town is exempt from property taxes, which account for 70 percent of the Town’s annual revenues. State aid makes up another 20 percent, while 10 percent comes from other sources.

The Town has limited control over these sources of revenue. The state makes its own decisions about local assistance. And the ability of the town to increase property tax revenue is constrained by law, by the regional real estate market, by a limited supply of buildable land that is appropriately zoned for development, and, of course, by the unpopularity of tax increases.

At the same time, demand for public services continues to increase beyond the growth of our tax base; we already face one of the highest property tax rates in the state. Deferred capital projects (library, school, fire, public works) pose significant financing challenges, even in an era of low interest rates. Voter approval of a tax override in 2022 to finance a new elementary school is by no means assured.

In response to this tension between the supply of tax revenue and the demand for expanded and quality services, there have been two kinds of responses.

Some people call for retrenchment, with deferral or scaling back of some capital projects along with cutbacks in regular annual spending. Others see more intensive commercial and apartment development as the route to a more sustainable and affordable future that does not sacrifice needed building projects or popular programs.

Retrenchment is not politically popular, and its proponents are also largely opposed to increased apartment development. Meanwhile, proponents of expanding apartment construction to increase tax revenue acknowledge that such development may make expansion of town-financed services (e.g., schools, library, public safety) even more necessary. Of course, if apartment development attracts mostly households without children, then the impact on school spending is lessened. But that would mean more apartments for college students, not working families, hardly the best or most equitable future for our diverse town.

There seem to be no easy answers. We need new revenue sources. And we need new, outside-the-box thinking.

So, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, here are a few modest proposals for a more sustainable fiscal future for Amherst.

NULLIFICATION. Texas has taken the lead in declaring that it has the right and power to nullify federal laws it dislikes. Let the Lone Star State be our guide here. The Town should declare as oppressive the state and federal laws that prevent the taxation of property owned by non-profit organizations and move expeditiously to tax the holdings of Amherst College, Hampshire College, and other rich, tax-exempt landowners.

UMASS STUDENTS. There is not much we can do to get more money out of UMass. But UMass students are another story. Those students spend millions of dollars to purchase credit hours. Those credit hours are a commodity that is ripe for taxation. Let’s go after them.

Photo by Adi Coco on Unsplash

GAMBLING. Instead of pursuing boring and expensive capital projects that will never return real profits to the town, we should pursue the more lucrative path of casino development. Perhaps go for double-or-nothing by locating a casino on the capped landfill.

NAMING RIGHTS. We already have a library named for the benefactor, Samuel Minot Jones. Let’s sell the naming rights for other buildings and spaces. Imagine a Jeff Bezos Elementary School, or a Warren Buffet Public Works edifice. Or imagine buying your local fruit and veg on the Apple Computer/Steve Jobs Memorial Town Common.


ANNEXATION. As one local wag put it (OK, it was our own Nick Grabbe), the Town of Amherst has outsourced its commercial development to the Town of Hadley, which reaps the benefits of an expanded tax base, increased revenue, and low tax rates for homeowners. We need to take control of that development and seize those tax benefits. The town should raise a militia (perhaps ROTC at the University could assist), march directly down the hill, and forcibly annex the Town of Hadley. This would add substantially to our commercial tax base while providing us with valuable agricultural and waterfront property. The likelihood that there are more gun owners in Hadley than in Amherst should not deter us. Be of stout heart.

Pretty wacky, I know. But both fantasy and reality require outside assistance to move toward fiscal sustainability. The state grants the town new taxing authority. A rich benefactor comes to town. Neighboring towns join forces to work together on common problems.

It’s this last case that points the way to a new path. Not through conquest, but through regional cooperation. The accident of having a big state institution or less valuable property should not determine a town’s ability to offer and pay for public services. Equity and efficiency demand a shared, regional approach to governance. And for Amherst that means re-creating Hampshire County government. What that would entail, and promise, will be the subject of a future article.

