Music and performance venue planned for downtown

By Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe

Imagine a place in downtown Amherst where you can hear a jazz band play on a stage with first-class sound and lighting, while patrons sit at tables enjoying beverages prepared by skillful bartenders.

This place might also be the site of a poetry slam for college students. It might attract nationally known musical artists, attracting people from all over western Massachusetts. It could host a science night that brings together families and faculty from local colleges and universities. How about a place where you could hear TED talks? Or high school ensembles sharing their talents? Or see the work of local artists?

The 4,060-square-foot venue – on the upper level of the former High Horse at 44 North Pleasant Street – will be called The Drake in honor of the former hotel and bar at 85 Amity St. that was converted to apartments in 1985. Its memory has been kept alive by the graffiti on the back of the Amherst Center’s brick facade reading “Save the Drake; For Willy! For Humanity!” (Willie Whitfield was the Drake’s bartender.)

As Gabrielle Gould, director of Amherst’s Business Improvement District (BID), showed us around the site and described plans for the Drake, our view of piles of old insulation, layers of concrete dust, electrical conduits sticking up from the floor, random junk and disgusting old carpeting was replaced by her vision of an attractive venue alive with music and chatter.

“I want to flood the downtown with arts and culture and make it destination-worthy,” she told us. “No town can thrive unless its downtown thrives.” Gould envisions several layouts that could accommodate up to 200 people for music and dancing or 185 people for jazz or chamber music concerts. It will have a lounge area in the back where friends can chat without shouting over the music, she said. “You could meet the love of your life on the dance floor and then go sit there with martinis.”

The Drake will have a bar, perhaps with different cocktail menus depending on the type of show and audience, but will not be open when there’s no programming. Renowned Lincoln Allen, formerly of the Alvah Stone, will be the bar manager. The Drake will not offer food, as the goal is to attract people to downtown Amherst who then patronize existing restaurants. Gould has talked to restaurant owners about a cooperative system of charging customers.

The plan is starting to take shape. The Downtown Amherst Foundation, a non-profit entity established by the BID, recently received a $175,000 state grant. That pilot grant enabled the project to negotiate and pay for a three- year lease from landlord Barry Roberts, to hire Kuhn-Riddle Architects to draft the layout and design, and to contract with Tiger Web for web design and ticketing system.

Gould is working with Laudable Productions to book artists. The BID itself has donated funds toward the lighting and sound systems developed by Klondike Sound. Roberts and the Foundation are working with W.S. Pickering & Son on a new HVAC system.

Finally, Ludlow-based sculptor Kamil Peters, designer of the High Horse logo and the cow sculpture on North Pleasant Street, will create artwork.

According to Gould, the timing is right for this venture. Downtown Amherst could benefit from the economic boost that such an attractive venue could provide, and many artists are unhappy with the performance spaces of similar size in Northampton.

And the project is more than a pipedream. Landlord Roberts supports it, and Rep. James McGovern said on a recent tour of the site that this is exactly that kind of project that the federal recovery money should be used for. The Downtown Amherst Foundation has set up a Patronicity site that had raised more than $32,000 and has received a $10,000 matching grant from the Mill District. The foundation is also applying to the Town of Amherst for $300,000 from the millions of dollars we’re receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act.

But where would all these people coming from out of town for the musical shows, not to mention to the Amherst Cinema, park their cars? Gould supports the construction of a parking garage behind the CVS. (A zoning change that would enable this is due to come before the Town Council soon.) It will be a great day when we need to build a garage because we have so many visitors, she said. But the Drake will not wait.

What the Drake hopes to supply – an inviting, family-friendly music and performance venue – has topped every wish list on every survey of what Amherst needs for the past 10 years, Gould said. Depending on how rapidly funds are raised, the Drake could open sometime this winter.


We can’t wait!


To learn more, visit https://downtownamherstfoundation.org/thedrake and the
Patronicity site, https://www.patronicity.com/projectthe_drake__downtown_amherst_live_music_venue

Editors’ note #9: Greeney back on ballot, gets prime positioning

Robert Greeney has rescinded his withdrawal of candidacy for an at-large seat on the Town Council, and so his name will appear on the ballot on Election Day Nov. 2 after all.

Greeney filed the required number of signatures with the town clerk on Sept. 13, but withdrew his name from the ballot on Sept. 27. On Sept. 29, the day before the deadline, he rescinded that withdrawal.

Town Clerk Susan Audette said she checked with town counsel to make sure that, despite the unusual circumstances, it was legal to include Greeney’s name on the ballot

Greeney was a candidate for an at-large seat in the first Town Council election three years ago. He came in last of the six candidates, receiving 1,982 votes. The three candidates who were elected to at-large seats received more than 4,000 votes each.

When Audette drew lots for ballot position on Friday, Greeney’s name was the first one drawn. So his name will be the first one voters see on Nov. 2.

— Nick Grabbe

Downtown businesses seek renaissance

By Nick Grabbe

We lost Judie’s, Bart’s Ice Cream and the Lone Wolf during the pandemic. Amherst Yoga, the High Horse and M&M Links are also gone. Head Games, Amherst Barbers and Lit are all in the past. Amherst Copy & Designworks has relocated to Hadley.

A series of microgrants helped keep other struggling downtown businesses afloat during the pandemic, paid for mostly with private fundraising. A.J. Hastings’ business was down 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and Amherst Books’ business was down even more.

But now things are looking up. Negotiations to bring a food store and a music and performance venue to downtown Amherst are under way. Mexcalito’s taco bar has opened where Shiru and Rao’s Coffee used to be, and Garcia’s restaurant is opening soon at the former Bertucci’s location. The Spoke, La Veracruzana and Go Berry are expanding their offerings, and two new restaurants called Protocol and Hazel’s Kitchen are preparing menus. Downtown is even getting a lingerie shop on Main Street called Art of Intimates.

The post-pandemic renaissance in downtown Amherst was recently highlighted on Capitol Hill by Mike Kenneally, the Massachusetts secretary of housing and economic development. Kenneally held up Amherst as a model of a town addressing the economic challenges created by the pandemic.

To learn more about these downtown initiatives, I sat down with Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District, and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. They said that although much has been accomplished, some key decisions are coming up.

“It’s amazing what we could create here,” said Gould. “The forward momentum could proceed if politics doesn’t get in the way.”

Amherst has always taken comfort in the stability provided by the University of Massachusetts and the colleges, and when they were mostly shut down during the pandemic, we were reminded of how vital they are to the local economy. Now UMass is expanding its retail and restaurant offerings on campus, creating a new challenge for downtown businesses.

