Columnist John O. Fox: Town Council potential threat to downtown

Thursday, February 22, 2018


If you like One East Pleasant — that massive five-story building under construction looming over East Pleasant Street — you’ll likely love the Council of 13.

Why? Because voting records in Town Meeting of charter advocates suggest that the Council of 13, as proposed by a majority of the Charter Commission, would favor rezoning that would allow buildings like One East Pleasant to become commonplace in our downtown. 

The pro-charter people might deny this. But as you consider the evidence below, you might ask: Why is Jerry Guidera a spokesman for the charter, as frequently reported in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Amherst Bulletin?

Guidera is a real estate developer whose website identifies him with “The next#startup revolution: small towns.” In 2016, he proposed at Town Meeting (Article 20) to rezone “the Bruegger’s Block” — the block from Hallock Street to Cowles Lane — from B-L (limited business) to B-G (general business). One of the most popular and historic blocks in the downtown, the Bruegger’s Block consists of residences, professional offices and retail businesses that include Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, Knowles Flower Shop, The Henion Bakery and Chez Albert.

B-L zoning limits the height of buildings to three stories and imposes other restrictions on development. In doing so, it serves as a buffer between residential areas and the general business zone. B-L also preserves much of the valued architecture of the downtown.

By contrast, the general business zone allows high-density, five-story buildings like One East Pleasant; it also exempts developers from providing any parking for their tenants. B-L zoning has effectively saved the Bruegger’s Block from destruction.

Guidera told Town Meeting that his argument for the zoning change was simple: “The main issue here is taxes.” There’s nothing wrong, of course, for a developer to consider ways to generate more tax revenue for the town. That’s a crucial challenge for all of us, particularly as we contemplate our significant future financial needs.

I’m pro-development, but the right kind in the right places, such as the redevelopment of the Amherst Cinema some years ago. In all cases, we should weigh the consequences and alternatives.

Guidera’s proposal would accept the potential loss of these vital family-owned and other small businesses that remain so crucial after the loss of 15 to 20 of such businesses in the Carriage Shops. Whether sacrificing all of this in exchange for buildings like One East Pleasant would generate significant net revenue is complicated and debatable.

Yet, Town Meeting was not provided any detailed revenue studies that would include the potential costs of safety and related services as a result of the influx to our downtown of hundreds of undergraduate students. After all, these students likely would be the primary residential tenants of such buildings, according to the town’s Housing Market Study.

And no study was introduced that addressed whether such buildings, the loss of so many small businesses, and the influx of so many students might discourage the return of university and college alums and other older or middle-aged people whom we’re hoping to attract to Amherst as year-round residents. 

What should be clear is that small, family-owned businesses would be unlikely tenants of these massive new buildings. The cost of new construction is so high that rents to support the projects would be affordable only by better financed businesses.

You’ll recall that the developers of Kendrick Place — who also are the developers of One East Pleasant — promised the Planning Board that the first floor would include small retail shops as well as office space; yet, not surprisingly, the sole tenant has been MassMutual.

So what happened to Guidera’s proposal? After extensive discussion, Town Meeting voted nearly unanimously to end debate and to vote on a motion to refer his proposal to the Planning Board on the grounds that the troubling implications of any such rezoning were vast and deserved extensive study. Town Meeting then voted overwhelmingly — 68 percent  to 32 percent — to refer Guidera’s proposal to the Planning Board.

How did the seven members of the Charter Commission vote who also are members of Town Meeting? Andy Churchill, Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Irvin Rhodes, all of whom are leading charter advocates, voted against referral. By contrast, Meg Gage and Gerry Weiss, who oppose the charter, voted to refer. So did Diana Stein, who remains neutral about the charter. Julia Rueschemeyer was absent from the meeting.

To summarize: Jerry Guidera, a spokesman for the charter and a real estate developer in town, proposed a zoning change that could lead to the destruction of the Bruegger’s Block and much more. His principal goal was to raise more taxes. The three charter supporters who are members of both the Charter Commission and Town Meeting opposed referring his proposal to the Planning Board for further study.

What we also know is that, at least for now, Town Meeting saved the Bruegger’s Block. 

John O. Fox, of Amherst, has been a member of Town Meeting from Precinct 10 for decades. He is a retired lawyer and was a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, where he taught seminars on United States tax policy and poverty in the U.S.