In their own words

By Sarah Marshall

On November 2, Amherst voters will be asked whether they affirm the vote taken by our Town Council on April 5, 2021 to proceed with the Jones Library expansion and renovation project by appropriating and authorizing borrowing of the necessary funds.

In preparation, all voters would do well to read or listen to the remarks that Councilors made immediately before their important April vote, because they lay out the important considerations that were worked through in extensive meetings of the Council, the Finance Committee, the Library Board of Trustees, and public forums. To that end, we are adding a new page, “Councilors’ statements on the Jones Library project,” on which each Councilor’s remarks are fully presented. In the rest of today’s post, we give excerpts in the order in which Councilors spoke at the public meeting.

Cathy Schoen

[Part] of it is an interest-free loan that will be repaid by the Trustees if they can get the pledges. So we have to hope that that will happen, and we have an Memorandum of Understanding [with the Trustees of the Jones Library] that we can tap into the endowment fund or potentially put a lien on the building but really we don’t have this secured. . . What has always concerned me – I love the Library and want it to be renovated.  I think it needs repairs but I think it is a high cost risk and no matter how many questions I ask I still have uncertainty that we will actually keep our share to what is. . . 

Mandi Jo Hanneke

A yes vote helps us meet the Climate Action Goals we adopted in 2019 by getting rid of the fossil-fuel heating system and dramatically improving the energy efficiency in one of our largest public buildings. A yes vote helps our future economic health and well-being by bringing more visitors to town. A yes vote addresses social justice in our society . . .A yes vote is financially prudent . . . a yes vote ensures that the building will serve our residents over the next 50 years. . .

Darcy Dumont

The fact that our own Finance Committee didn’t make an affirmative recommendation was concerning to me. . . To me, the library expansion is not a need, it’s a want.  I am afraid that a vote to fund this major project will convince folks to vote against the school project when the school override vote comes up. . . we need to be factoring in our new goals of racial equity and climate action. . . Additionally, I agree with the suggestion that we should try to design any library expansion or any municipal building so that it also gives our town a climate resilience hub. . .

Evan Ross

But climate action goals and a climate action plan are only valuable if they are followed by action. So approving this project would be the most significant action this Council will take on climate. . .This project helps us take a tangible step towards our climate action goals and sends a strong message to our community that we are serious about achieving those goals, whereas forfeiting this opportunity now will only make it more difficult down the road to achieve those adopted goals. . . if you are someone who says “the library works fine as is,” if you are someone who sees this project as a want and not a need, consider that is in part because of your privilege and that maybe this project isn’t for you.

Dorothy Pam

I feel very proud of the work that many people on this Council have done in making us come up with a better plan or helping us to encourage changes in design, and I think that we have come to a place now where it is prudent to go forward. . .[After the pandemic} we are hoping to come together as a civil, social, intellectual, political body again and the library is going to be, I think, the place where we are going to do it. . .So we have this library right in the heart of downtown and we are hoping for a reawakening of our town, of our society and at this moment having gone through the budgets at some point you just have to take things on faith, and I am going to make the leap of faith and trust that the work and the numbers that we have been shown are accurate. . .

Andy Steinberg

One comment was made that the Finance Committee did not make recommendations and something should be read into that, and I want to make it clear that that is absolutely not the case. We were asked not to make a recommendation. . . The reality is that the repair costs are going to be pretty much the same as the cost the town will ultimately have to bear. And . . . I also wanted to respond to the assertion made earlier that we are taking on a huge risk. I don’t think we are taking on a huge risk. . . 

Pat De Angelis

I acknowledge that voting yes is taking risks . . .But not doing this project poses risks as well: piecemeal repairs that will cost almost as much as  renovation/expansion, losing state funding and losing credibility with state funders, ongoing impacts to English Language Learners, low income residents . . .

Steve Schreiber

Libraries are the most democratic buildings; town commons are also democratic; but libraries literally the most democratic institution invented in this country. . . I want to address one tenet:  the greenest building is the one that is already built. Another tenet is – Cash for Clunkers. . .  I see this [library project] as a Cash for Clunkers on steroids. It’s something that serves the entire community, it’s all about the social capital as opposed to electric vehicles which are all about the individual. . . 