One answer is to bring more people to town. Using a $116,655 state grant, the Chamber has launched a marketing campaign to draw people from outside the area to Amherst’s hiking trails and museums as well as our campuses. A video promoting tourism on digital platforms and showing things to do here has had two million views, Pazmany said.

“The fact is, this is an incredibly beautiful place to live and visit and should be a destination for people,” said Gould. “The goal is to have people be here for more than a dropoff of students.”

The popular new playground at Kendrick Park already provides a destination for parents of young children. Plans for a live music and performance space at the former High Horse site will be detailed in a future post on this blog. Outdoor dining is due to continue next year.

Naomi Darling & Ray K Mann

Gould presented plans for a bandshell on the Town Common – to be paid for by the non-profit Downtown Amherst Foundation – to a supportive Town Council on Monday. And the project to beautify the northern part of the Town Common is proceeding.

The BID engaged a consultancy called Civic Moxie to advise on strategies for pandemic recovery. Its recommendations included investing in arts and culture, making zoning more business-friendly, and helping to navigate the permitting process at Town Hall.

But a complete renaissance “hangs in the balance,” Gould said. The election on Nov. 2 will determine whether the Jones Library expansion and renovation project can proceed and whether there will be a two-thirds majority on the Town Council for zoning changes to revitalize downtown. The Town Council will vote on a proposed zoning change would make possible a parking garage behind the CVS store. More spaces are due to be created on the eastern side of North Pleasant Street through angled parking. Gould supports all these initiatives.

There will never again be a full supermarket in downtown Amherst, but there could be enough people living downtown to support a food store, Gould said. Negotiations are ongoing with a business seeking to operate a store selling dairy, fish, meat, eggs and other food supplies at a specific location.

“Talk about a game-changer,” Gould said.

The two controversial five-story apartment buildings in the northern part of downtown have provided an increased density that promotes commerce, she said. Graduate students are stepping outside these buildings to go to Henion’s bakery, and young professors are bringing their shoes to Paul’s shoe repair store, she said.

“We could turn this into a highly-sought-after place to visit, to live, retire and raise families,” Gould said. “But it would be hard to convince business owners to come to a downtown that’s anti-development.”

Climate change: What is our town doing?

By Sarah Marshall

Climate change: what can our town do?

Several local efforts to increase renewable power generation, conserve energy, and/or reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions are under way. Some are recent and some are several years old, but all will soon bear fruit. Here is a roundup.

A landfill solar project will shortly begin construction at the closed landfill adjacent to the transfer station off Belchertown Road. Owned by Cypress Creek Renewables and built by Signal Energy, the system is expected to begin generating power (3.9 MW) next summer.  The Town, which will continue to own the land, will receive $78,000 per year over 30 years for leasing the land and in payments in lieu of taxes.  In addition, while the power will go on the grid, the Town will “offtake” all the generated electricity and pay a reduced rate.  This will cover most of the electricity demand of our municipal (but not school) buildings.

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

[Side note: A hitch in the planning (which began in 2012) meant that Town Council had to establish a conservation restriction on the other closed landfill, across the road, to compensate for loss of habitat for the grasshopper sparrow.  This restriction, voted in July of 2021, will be held by the Kestrel Land Trust. Plans for that southern part of the closed landfill now include not only Amherst’s first dog park but also 6-foot-wide trails around the conserved land.]

Commercial, industrial, and non-profit property owners such as houses of worship, as well as owners of multifamily housing of at least five units, will soon be able to participate in a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction program called Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE). The Council authorized the Town to participate in PACE in August of this year. This state-wide program allows qualifying property owners to submit plans for energy improvements that result in net energy savings and reductions in GHG emissions and, should their plans be approved, receive loans for these improvements, to be paid off over time via the local property taxation system.  The Town will add what is called a “betterment” to the property tax bill, so that the obligation to repay the loan transfers to the new owner if the property is sold.  Owners of property that is not currently taxed (e.g., a church) will only be able to participate if the Town can generate a property tax bill for them.

The PACE website, https://www.massdevelopment.com/pace, contains the details about what sorts of improvements may qualify. For example, windows or insulation may qualify, but appliances such as refrigerators do not. Importantly, the owner’s proposal must demonstrate that the savings in energy costs exceed the cost of the improvements over the lifetime of the improvements.  Interested? For questions about the Town’s role, contact Stephanie Ciccarello, the sustainability coordinator, at ciccarellos@amherstma.gov.  For questions about the PACE program, consult the website and/or contact Julie Cowan at jcowan@massdevelopment.com.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Amherst is making slow but steady progress on its plan to aggregate its town-wide electricity demand with that of Pelham and Northampton. The aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency and the development of local, renewable distributed energy resources. Back in November, 2017, Town Meeting directed the Town to consider participating in the state’s Community Choice Aggregation, with the goal of evaluating the pros and cons of such a program (you can see the ensuing task force’s report here).  After receiving the task force’s report, Town Council authorized the Town Manager to pursue Community Choice Aggregation.  Stephanie Ciccarello reports that once the chief executives of each town sign a contract with the chosen consultant – expected within the next two months – that firm will begin developing the specific aggregation plan. Residents will be invited into a public participation process. Meanwhile, an advisory group has been developing a Joint Powers Entity with funding secured by State Sen. Jo Comerford and State Rep. Mindy Domb.  The JPE, which should be established soon, will house the CCA program.

CAARP

Last (but not least by any means), the Energy and Climate Action Committee, established by Town Council in 2019, issued its Climate Action, Adaptation, and Resilience Plan in June of this year (click here to access the graphics-heavy file).  It presents strategies to aid in achieving the goal of reducing GHG emissions in Amherst by 25% by 2025, compared to 2016 levels. I found two graphics (on p. 13) describing the 2016 baseline to be particularly noteworthy: the first indicates that 74% of emissions came from stationary energy sources, and within this sector, only 37% came from non-college, non-UMass sources. Moreover, only 1% of stationary emissions came from the municipal buildings covered by our recent zero-energy bylaw.

Reductions in GHG emissions can be made nevertheless in both the non-campus stationary emissions sector (primarily emissions associated with buildings) and the (non-campus) transportation sector. All of the programs described above will help. But given that most of the non-campus emissions stem from the actions of individuals and businesses, much of the Town’s role will be to educate, encourage, and facilitate participation in existing programs or adoption of best practices in construction.

CAARP

I am sure readers can think of other local efforts to respond to the urgent demands of climate change, but I find these municipal efforts encouraging.

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.

