Columnist Sara la Cour: Departing BID director continues push to ‘build up’ in downtown

  • Sarah la Cour, who is a candidate for 3rd Hampshire District state representative, shares her views during a forum on climate change Monday at Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker

Friday, May 10, 2019

For my last column as the executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, I’d like to revisit a column I wrote just a year ago because I still consider it the most critical topic facing our downtown and community — multifamily residential density, where it should go and how we can make it work.

Historically, we build up and I suggest we continue to do so. We are a community of 38,000 people with a geographic footprint of 17,700 acres. Yet we have a downtown commercial area of less than 1 percent of that.

In fact, our downtown commercial area is ridiculously small given the size and complexity of our modern community. But even back a century or two, we had large-scale buildings that were set right up to the edge of the sidewalk. Many still exist, including the Cook Block and others running down Main Street, and the Bank Block running down South Pleasant Street.

Although only three and four stories, these buildings are between 44 and 54 feet high. Then there are the 20th century residential buildings, Anne Whalen and Clark House, that are five- to six-stories and up to 57 feet high. We historically built up so that we could indeed provide density in the commercial core while protecting our neighborhoods and open space.

With significant limits to continued growth surrounding downtown, such as historic residential areas and institutionally-owned land, we continue to have very little geographic area in which to grow. Our master plan rightly urges us to continue to bring density into our downtown and village centers and it’s happening, but we continue to battle the belief that this is somehow detrimental to our town. It is not. It is imperative to the future of our town.

Allowing significant density in downtown not only brings additional housing units but increased commercial activity. More people living in downtown means more money being spent on goods and services in downtown.

Expanding our development potential and opportunities for multifamily housing raises the fortunes of all of us. We are a vibrant, thriving downtown that entices locals and visitors to spend their time and money, but we can be so much more if we work together to define one vision. A vision of high-density residential development and a sense of place and excitement.

With this comes a more diversified tax base and significant tax dollars — like over $500,000. Those dollars can go toward our schools, roads and/or any other capital project on our long list of needs. There are steady complaints about the tax rate and the ongoing burden to residential taxpayers.

New mixed-use buildings in downtown with a significant residential component can change that. In my mind, they represent a win-win.

Developers risk their capital to build their projects in Amherst’s commercial core and we get the tax benefit and more people living and spending in downtown. Let’s not continue to let dollars leak out of town. Let’s continue to build up in downtown.

All this said, it has been an honor and privilege to write for the Amherst Bulletin and I appreciate everyone who read my columns. We may differ on opinion on this topic and others, but I believe we are all committed to a thriving and welcoming community that we can all be proud of and afford to live in. Onward and upward!

Sarah la Cour will leave her position as executive director of the Amherst BID.