Sarah Swartz

I guess I’m going to go out of this Council speaking for the middle class, which I don’t think anybody has addressed. We’ve heard from people that there are young rich families who would like to settle here and they can pay these taxes and this is what they want. . . So for me, we are looking at these projects and I have to say it seems like we are taking a very expensive one first . . . I am concerned about people being able to stay in town, and I do not believe that middle class people in five years will be able to, and I’m going to vote against the project, much as I love the library. . .

George Ryan

A library today is so much more than a place to house books. It is a key community resource that serves us in so many ways. Much like the Amherst of Samuel Minot Jones’s day, we too are emerging from a global pandemic.  Like them, we need now more than ever, as Dorothy suggested, to believe in the future and the possibilities of our town. We cannot be afraid. We need to provide those who come after us the tools they will need to ensure that this town continues to prosper and to flourish. Like Samuel Minot Jones, now is the time for vision and for courage. . .

Shalini Bahl-Milne

Two things I want to add to the conversation. One is something that Todd Holland, an engineer, stated earlier – that most of the arguing can lead to inaction and inaction is the only wrong move today. . . Something that Sarah talked about, and we are hearing from a lot of residents, is the high property taxes and the burden this would put. As George has mentioned, we have a plan, and yes it could go off, but we do have one plan. And the other part is the library is part of that vision, it is part of the solution, it is not going to increase our property taxes. We need to solve that problem of high property taxes but not by saying no to the library. . .

Lynn Griesemer

While this may come as a surprise to many of you, I began the process of reviewing the Jones Library proposal to the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners as a skeptic. However, after two years of helping to manage the process of bringing this vote to the Town Council, I have become supportive of accepting the MBLC grant, allowing the Jones Library to do a much-needed renovation and expansion. . .  I want you to make sure you hear this message loud and clear, let me state it without equivocation, that as long as I have anything to say about it, there will be no more money than what we are voting tonight. This is all you get. And, we will not favor you in future operating budgets. The Town will not allow cost overruns. . .

Alisa Brewer

[I want to share a] direct quote from one of the many emails we have received which I thought summarized things extremely well from my point of view. Which was that to refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective. . . We are not expecting Friends of the elementary school,  Friends of the DPW, or Friends of the fire station to raise a single penny towards any of those facilities. Yet the Friends of the Jones Library has made a large commitment, has already seen quite a bit of results with that commitment even without our vote . . .

Moving Amherst’s 6th-graders is a good idea – and gets us a new school

By Anastasia Ordonez

“I’ve been hearing rumors that the district might be moving the 6th grade to the middle school. What’s the big deal, and why now?” 

The rumors are true, and it’s a fair question posed to me recently by an Amherst parent as we walked our dogs through Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. Questions like this have been popping up lately as people are reminded of key decisions the School Committees must make soon to reduce crowding in our elementary schools and prepare for a new school building project.

Personally, I’m thrilled by the idea of my fifth grader joining his brother in middle school and getting three years there to learn the ropes instead of just two. Middle school is hard, and right now, our district’s kids only get two years to figure out how to manage more homework and independent study habits before they get pushed into high school. But I also get that some parents are worried and feel like the timeline for this decision is too quick, even if they agree with the basic idea of a move. 

Thankfully, this conversation is not new, and our district has done a lot of work to get to this point. (Note that this upcoming decision only affects Amherst schools – each town in the regional district will eventually make its own decision about whether to move their sixth grade to the middle school.) The question was first examined publicly about ten years ago, when enrollment in the middle school had started to decline. More recently, the question came back up in relation to the proposed building project to replace both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools. The sixth grade must move if we a) want a new, but smaller, building to replace both schools, and b) we want the state’s Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help pay for it.

The MSBA confirmed this last December when they said they would approve either one kindergarten through sixth grade building of 320 students, or a kindergarten through fifth grade building of 575 students. The K-6 option of 320 students is basically a replacement for just Fort River at current enrollment levels, whereas a K-5 option would replace both Fort River and Wildwood schools simultaneously. 