Editors’ Note #8

We plan to begin election-related fact checking!  Please email us if you read or hear, first-hand, incorrect or suspect public statements from candidates or groups. You must be able to document who, what, when, and where, and provide your name, and if you can document the correct information, please send it also. Be sure to distinguish statements of fact and statements of opinion, and allow for some campaign hyperbole. No anonymous tips! (But we won’t post your name.) And no guarantee that we can or will choose to respond. If we learn of errors worthy of correction, we will begin a Fact-check page.

This is new for us so we will see how it goes.

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.

Policing alternative: how it would work

Editor’s Note: A public forum on this program will be held this Thursday, Sept. 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. See end of this post for Zoom information.

By Bernie Kubiak

In response to concerns about policing in Amherst, a Community Safety Working Group was convened by the Town Manager and endorsed by the Town Council. The group’s charge is to study the public safety services provided by the Amherst Police Department to ensure racial equity, recommend reforms to organizational and oversight structures, and examine existing Town funding priorities for community safety. Underpinning the committee’s work is a research report prepared by the 7 Generations Movement Collective (7GenMC), contracted for by the Town.

The working group’s intention is to make recommendations that are anti-racist and equitable, and propose preventive services that reduce the need for public safety involvement. Their initial report contains several recommendations, among them:

  1. Create a “Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service” (CRESS) program;
  2. Create an Amherst Resident Oversight Board;
  3. Create a Town Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion;
  4. Develop a Youth Empowerment Center and a BIPOC cultural center;
  5. Reduce the size of the Amherst Police Department; and
  6. Continue the Community Safety Working Group.

One recommendation under active development is the CRESS program, a variation on the theme set by CAHOOTS in Eugene, Ore. In operation for almost 30 years, CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) is a mobile crisis intervention program that assists the Police Department by taking social services calls, including crisis counseling, where there is no apparent need for an armed officer.

CAHOOTS is funded through the police budget. There is widespread agreement that CAHOOTS, by providing trained crisis management staff, has worked to reduce police violence, and it is supported by local law enforcement. Eugene has a population of around 170,000, and the program’s budget is $2 million a year.

The CRESS proposal, which is seen as helping to dismantle systemic racism, sets out a number of elements: two two-person multi-racial teams, available on a 24/7 basis, operating independently of the Police Department but cooperating with it. CRESS teams could be sent out either from the Town’s Communications Center or by a separate CRESS-staffed dispatch center. Team members are to be Town employees, supported by program supervisors and a director.

CRESS teams would be the first responders in situations that do not involve violence or serious criminal activity. They would address homeless individuals, intoxication/substance abuse, mental health crises, trespassing, and wellness checks. They would be available to intervene in the schools as well. The responders could not order treatment or compliance and would rely on the police if violence occurs.

The working group’s report calls for the program to be fully operational by 2022. Both the Town Manager and the Council support the goal, but putting the program as described in place will be a challenge. The most obvious difficulty is the program’s proposed first-year cost of $2.8 million for 26 staff, 12 of them responders (at four staff per shift). The proposal also calls for a separate 24/7 dispatch operation that would add to the overall costs. While the Town’s pay scales were used to determine salaries, no explanation was given as to how salary levels and step raises were determined.

But only $475,000 has been identified to fund a startup, with $180,000 reallocated from the police budget (two unfilled patrol positions) and targeted for initial staff hires (program director and four responders). Planning, training, consults, and equipment are budgeted at $250,000 from Rescue Plan Act funding. An estimated $45,000 for benefits would have to be made up, and may be covered through a $90,000 earmark in the recently passed state budget.

The Town Manager is optimistic that grant funds can be obtained, and the Council insists that a way to fund eight responders be found. One way to fund the program would be to reduce the size of the Police Department. The 7GenMC report suggests moving from a staffing level of 44 to 25 over five years, by abandoning the community policing model and shifting to a more reactive approach.

The CRESS teams are projected to reduce the number of calls managed by the police. The question is how much of a reduction would actually occur, given that no substantial assessment of police activity was available when the report was written. That assessment was promised but has yet to be published. The current year’s operating budget for the police (not including facility or communications center costs) is $5.18 million, so a fully functional CRESS program would amount to slightly more than half of the police budget.

There is much to be worked out to bring a community responder program into operation. Costs can be reduced by eliminating the proposed separate dispatch system. The Public Safety Communications Center could be used to dispatch non-police teams, eliminating the need for staffing a second center (and the confusion that could come from having two). Having comprehensive job descriptions for CRESS staff would allow an accurate determination of salaries. Agreement on the nature of CRESS activities and the impact on police operations would allow a more precise determination of staffing needs. Purchasing the services rather than creating a new town department might be considered as well.

The Town Manager envisions an implementation team composed of the Police and Fire Chiefs, Finance Director, Human Resources, working group representatives and others. The team, Town Hall, and Town Council have a considerable amount of work to do to implement a community responder program and find a path to financial sustainability.

To participate in the Sept. 9 forum, go to: https://amherstma.zoom.us/s/85733815330#success Or join by phone: 253-215-8782 or 346-248-7799 Webinar ID: 857 3381 5330
Amherst, MA 01002

Editors’ note

We will launch a new page, Candidate Information and Events, next week.  Since the nomination period has not yet closed and campaigns are just getting started, content will be light at first but will grow over time. Candidates and groups are invited to submit information to us (theamherstcurrent@gmail.com) that meets requirements detailed on the page. For example, we will list events that are open to all candidates (for Town Council, at least all candidates for a district), candidate web pages and social media links, and links to any surveys sent to all candidates.

Deciphering downtown parking

By Nick Grabbe

Visitors to Amherst often drive up and down North Pleasant and Main Streets looking for a parking space, not knowing that less expensive spaces are often available on Spring Street.

Residents going out to a restaurant can get frustrated looking for a parking space, not knowing that the blue-sign spaces on the periphery, reserved for those with permits, become available to anyone after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

And many business owners want to see a garage built behind CVS, in spite of the fierce battles over the Boltwood Walk garage in the 1990s and the difficulties of design, financing and operation.

Parking rules in downtown Amherst can be hard to understand. There are five categories of public parking, with different rates per hour, time limits and enforcement hours. Many visitors don’t know what the rules are for the places they’ve parked until they look at the places to pay. Parking is also controversial, with multiple constituencies, all pushing for their own interests.

So, with downtown traffic returning to something resembling “normal” in September, I consulted several local experts to get answers to some common questions.

