Guest columnist Nick Grabbe: Why so much hate for these buildings?

  • One East Pleasant, right, and Kendrick Place, background left, are two mixed-use buildings by Amherst developer Archipelago Investments LLC. gazette photo/kevin gutting

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Disdain for the two five-story buildings at the northern fringe of downtown Amherst has prompted some residents to propose a halt to permits for multi-unit housing. So let’s examine the pros and cons of these two buildings.

Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant were built after more than 1,000 residents participated in the creation of a master plan for Amherst. The plan asserted that denser development should take place downtown and in village centers, to preserve open space and single-family neighborhoods. So these apartment buildings are consistent with the master plan.

Downtown businesses, restaurants and the Amherst Cinema benefit from having more people living nearby. The 120 units in these two buildings, and the 55 units proposed just north of 1 East Pleasant, help create a critical mass of shoppers and diners.

These two buildings are paying $638,636 in property taxes this year. In past years, this tax revenue has been critical to avoiding layoffs of town employees. Amherst has a tiny commercial tax base, and lots of tax-exempt land, but high expectations for public services. The result is very high residential taxes (with the seventh highest tax rate in the state) and a reliance on new construction to produce revenue.

The town receives $658,512 a year in taxes from four other multi-unit buildings that have gone up in the past 10 years, mostly in other parts of town. That totals $1.29 million a year that permanent residents don’t have to pay for teachers, roads, police and firefighters.

For years, Amherst has had a pent-up demand for housing, and these buildings have helped meet that demand. But they have not fully addressed the projected need for more than 1,000 new beds to accommodate an enrollment increase at the University of Massachusetts over the past 10 years. Eight more buildings with more than 350 units are in the pipeline or proposal stages. If all are built, the total amount of tax revenue for the town will be over $2 million a year.

As the supply of housing comes closer to meeting the demand, there will be less pressure on the market, which is driven by student rentals, making single-family conversions less attractive and creating more opportunities for non-student renters and homebuyers.

In addition, Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant are among the greenest buildings in town. They received Gold LEED certification for their energy efficiency, and they have numerous Zip cars and bicycle racks. Tenants can easily get to the campus without long car trips.

Predictions of crime, noise and traffic resulting from the two buildings have not come to pass. And the proximity of Kendrick Place to the intersection of East Pleasant and Triangle streets was key to a $1.5 million state grant that partly funded the roundabout there and the burying of utility wires underground.

There are two main reasons people give for disliking Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant: their appearance and the students who live there.

Many people feel that the five stories (approved by Town Meeting in 2013) are incompatible with the look of downtown Amherst. But they don’t complain about two similar-sized buildings, Ann Whalen Apartments and the Clark House, that are a quarter-mile away. And they don’t seem to mind the nearby Bank of America building, which resembles a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, or the strip-mall-style shops on Triangle Street.

Some people miss the Carriage Shops, which were displaced to build 1 East Pleasant. But the building was deteriorating and was originally a motel.

The look of these two buildings is a matter of opinion, not fact. I live a half-mile away and do not feel offended when I pass by them.

Some people refer to these apartment buildings as “dormitories,” even though they house professionals as well as students, are not owned by an educational institution, and are not situated on a campus. Calling them “dormitories” twists the word’s meaning to suit one’s political objectives, a technique that Republicans use when they call President Biden’s economic plan “socialism.”

Hostility to students ignores how vital they are to Amherst’s financial stability and cultural offerings. It’s a curious combination of dependence and resentment. Students place less burden on the town’s budget than single-family houses, because they have few children in the public schools.

Statements that students have different values than permanent residents, or that they should all live on their campus, bear unsettling echoes of discriminatory housing policies. In fact, UMass houses 63% of its undergraduates on campus, more than most state universities.

Negative feelings about these two buildings may arise because they represent change and they challenge many residents’ mental image of what a small college town should look like. Some critics may have a nostalgic wish that Amherst stay frozen in what it looked like when they arrived in town.

Many people have visceral reactions to these two buildings, and so they provide an opportunity for demagoguery. Those who are put off by their appearance are free to disparage them, but they should also acknowledge their benefits.

Nick Grabbe was an editor and writer for the Bulletin and Gazette for 32 years.