There are several reasons why we shouldn’t want a 320-student building. A Fort River-only replacement won’t work because we cannot afford to replace Wildwood on our own without state aid. And who wants to make Wildwood students and teachers wait years to replace their failing school building when we have a great alternative now? 

Also, a building for 320 students is simply not big enough to accommodate our needs. Caminantes, the new Spanish-English dual language immersion program at Fort River, requires two Caminantes classes and at least one non-Caminantes class per grade, which translates into 420 students for a K-6 building. And Fort River and Wildwood have lost usable class space due to COVID social distancing requirements, as discussed this summer (page 13) by the School Committee.

Since the question of moving the sixth grade has come up in the past, the district undertook a feasibility study in 2019 to research whether there would be enough room at the middle school to add the sixth grade and how much it would cost. They even examined the high school as an alternative, but ultimately found that the middle school made more financial sense and would be cost-neutral.

Moving the sixth grade to the middle school has several developmental benefits for our students, too. 

A Middle School Grade Span Advisory Group — consisting of teachers, parents, and community members — was formed in 2019 to study the educational and social-emotional needs of middle schoolers, and their final report was shared with the Regional School Committee. The report shared the pros and cons of a move but highlighted support from teachers, who know that the educational and developmental needs of middle school-aged children are better met in a dedicated middle school environment. Also, a 6-8 grade span is what most districts have in Massachusetts, meaning stronger curriculum options. 

Simply put, our students benefit from more time in middle school so they can get proper advising and educational support to transition to high school. Two years just doesn’t cut it for many kids, especially those with special needs or who just need more help.

Next Tuesday, the Amherst School Committee will hold its second public forum to hear from community members about whether they support this move. The Committee will then formally vote on Oct. 5 on whether the move should happen and when. Public comments should be made by 3 p.m. on Sept. 21 via email at mcdonalda@arps.org or by leaving a voicemail message for School Committee Chair Allison McDonald at 413-345-2949. You can also choose to make your public comments live during the public forum via Google Meet (watch agendas here for meeting link and instructions).

Change is hard. But we know after years of discussion and study that our current and future students need us to act decisively now to move these projects forward. I hope that you will join me in asking the Amherst School Committee to vote in favor of a sixth grade move on the timetable that best serves students, so that all our children can finally benefit from healthy school environments.

Housing for all – can we thread the needle?

By Sarah Marshall

Skyrocketing prices for buying or renting a home; a decreasing number of owner-occupied dwellings; scant opportunity for people in lower income ranges to live in Amherst; limited land on which to build any kind of housing — what can be done? Should something be done?

In mid-August, Amherst’s Town Council began discussing a proposed Comprehensive Housing Policy.  The draft policy (which you can read here) was developed over two years with the involvement of several Town committees and local housing experts. 

The proposed policy lays out five goals:

  • Promote greater pathways to home-ownership and integrated communities through increased supply of a diversity of housing types;
  • Increase the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing;
  • Create, update, and maintain safe, secure, and environmentally healthy housing;
  • Address climate sustainability and resiliency of housing stock, location, and construction;
  • Align and leverage municipal funding and other resources to support affordable housing.

The draft policy lays out numerous strategies to make progress towards these goals and describes how to measure progress.  The possible strategies include:

  • Enact zoning changes to permit or encourage lot division, cottages, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes, or redefining “family” and “unrelated individuals” within the bylaw;
  • Provide incentives for meeting energy efficiency standards in new construction;
  • Waive, reduce, or rebate various fees for construction of affordable housing;
  • Adopt a derelict house bylaw and/or strengthen the rental registration bylaw;
  • Develop funding so that existing housing can be made permanently affordable;
  • Use Town funds to buy private land for affordable housing projects;
  • Encourage UMass to increase on-campus student housing.