Q. What are the five areas with different parking rates, time limits and enforcement hours?

A. Meters on North Pleasant, Main and Amity Streets charge $1 an hour, with a two-hour limit from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The lots at Boltwood Walk, Amity Street and Main Street are similar, but with four-hour time limits. To see those areas and the three other categories, check out this map:

Q. Why the differences? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have the same rates, limits and enforcement for all public parking spaces?

A. The system provides incentives for parking in underutilized lots and spreads out parking demand by charging more for the more desirable spaces close to downtown. There is some evidence that the system has been successful in doing this. But town officials recognize that the complexity can be confusing, and are planning to recommend changes next year, or at least better ways to explain the rules.

Q. Where are the parking spaces that are often available but most people don’t know about?

A. The “Ann Whalen lot” off Kellogg Avenue, Sellen Street, the Town Hall lot and the lower level of the Boltwood Walk garage are four. You can nominate others by posting a comment below.

Q. Will there be a move to build a parking garage behind CVS?

A. The Planning Board and a Town Council subcommittee are expected to make recommendations to the full Council as early as mid-September about a zoning change that would enable a garage there — but would not cause it to be built.

Q. Are there problems in building a garage there?

A. Many. Finding private companies interested in building it and operating it. Figuring out how to avoid having cars waiting in line to enter the garage backing up onto the sidewalk on North Pleasant Street. Avoiding the privately owned land directly behind CVS or acquiring it. Persuading or overruling opponents living on North Prospect Street. The Amherst garage wars in the 1990s were particularly nasty and resulted in a compromise on Boltwood Walk, a project with a very high cost per number of spaces gained.

Q. Why have a second garage at all?

A. Some business owners feel there’s a perception among visitors that parking is scarce, and fear that shoppers will prefer to use the Hadley stores that provide free parking. And downtown is due to lose parking spaces with the redesign of the North Common.

Q. At what times is it hardest to find a parking space?

A. A survey showed them to be 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, when UMass and the colleges are in session.

Q. Aren’t there a lot of private parking spaces downtown that are underutilized?

A. There are an estimated 1,962 private spaces. Town officials have approached landowners to see if there’s a way to incentivize sharing some of these spaces with the public.

Q. What cultural change would make it easier for everyone to find a place to park?

A. A willingness to park in a place that requires a short walk to one’s destination.

Q. What’s the purpose of the 356 parking spaces that require permits?

A. Partly to convince downtown employees to park on the periphery weekdays by charging a very low annual fee. Some still insist on parking on the street near their destination and “feeding” the meter beyond the time limit. Town officials are seeking data on whether Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant St. have stressed the permit parking system.

Q. Does money from parking fees, permits and tickets support other parts of Amherst’s government?

A. Parking is an “enterprise fund,” like the water and sewer funds, with costs paid by users and not taxes. The costs include enforcement personnel, maintenance, insurance and software.

Q. What do I do if I get a parking ticket?

A. You have to pay it within 21 days, either online, through the mail, or at the drop box outside Town Hall or on the first floor. You can also appeal it.

Q. What reasons do people give for appealing a parking ticket?

A. They say they typed their plate number wrong when paying at the kiosk, or they chose the wrong plate in their Parkmobile app. Some people say they didn’t see the signs saying they had to pay.

Q. Do the police ever immobilize cars that have outstanding parking tickets?

A. “Booting” was suspended during the pandemic but is due to resume soon. Cars with five tickets could be booted, and their owners have 24 hours to pay the tickets and a $25 removal fee, or the car is towed.

Q. What’s with the angled, back-in parking on the east side of North Pleasant Street?

A. It’s a trial designed to test back-in angled parking and help drivers become familiar with it before back-in parking is implemented on Main Street. The Town Council approved back-in angled parking on the south side of Main Street as part of the redesign of the North Common. The North Pleasant Street angled parking spaces were approved by the Council and will be removed in November. There is a proposal by the town manager and the Public Works department to add some angled spaces just west of Kendrick Park on North Pleasant Street to provide extra parking for the park.

These answers were based on information supplied by Finance Director Sean Mangano, Senior Planner Nate Malloy, and Transportation Advisory Committee Chair Tracy Zafian.

Can we afford four building projects? Yes! Here’s how

By Sarah Marshall

What is the Town’s plan for paying for the Jones Library expansion and renovation, a new or renovated elementary school, a new fire station, and a new DPW facility, all to be constructed over the next 10 years? Are we in for huge increases in our property tax bills? How can Amherst afford this infrastructure push? [Answers: Read on, No, and Read on.]

If you are nervous about undertaking so many significant projects, and worried about the Town Council’s appropriation of $35.3 million for just the Jones Library, or if you wonder whether we can build a school if we pursue the library expansion, please read to the end, because you should have a clear understanding of the ballot question you will see on Nov. 2.

First, a quick explanation of the Council’s April 2021 vote to appropriate $35.3 million for the Jones Library renovation and expansion project, which we will be asked to affirm on Nov. 2.  Much erroneous information has circulated about that vote, so it is time to set the record straight. Council’s “appropriation” amounts to authorization for the Town to borrow up to that amount of money. The “appropriation and borrowing authorization” language is standard for large construction projects – Town Meeting voted on such matters in the past. In addition, appropriated money is not limited to tax revenue but can include grants, donations, and other funds.

But why would the Town need to borrow $35.3 million, when the ultimate cost to Amherst will be $15.8 million?  First, Amherst will probably not borrow that much, but the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), which has granted almost $14 million to the project, asked Town Council to authorize borrowing for the total project cost. Second, because some funding may arrive after the bills are paid (for example, private donations and receipts from the sale of historic tax credits), the Town may need to borrow some money for which it will later be reimbursed. The Town will not be on the hook for a $35.3 million library project. Here is the table showing who will pay what, in the end:

Appropriation & Borrowing Authorization Order FY21-06C

  • MBLC Grant Contribution $13,871,314
  • Jones Library Inc. Trustees $ 5,656,576
  • Town’s share $15,751,810
  • Total $35,279,700

It is this set of numbers that you will see on the ballot.

But what about the Town’s share, $15.8 million? How will that be paid for? Will it prevent us from undertaking other projects?

Here it is useful to have a basic understanding of the plan developed by the Town’s Finance Department and presented to the Finance Committee and Council in February 2021. Town Council requested that Town staff develop a plan for financing all four major projects in a timely fashion, specifically to learn whether it is feasible for us to undertake them all in a way that voters are likely to support.

