Columnist Sarah la Cour: Smart growth to build up in downtown

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Amherst is in a difficult position. We are torn between our traditional New England agrarian heritage and our role as the host community for two top private colleges and the University of Massachusetts flagship campus (which of course started as Mass Aggie but has grown into a nationally recognized research institution).

Here in Amherst we are lucky enough to have a downtown steeped in history, eclectic in its streetscape and welcoming to multiple generations. But we are caught in the juxtaposition of needing to embrace change and growth while retaining our historic fabric and character.

It is the premise that the latter was only ever suburban in scale that I want to challenge. I would argue that the historic structures of our downtown were as skyward as we are now seeing in new buildings. We were always going up.

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. Our Town Hall and the various churches run from 50 to 66 feet high.

And there are the 20th-century residential buildings, Anne Whalen and Clark House that are five or six stories stories and up to 57 feet high. We historically built up so that we could indeed provide density in the commercial core while protecting the neighborhoods and open space.

With significant limits to continued growth surrounding downtown, such as historic residential neighbors 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.

Expanding our development potential and opportunities raises the fortunes of all of us. We have the capacity to have a vibrant, thriving downtown that entices local residents and visitors to spend their time and money in, but that requires us to work together to define one vision and put our individual ideals aside.

Amherst hosts the number one employer in the region in UMass. We and the university deserve a downtown that provides the necessary goods, services and housing to support such an enterprise. That means continuing to go up.

There are steady complaints about the tax rate and the ongoing burden to residential taxpayers, and that we don’t have enough money for community services or to make the badly needed repairs to our schools and roads.

The answer is to diversify the tax base and generate additional tax dollars. New mixed-use buildings in downtown with a significant residential component can do 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 of over half a million dollars. That’s 6 percent of the town’s overall annual budget from less than 1 percent of our land area.

If that’s not “smart growth,” I don’t know what is.

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.