Councilors raised technical concerns, such as who would have responsibility for promoting and implementing the policy, whether zoning strategies are effectively endorsed by Council if they are listed as possibilities, and whether sustainability strategies are consistent with the recent report of the Energy and Climate Action Committee.

But much of the Council’s conversation addressed difficult and complex questions such as:

  • How big should Amherst get? Besides changes to the town’s “look,” how might the cost of services grow if the population increases substantially?
  • What are the cost implications to the Town budget of the suggested strategies?
  • The Town has little to no power to require UMass to build housing, so how useful is asking UMass to move more students from market-rate housing onto campus? Should we pressure the state legislature to devote more funds to UMass housing?
  • Most of Amherst’s open space is either owned by colleges and the University, protected conservation land, or too wet to support housing. Can we only add housing by densifying in existing areas?
  • If zoning choices of the past have inadvertently promoted conversion of single-family homes to rental units, what share of blame can be fairly put on UMass?
  • Should we just accept that Amherst is, or will be, affordable only to students and the very well off?

I am on record as favoring changes that increase the density of housing in village centers, consistent with our Master Plan. Many of these can be achieved at little cost to the Town yet would significantly increase our property tax revenue and increase the customer base for our local businesses.

But the goals and strategies regarding affordable housing (broadly defined) present more difficult decisions.  I think it is fair to say that for-profit developers (and property owners) will not deliberately lose money. The more expensive the Town’s requirements for new construction or rental properties, the less likely it is that rents or purchase prices can be held below the desired profit margin, or even cost, and the less likely the housing is to be “affordable.”  Laudable as the goals are of ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, lives in safe, well maintained, energy-efficient construction near public transportation, it seems to me pointless to depend on for-profit developers to build large numbers of such units. We can certainly impose many progressive requirements, so that any housing that is built or renovated meets our high standards, but the high cost may merely drive construction to less-demanding cities and towns, defeating the fundamental aim of a Comprehensive Housing Policy.

Because the great majority of affordable housing units are built and/or operated by non-profits and government agencies, or are poorly maintained private properties, perhaps some goals of the proposed policy would be most directly attained by devoting an increasing proportion of Amherst’s tax dollars to housing built, operated, purchased, subsidized, deed-restricted, or retrofitted by the Town, either on land purchased by the Town or re-purposed Town-owned property.  Two recent examples: the Town has purchased property on Belchertown Road with Community Preservation Act money to offer to a developer for affordable housing, and has declared the old East Street School to be surplus Town property that can also be made available for affordable housing.  But whether voters would support a greatly increased commitment at the ballot box is questionable, in my mind, especially when we want to ramp up spending on other Town priorities, such as climate change mitigation and a community responder program.

I do not know if Amherst’s combination of open space, buildable land, charm, and educational institutions makes it unique, but those factors definitely create enormous challenges to enlarging the spectrum of housing types and price points. Whether we can thread the needle to our satisfaction remains to be seen.

Want action on climate? On Nov. 2, vote “yes”

By Laura Draucker

[Editors’ note: Laura presented these comments at a public forum on the Jones Library expansion and renovation project in March; they are reprinted here with permission, in advance of the Nov. 2 election when we will be asked to affirm Town Council’s vote to approve the project. We have edited the comments lightly. Laura is chair of the Energy and Climate Action Committee but spoke on her own behalf, not for ECAC.]

The combustion of fossil fuels to create energy is the main cause of climate change and pollution that severely impacts human health and our environment. In Massachusetts, a third of our energy-related climate change-causing emissions are due to burning fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) in buildings. In fact, Massachusetts is one of ten states that account for more than 50% of climate emissions from buildings nation-wide (RMI, 2020).  If we are going to be successful in reducing our contributions to climate change, we need to work quickly and efficiently to get fossil fuels out of our buildings. It will not be easy.

So, with all due respect to the author of the often-quoted “the most sustainable building is the one that already exists,” this is not true when the existing building relies on fossil fuel. Our town libraries account for nearly 20% of the natural gas used by our municipal buildings (Amherst 2016 GHG Inventory, Figure 20). This is natural gas that not only emits carbon pollution in our town when used, but that leaks even more potent methane emissions as it is piped across the country. Natural gas extraction has ruined water supplies, landscapes, and lives.