The ensuing financing plan (which indeed makes many assumptions) shows that the Town can afford to build the four projects without severely constraining our public services or ability to fund smaller capital projects such as sidewalk repairs and snowplow purchases, or by unreasonably burdening taxpayers. Basically, the plan is to borrow funds for three of the projects (Jones Library, Fire/EMS station, and a DPW facility) and to pay off the debt over time from our existing revenue streams, including grants and donations; only for a school project will taxes be raised for a limited time. We may have a couple of years of tight budgets, to be sure, as the projects begin, but several factors will work in our favor:

  • Low interest rates for loans overall,
  • The Town’s strong bond rating and financial record, which let us borrow at advantageous rates,
  • The Town’s strong cash reserves (i.e., savings), which can ease some of the early spikes in debt payments and, if necessary, contribute towards annual operating budgets,
  • Very low levels of Town debt currently, which will be entirely paid off within a few years,
  • Continued new growth in taxable real estate, which raises annual revenue and spreads excluded debt over more taxpayers,
  • Imposition of cost caps on each project, so that we know in advance what our total payments of principal will be,
  • Disciplined policy of directing a portion of property tax revenue to capital expenditures,
  • Conservative annual budgeting, which means that the Town typically has cash on hand at the end of the fiscal year that can be placed in reserve.

For a new elementary school, the financing plan envisions a debt exclusion override for the Town’s contribution (approximately half of the total cost will be contributed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority). This type of override raises property taxes only for the period while the debt is paid off; it does not permanently raise property taxes. Why an override for the school borrowing? Because voters approved an override for an elementary school project in 2016, and a majority of voters (but not the required 2/3) again supported the override after Town Meeting would not agree to the necessary borrowing, planners feel they are likely to support an override in the next year or so.

Delaying projects any further is likely to cost us more in the end, or give us less for the same price. The Finance Director, Sean Mangano, noted that an elementary school project, when it finally begins, will cost us substantially more than the project that was rejected several years ago. He also noted that continued delays require us to spend large sums on repairs to buildings that are at the end of their useful lives. The Town also should get the present projects completed and paid off before other parts of its infrastructure need to be significantly renovated or rebuilt several decades from now.

From a fiscal standpoint alone then, prudence demands that we voters stop arguing over design details, agree to compromise, and step up to our civic responsibility to maintain our public infrastructure, parts of which have deteriorated to dangerous and shameful degree. We need to say “Yes” on Nov. 2 to affirm Council’s vote to proceed with the Jones Library project and “Yes” in a year or so when a debt exclusion for the elementary school is put on the ballot. Financially, there is no better time to undertake this work.

[Note: You can find more information about the plan by clicking on the “Overview of the Four Major Capital Projects” page on the “Town Government 101” drop-down menu on this website.]

Students face housing squeeze

By Nick Grabbe

Joshua Driscoll has been searching for an apartment since April so that he can continue his master’s program at UMass in environmental conservation. He hasn’t found one.

“If you don’t respond within the first five minutes, it’s usually gone,” he said. “And even if it isn’t, there’s probably five or six other people looking at the apartment.”

Finding housing in Amherst in August is difficult, but this year is different. Frustrated students are staying in bed-and-breakfasts or hotels, looking for housing in Springfield and Northampton, making cold calls to apartment complexes and knocking on doors. Some have even offered more than the advertised rent or canceled plans to attend classes because they have no place to live.

Town Councilor Steve Schreiber brought up the problem at Monday’s Council meeting. He chairs the Architecture Department at UMass, and said he knows of a student who will not be able to start classes next month because he hasn’t been able to locate a room.

“It’s very alarming,” he told me. “In 16 years, I’ve never seen that.”

In addition to the lack of availability, many students are paying higher rents, an unsurprising development whenever demand exceeds supply.

I became aware of the situation when I received 78 email inquiries about a tiny room we rent out in our house a mile from the campus. So I asked some of the 77 students I didn’t rent it to about their housing search, and I tried to locate the reasons for the squeeze.

I learned that the challenges are most intense for graduate students coming to UMass from abroad, those seeking housing for just the fall semester, and those unfortunate souls who began their search this week.

Semih Boz is in the second year of a doctoral program in management, and spent last year taking classes remotely in his native Turkey. He arrived in Amherst a week ago, but has been looking for housing online every day since June. Landlords are reluctant to rent to anyone they have not met in person, he found.

He reached out to 30 to 40 people who were looking for a roommate, but found that more than 20 people were applying for each room. He suspects the problem is related to the pandemic, with students who were admitted last year but are just now coming to the area.

“I shouldn’t be dealing with all this because I have a very important exam next week that would define my fate in this career path, but I cannot find enough time to study,” he said.

William Harmelink said he applied to over a dozen places and did not hear back from any of them. “I actually had to withdraw from UMass this semester because the dorms are full and there’s nowhere to live off campus,” he said.

Shalom Sara Thomas is a visiting scholar who plans to be here for just the fall semester, and has found that property owners don’t want short-term renters. “I strongly believe that the UMass administration should take the initiative in creating a community that is more welcoming and student-oriented,” she said.

Josue Vaquerano, a Japanese major here for just a semester, has contemplated paying for 10 to 12 months of housing even though he needs only four. “It’s gotten to the point where that’s my only option or spend double that on a hotel or Airbnb,” he said.

“The situation with housing is extremely shocking, stressful and disappointing,” said a doctoral student from Uzbekistan who asked that I not use her name. She’s been doubling up with another international student in a tiny room while looking at apartments as far away as Springfield and Southampton. If she had known about the scarcity of housing, she would have accepted an offer from another university, she said.

Besides the pandemic, one likely cause for the housing squeeze is the UMass decision to demolish family housing at North Village and Lincoln Apartments. UMass is planning to create about 200 beds of graduate student housing on Massachusetts Avenue in 2023, and about 120 family housing units at the North Village site in 2022, according to spokesman Edward Blaguszewski. In addition, the Massachusetts Avenue development will include about 600 beds of undergraduate housing, he said.

There’s a trickle-down effect, said Schreiber, as graduate students with families take rentals that can’t then go to other students. And just as the pandemic has caused many people to reevaluate their jobs, it may have caused more students to seek out airy, less restricted places to live instead of dorms, he said.

It’s tempting to blame UMass for the shortage. But the reality is that it provides housing for 60 percent of undergraduates, Blaguszewski said. That’s a much higher rate than the Universities of Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. There just aren’t enough off-campus rentals.

He confirmed that the local housing market is “very tight this year.” He added, “Our Office of Off-Campus Housing is working daily with students and landlords to help identify housing opportunities, but it has been difficult.”

Blaguszewski cited the overall increase in housing prices, and the rise of remote work among new UMass graduates. “They may be staying in the area, having secured jobs that allow them to work remotely,” he said. “Other recent graduates may be extending their leases while looking for work.”

