Columnist Louise Colligan: Coming to a neighborhood near us? 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

On an otherwise quiet street near Windfield Senior Estates and Greenleaves Retirement Community, slamming car doors, car alarms and loud voices have become an all-too-common occurrence. But the popularity of Greenleaves Drive as a place for partyers to park their vehicles while heading to  nearby Aspen Heights will change later this month.

A petition, signed by hundreds of senior residents, was submitted as a way to show that residents will no longer tolerate the quality-of-life impacts that have included impaired drivers and fights, all within 200 feet of their homes.

“It’s a very great senior-oriented neighborhood,” one resident said. “We feel this community is worth the effort for this.”

OK, stop the presses! Reporter Scott Merzbach didn’t write that story ... yet. Let’s hope he never will. The scenario described in a recent article took place last month on Fisher Street, not on Greenleaves Drive. Another recent story described the parking chaos at Olympia Place, a private student apartment complex. Residents’ guests having no legal place to park creates unsafe driving conditions along Olympia Drive.

Meanwhile, at the other end of town, is an Amherst neighborhood gone mild —Windfield Senior Estates and Greenleaves Retirement Community.

Nearly 400 seniors live so quietly that many people in Amherst don’t realize how many retirees have found their perfect retirement sanctuary right behind Domino’s Pizza and the Amherst Motel. Stroll 100 feet in from busy Route 9 and seniors are out enjoying 33 acres of walkways, quiet roadways, wetlands and woods. 

Many get out to support the area’s rich cultural scene. Others walk or drive to volunteer at many of Amherst’s nearby civic organizations — the League of Women Voters, Emily Dickinson Museum, Bangs Center, Amherst Women’s Club, Amherst Survival Center.

However, other residents of Windfield and Greenleaves are too well along in years and health for much activity beyond their neighborhood. They get around the development’s paths using walkers, canes and wheelchairs. They feel safe and protected indoors and outdoors at Windfield and Greenleaves.

Their safety and tranquility is under threat. The reporting of weekly nightmare scenarios describes exactly what over 400 seniors fear if Amherst’s Zoning Board of Appeals approves a special permit for a developer to build a four-story, 396-resident apartment building on the site of the one-story Amherst Motel. The majority of units in Aspen Heights’ luxury building would be three- or four-bedroom apartments, with a ratio of bathrooms to bedrooms more typical of social dorms.

At alternating ZBA hearings, the developer first promoted this densely packed project as “likely” student housing. Some white-haired folks pushed back on that. Why place hundreds of likely students and their guests at the doorstep of hundreds of Amherst’s most vulnerable citizens?

The developer later touted the building as wonderful multifamily housing. Even with some tweaks and lots of new slides at the next hearing, the reconfigured majority of units still featured lots of bedrooms, with most having a bathroom.

Because “some students” might want this type of housing, the developer tried to reassure the many skeptical but worried seniors that they would hire an off-duty police officer to keep things under control inside the facility. But we seniors would be on our own outside. Just picture that scenario on a nice September night.

At the Sept. 28 ZBA hearing, the developer arrived with more tweaks, suggesting again that the densely occupied four-story building was going to be multifamily housing after all. But there was still that telltale high ratio of bathrooms to bedrooms.

Why not go all in and make it all typical, smaller multifamily units that don’t cost $3,600 per month, which few families or professionals can afford? We graybeards like your 10 percent affordable units, so good on you. Bring a true multifamily project down to three stories, and there’s enough parking, less traffic, and less likelihood of detrimental effects on our ‘hood.

Forgo the sacred granite countertops and the umpteen bathrooms. Then families and young professionals have someplace to live until they can get a mortgage and buy their own granite countertops. Problem solved and no special permit required.

We seniors know the ZBA is under immense pressure to approve more dense housing, and it has! Amherst folks are no longer the NIMBYs of yore. We’re IMBYs —In My Backyard: Olympia Place, Kendrick Place, One East Pleasant, North Square at the Mill District.

Study the impacts of housing decisions made since 2013. Wait for the University of Massachusetts to tie up plans to offer private student housing on public land. Your friend’s Windfield mother will thank you. Your Greenleaves uncle will thank you. And you will thank yourselves for preserving a safe, tranquil neighborhood to enjoy after you retire. 

Louise Colligan is a resident of Greenleaves Retirement Community in Amherst.