The good news is that right now we have an opportunity to vote “yes” to state funding that will allow us to move the Jones Library away from natural gas. Not only that, but this funding will allow us to create a library more conducive to public use, with better temperature control, healthier air, and improved plumbing. Furthermore, we will be able to create a library that will finally be accessible and functional for a larger portion of our community.  This feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the town to tick off so many boxes. 

Just moving away from natural gas is a huge climate win in my book. But in addition to moving from natural gas and significantly reducing the energy use of the Jones Library (even with the larger size), the design for renovation and expansion of this building also considers the climate impacts of the building materials and construction.  This is in recognition of the fact that new materials do have an environmental impact, and we need to make sure the new design has a lower climate footprint than the current library. It will. 

Could this design go further in addressing climate concerns? Sure, and this is true of any design aiming to solve many problems and please as many people as possible. Perhaps the current design could save even more energy with a different approach to day lighting, or maybe some of the operational savings due to a more efficient building could be reserved to fund another climate action in town. These are all things that can be discussed and debated after voting yes and accepting the state funding. Do not throw away this opportunity by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Each year we continue to operate the Jones Library as-is, we emit more pollution and saddle the future generation of Amherst with a more expensive problem. I feel strongly that voting “no” on this project is a vote against climate action and will negatively impact our town’s ability to meet our climate action goals, going against the needs and desires of many in town.   

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.

Who Owns Amherst’s Future?

By Sarah Marshall

Amherst residents are passionate about what they want and don’t want, from the look of the downtown, residential, and rural landscapes, to the types of housing that can or should be built (and for whom), to our budget priorities.

I have many times heard comments that begin, “When I moved here 40 years ago,” or “When I first came to Amherst…” Frequently, the commenters lament the various changes that have occurred or are proposed. Some of these complaints target new apartment buildings (existing and proposed) in Amherst Center, or the loss of downtown grocery stores, hardware stores, small local businesses, and beloved restaurants.  Such commenters often explicitly demand that Amherst be preserved as it is or restored to what it was. I sympathize with this view, because much of Amherst’s built and natural environments are lovely.

Accompanying this desire to keep-everything-as-it-is, many complain about the influx of undergraduates and graduate students, the decline of families looking to put down roots here, and the high cost of housing.  The influx of students is sometimes blamed for loss of businesses that the long-timers miss and our decreasing elementary and secondary school populations. In my view, the causes of these trends are multiple, and blaming the University of Massachusetts for our woes is an unhelpful simplification.  Even if the University is the cause of our woes, it will not be leaving Amherst any time soon, and we need to look to other solutions.

As we debate, I wonder:

Whose interests should we be prioritizing as we make decisions that will affect the town for the next 20 years or more?  The interests of property owners who have lived here the longest?  The wealthiest?  The poorest?  The loudest? The people who want to live in Amherst but cannot, whatever their marital, educational, or economic status?

At what point does preservation of a small town’s look and feel limit our ability to provide services?  Does privileging quaintness, or the look and feel of the town, effectively create a financial burden that will limit our ability to maintain excellent schools and public services?

Does a preference for leafy, single-family residential areas, or a disdain for apartment buildings, effectively shut out people who “aren’t like us”? Does wanting things to stay the way they are make Amherst less welcoming to BIPOC people and people of moderate or low incomes?

Are we a small rural town, a college town, or a small city? Will we, or should we, become more like Northampton?

What do today’s residents owe tomorrow’s?  How did the generations before us prepare Amherst for its future? What are we willing to invest in?

Obviously, only the people who do live here can vote, but I wonder if we should think harder about the people who are not here yet, and be willing to lose a bit of what we love in order to welcome them into the community.

In my view, Amherst, like businesses in the early days of the internet, will wither if it does not adapt to new pressures and needs. Attempting to force a model of the past onto our present situation will hurt us in the long run.

What do you think?