Another factor may be the many people leaving cities and moving to the area, said Tony Maroulis, the former UMass director of external relations and ex-Chamber of Commerce head.

Amherst is attracting more professionals, and more students want to live closer to campus instead of in Sunderland or Hadley, he said. Amherst needs more housing of all types, Maroulis said.

The dearth of housing validates the controversial Archipelago buildings at the northern end of downtown, he said. But the rents there are sky-high. A one-bedroom apartment at Kendrick Place, totaling 620 square feet, was going for an eye-popping $1,959 a month.

Still, Kendrick Place and the other Archipelago buildings, 1 East Pleasant Street and Olympia Place, are 100 percent “leased up,” according to a spokeswoman.

The housing squeeze, besides leading to longer commutes for students and less spending money, increases the incentive for speculators to buy houses and rent them out.

So the problem affects longtime residents as well as students, Schreiber said. “UMass is our biggest employer, and if that employer suffers, we all suffer,” he said.

Editor’s Note

Sarah Marshall, my partner on this blog, has taken out nomination papers for the post of Elector under the Oliver Smith Will, which will be on the ballot in the Nov. 2 election. I have concluded that it is not a conflict of interest for her to seek to serve the town in this capacity and still work with me on this blog, since the Oliver Smith Will does not involve issues that pertain to Town politics. Still, in our coverage of the upcoming election, we will avoid any mention of the Oliver Smith Will position.

— Nick Grabbe

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.   

So Many Budgets!

By Sarah Marshall

In my family, we have only one budget that accounts for all the money that comes in and goes out, and we have (almost) complete control of it.  I think that Amherst residents tend to assume that Amherst’s public budget is similar – there is one big pot of money and we have complete freedom to decide how to spend the funds. Certainly, this was my hazy assumption for many years. But it is not entirely true. If you have ever wished the Town spent its (our) money differently, it is worth reading on so you will know when and how to voice your opinion most effectively.

Amherst has, in effect, several budgets and funds.  Crucially, much of the money cannot be moved from one use to another during the fiscal year.  We have the Regional Schools budget, the Jones Library budget (which addresses all the Town’s public libraries), the Elementary Schools budget, the Community Preservation Act (CPA) fund, Enterprise funds (water, sewer, solid waste, and transportation), the Town (Municipal) budget, and a few others.  Adding to the confusion is imprecision in the term “Town Budget” – to some, it may refer to all aspects of spending on public services, while to others, it may refer to specific chunks of that spending that are within the control of the Town Manager.

Our local officials and managers make critical decisions early in the planning cycle, namely, what are the bottom-line contributions the Town proposes to make to the Regional and Elementary Schools and the Libraries.  It is at this point – generally in November – that significant shifts can be made instead of across-the-board increases or decreases. Once the elected leaders of those bodies – the school committees, for example – develop and pass their budgets, and they are subsequently passed by the Town Council, only those bodies have authority over their money.  The Town cannot take money out of the Elementary Schools budget during the fiscal year to buy new computers for the Department of Public Works, for example.

Amherst’s contribution to the Regional School budget (which funds the Middle and High Schools) depends heavily on the decisions made by Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, Amherst’s regional partners. Once Amherst votes its contribution, the Town has essentially no power to claw back money from the Regional Schools to use for, say, affordable housing. Similarly, the schools cannot reach into municipal funds.

The Enterprise funds represent the self-funded water, sewer, solid waste, and transportation operations. Even though they appear in the Municipal budget, these Town services are required to charge fees sufficient to cover their costs, and Enterprise funds cannot be raided to fund unrelated activities of the Town. Our water and sewer bills reflect the cost of those services.

The CPA fund receives a property tax surcharge, as well as some funding from the Commonwealth, that by law can only be spent on certain projects pertaining to historic preservation, community housing, recreation, and open space.  I recently heard someone complain that the Town was choosing to spend on the order of a million dollars on a renovation of the North Common and should instead fund the new Community Responder program.  Such a re-allocation is not possible, since the North Common renovation will be paid for almost entirely by CPA money that cannot be spent on town services.  In fact, the ability to apply CPA funds to the needs of Town buildings and properties frees money for services such as the Community Responder program, or at least avoids pitting these needs against each other.

During any fiscal year, the Town Manager has the authority to re-allocate funds within the Municipal budget, understood here to exclude all the operations and expenses discussed above.  For FY2022 (which began this July), that budget amounts to $25 million, out of the approximately $96 million that also includes the budgets for the schools, libraries, Enterprise funds, capital investments, and some other uses.

The relatively small fraction of total spending spent on municipal services managed by Town Hall can lead to problems of interpretation.  For example, I have heard people express dismay at the fact that our Public Safety Department accounts for 44% of the General Fund (the Municipal budget). That certainly seems disturbingly large if one assumes that public safety is simply police services.  In fact, comparable funds are spent on the Police and Fire Departments, the two major Public Safety services.  Furthermore, in comparison to our total public expenditures, Public Safety services account for just 12% of spending, with about 6% allotted to the Police Department.  Since our property tax payments and water and sewer bills contribute to all Town services, from police to schools to libraries to capital improvements, I think the latter comparisons are more informative.  Whether 6% is an appropriate level of funding for the Police Department is another matter.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

So, no, Amherst’s public budget does not allow nearly as much flexibility as my household enjoys. We can set our own rules and priorities and change them as we see fit but the Town is much more constrained.  Residents who want changes in the Town’s spending priorities need to figure out which elected body to speak to, and when.  Fortunately, in the fall, a budget calendar will be released, outlining the steps, responsibilities, votes, and opportunities for public input.  Anyone wanting to learn more about where our Town’s money comes from and where it goes can jump into the resources at https://www.amherstma.gov/78/Budget.  The calendar will also be posted there.  Residents can also email their Town Councilors, School Committees, Town Manager, and library Trustees at any time.

Vital to all, but getting no respect

By Nick Grabbe

What branch of Amherst government touches the lives of every resident, every day, and is housed in a deteriorating building – but gets less public support than the Jones Library and the elementary schools?

It’s Public Works, which keeps our water safe and plentiful, repairs our roads and sidewalks, mows the grass in our parks and athletic fields, and much more.

The old trolley maintenance barn off South Pleasant Street, where 45 Public Works employees work, would probably be condemned if it were a private building. Its physical problems are worse than the Jones Library or Wildwood or Fort River School, but they get less attention than these frequently visited buildings. The public seldom enters the Public Works building.

Instead of receiving support for a new building, Public Works is the target for a lot of citizen complaints. Here are some:

“These potholes! Driving in Amherst is like driving in a Third World country!”

“The plow didn’t push the snow back far enough!” or “The plow pushed the snow back too far!”

“Our teams are at risk of injury because you’re not mowing the grass often enough!”

“Why can’t you reopen the Take It or Leave It area at the transfer station?”

“You can’t put a new Public Works building near low-income people’s houses!”

(Responses to these complaints are below.)

Public Works also handles stormwater drainage, tree-trimming and removal, streetlights and traffic signals. It’s in charge of sewers, cemeteries, and even putting up those banners downtown over South Pleasant Street. That’s all a lot to ask of public employees working out of a substandard building.

The Public Works headquarters is more than a century old. The roof leaks, there are cracks in the brick masonry, there’s minimal insulation, and many of the windows have only one pane of glass. The building doesn’t meet code standards for safety and electricity.

Some employees who service the department’s 50 vehicles in the maintenance bays, which have inadequate ventilation, have reported elevated levels of iron in their blood, said Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring. And there isn’t adequate coverage for all the vehicles, leaving them exposed to the elements, shortening their life spans and requiring premature (and expensive) replacement. For photos showing some of these problems, go to https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/49521/1Pager-DPW-12-2-19?bidId=

Amherst officials have known for years that we need a new Public Works building. And now they have extra motivation, because its current site is the preferred location for a new fire station. “It’s a top priority,” Mooring said. But there have been two obstacles: funding and siting.

The original cost estimate for a new Public Works building was $38 million, but unlike the Jones Library renovation/expansion and a new elementary school, there will be no state money to help. All of it must be borrowed and paid back over time. (One sign of the lack of popular support for Public Works is that, unlike the school, no one is considering putting a new building to a vote.)

The projected cost has been reduced to $20 million, requiring a phasing-in of the new building. “We have a $38 million project and we’ve been told we have to put it into a $20 million box,” Mooring said.

The second obstacle is finding an appropriate site for a new building. Amherst College offered to donate a centrally located site, which would have saved a lot of money in land acquisition costs. But some neighbors objected to having trucks coming in and out close to their houses, so the Town Council abandoned that plan.

Officials then received four proposals from landowners who were willing to sell the Town a site, but each one had problems such as location, zoning and access, and all have been rejected. There’s a town-owned site off Pulpit Hill Road that is a Plan B, but it’s far away from South Amherst and has access problems, Mooring said.

“Locating a Public Works facility is challenging because of the needs of the facility – both size and location, zoning requirements, and the sensitivity to our many neighborhoods,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Amherst has been spending more money on road repair each year, but now those gains are offset by higher prices for asphalt, fuel and labor, Mooring said. Some extra money could come from the federal infrastructure bill. Roads that get the most traffic typically get the highest priority, but Mooring hopes to repair more neighborhood roads this next year.

The snowplow complaints frequently come from people who are new to town, and relate to access to mailboxes and plantings near the road, he said.

The record amount of rain that fell in July caused the grass to grow more quickly on soccer and Ultimate fields. So Mooring asked the parks crews to increase the frequency of mowing.

While the book shed at the transfer station, closed during the pandemic, has reopened, the Take It or Leave It area is not coming back, Mooring said. Too many people have been abandoning electronics and dirty kitchen appliances that have to be thrown out at a cost to the town, he said. (The solid waste fund, unlike the water and sewer funds, ran a surplus during the pandemic because so many people were throwing things out.)

At least Mooring isn’t hearing many complaints about a recent increase in water rates. Although the reservoirs and wells that supply water are now resupplied, there’s always the threat of a future drought. In the fall of 1980, the University of Massachusetts sent all its students home because the town couldn’t provide enough water. To remind employees, a shirt is displayed at the Public Works building reading “I survived the great Amherst water shortage.”

To a certain extent, complaints about Public Works come with the territory. My complaint is about the building we ask employees to work in.

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.

Editors’ Note

Last night, Town Council voted to put the Jones Library project on the Nov. 2 ballot. The ballot question will be, in essence, do you affirm Town Council’s vote of Apr. 5 to proceed with the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library? The exact language, including the approved summary, appears below. And remember that you can learn about the project at the Jones Library page under Town Government 101 in our menu.

 The following referendum question will appear on the November 2, 2021 Ballot.

QUESTION: Shall the following measure authorizing a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, as voted by the Town Council on April 5, 2021, be affirmed?

BE IT ORDERED by the Town Council of the Town of Amherst that: The Town appropriate $35,279,700 for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, and to meet this appropriation, authorize the Treasurer, with the approval of the Town Manager, to borrow said amount, under and pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 7, 8, or pursuant to any other enabling authority, and to issue bonds or notes of the Town therefore, which borrowing shall be reduced to the extent of any grants received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, funds received from The Jones Library, Incorporated in an amount no less than $5,656,576 which, in addition to the $1,000,000 previously appropriated under the Community Preservation Act, represents the Library’s share of the total project cost, and/or any other source to pay costs of this project; and, further, any premium received by the Town upon the sale of any bonds or notes approved by this vote, less any such premium applied to costs of issuance of such bonds or notes, may be applied to project costs approved by this vote with a reduction of borrowing authority therefore by a like amount in accordance with M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 20.

SUMMARY: On April 5, 2021, the Town Council voted with 10 in favor, 2 opposed, and 1 abstention, to authorize a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has awarded the Town a grant of approximately $13.8 million for this project with payments starting this year; approximately $5.7 million will be provided through private donations as set forth in an agreement with the Jones Library Board of Trustees; and $1.0 million was appropriated from the Community Preservation Act funds. With these funds secured, the Town’s share of the total project costs will be approximately $15.8 million. A “yes” vote on this question means that you affirm the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and want the project to continue. A “no” vote means that you reject the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and do not want the project to continue.

Why Amherst needs the Jones Library project ASAP

By Kent W. Faerber and Jan Klausner-Wise

The sad state of the main Jones Library facility and its inability to meet the needs of the 227,000 people who visit it each year have been apparent for more than a decade.


On April 5, 2021, members of the Town Council, empowered by Amherst’s new Charter and chosen in contested elections, overwhelmingly (10-2) approved a solution that would meet those needs at a cost to the Town of $15.8 million. Most of those voting for the project were elected on a platform that included support for it.


This solution was proposed by the Library Trustees, also elected by the voters of Amherst, including in two contested elections where slates of candidates who opposed it were defeated.


This decision came after a decade of planning, listening, revising, and innumerable presentations to those Trustees, their Feasibility Committee, their Sustainability Committee (charged with recommending features to make the building environmentally friendly), Town Meeting, the Historical Commission, the Community Preservation Act Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Town Council.


The deliberations were conducted at an extraordinary level of detail that would not be possible in a town-wide plebiscite. The Library’s website, https://www.joneslibrary.org/352/Jones-Building-Project, is a Niagara Falls of information developed during the course of it.


Everyone had an opportunity to be heard during this long process, and those who commented to the Town Council overwhelmingly voiced their support.


It is difficult to imagine an outcome arrived at with more legitimacy in a representative democracy.


The Council made its decision because the project, in a fiscally responsible way, solves a daunting problem of a central component of the Town’s civic infrastructure that has been neglected for too long.


The project will provide the spaces needed each year for the:
* 16,000 hours of ESL tutoring that take place in the Library, serving the 22% of
Amherst’s residents in whose home a language other than English is spoken;
* 25,000 times the library computer workstations are used by those who do not have
access to one, serving the 27% of Amherst’s residents in poverty;
* 1,000 times a library meeting room is requested to support the Town’s unique civic life;
* Programs for the 7,200 children and 5,000 adults who come to the library because it is the center of Amherst’s community; especially programs for teens who have no space of their own to attract them to the library;
* All in addition to the lending of 450,000 books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, musical instruments, eReaders, puppets, kits, etc.

The project will make one of the most used Town facilities accessible to those with physical limitations. It will also welcome those who are new to its library culture and are mystified by the present building’s rabbit warren of confusingly hard-to-find spaces, some of which feel uncomfortably unsafe.


It will preserve and restore one of the Town’s historic landmarks (including spaces in the original 1928 building not now accessible to the public), and provide secure protection for all of the holdings of the internationally recognized Special Collections – presently at risk from the building’s ancient HVAC system.


It will make the entire building one of the most climate-friendly in Town.


The cost to the Town is NOT $35.3 million. The state Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has committed $13.8 million to the project and the Library Trustees have pledged to raise $6.6 million (guaranteed by their $9 million endowment).


The net $15.8 million cost to the Town is approximately the same as a detailed, professional estimate of the cost to do only basic repairs required by almost 30 years of deferred maintenance, including bringing the building into required compliance with accessibility codes. Doing nothing is not an option. The Town must spend this amount if it wants to use the building for its library, and such amount, then, is not available for other purposes. For the same cost, the benefits of the proposed project could hardly stand in greater contrast.


The MBLC is ready to send the Town the first $2.7 of its $13.8 million grant; 100 early donors are ready to send the first payments on their pledges which total almost $1 million; $1 million in CPA funds are waiting to be used, and a Capital Campaign Committee is ready to resume its fundraising for the $6.6 million portion of the cost of the project. And, of course, the cost of the project continues to escalate as more time is wasted.


The Jones Library project should be allowed to proceed as soon as possible.

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.

A Historic Vote is Coming on a Long-overdue Elementary School

By Anastasia Ordonez

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) isn’t known for giving many second chances. So when they decided in 2019 to consider funding Amherst’s elementary school project after we had declined their help just three years earlier, it was a welcome surprise.

But this decision wasn’t just good luck. We worked hard to get the agency to believe in us and have more to do before our town must vote to fund our share of a new school in November 2022. We really can’t afford to lose this opportunity again.

Most folks in town are familiar with the events that led to our failed elementary school construction project almost five years ago. For years, school district leaders had called attention to the many problems with the Wildwood and Fort River elementary school buildings, some of which were present at construction and have worsened with age. Annual applications to the MSBA, the state agency charged with funding capital improvement projects in our state’s schools, were repeatedly denied until late 2013, when the agency finally accepted Amherst into its project pipeline.

Unfortunately, despite a win of the popular vote in 2016 to accept the debt that would pay for our share of the project, Town Meeting declined to formally sign off on funding. Project supporters tried twice to overturn the Town Meeting decision, including through a town-wide referendum, but lost in the end. We had to notify the MSBA that we were turning down their support.

Amherst’s governance changed dramatically soon after. Many residents were outraged at the lost school project, and they organized to enact a new Town Charter and replace Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council. People rallied around the banner of the lost school project and other lost or shelved capital projects, resulting in dramatic leadership change for our community.

Meanwhile the new superintendent and School Committee reapplied to the MSBA, knowing that state funding for either school renovations or new construction would be critical. In 2019, following an intense public engagement process that resulted in general consensus around a new project, the town received word that we had been accepted into the pipeline. The MSBA didn’t want to take a chance that they would lose money on Amherst again, but they commended us for working toward consensus and were willing to formally explore helping us pay for a new school.

That’s not the end of this story, though.

Local and state public bodies – including the School Building Committee, Town Council, Amherst School Committee and the MSBA – will solicit community input, exchange information and vote on many project details over the next few years. There are some things we have control over, like an educational plan, but there are some things the MSBA controls and we only get a minor say in, like the choice of design team.

The MSBA recently took a big step forward by confirming the School Building Committee’s choice of contractor that will manage this construction project for us. But one of the most important sequence of votes will come next year when the MSBA will decide whether to enter into a Project Scope and Budget agreement with our town. After that we must vote to fund our share, in much the same way we did in 2016.

This town-wide vote is a big deal. As I explained two years ago, the MSBA estimates that projects like this one take five to seven years to complete from when the Eligibility Period first starts. In our case that was May 2020 so, realistically, we can’t expect our children to start in any new school until at least 2025 — a full 18 years after we first filed an application with the MSBA. We’ve lost a lot of time getting to this point, and we can’t afford to lose any more. Not only will construction costs continue to go up, but our children and educators deserve better schools right now.

“Remember the time the ceiling in the library fell down with a crash?” a sixth grader asked while reciting a poem onstage at his recent graduation from Fort River Elementary School. The smile froze on my face at those words. I remember the many instances that our public school buildings have failed our students – the hours of class time lost during heatwaves when the schools’ coolers wouldn’t turn on, the loss of library time when falling ceilings have rained on school books, the loss of concentration when children can’t hear their teachers in acoustically lousy open classrooms.

The MSBA expects our community to show we’re serious and won’t renege on our end of the bargain this time around. But most important, while that graduating sixth grader is too young to remember the first application to the MSBA and will never step foot in a new Amherst school, we must pass this vote for future students so they have a healthy, inspiring place in which to learn every day.

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?

Editors’ Note

Check out our new pages under the heading, Town Government 101. We aim to collect sources of information on a variety of local efforts, and begin with general resources (if you are new to Amherst, have a look) and resources to help you get and stay up to speed on the four major capital projects, such as video, documents, and other websites. Please let us know if you come across broken links.

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.