Denise Barberet: Questions vision for downtown Amherst

Thursday, August 03, 2017
Questions vision for downtown Amherst

As a member of the Planning Board in 2009, I worked extensively on the revision of Amherst’s master plan.

My impression was that the plan offered guidelines that seemed specific, yet lacked a clear way to translate them from theory into reality. Unlike Northampton’s master plan, which detailed who, when, and how much, the final chapter of Amherst’s plan — the so-called implementation matrix — was and remains empty of such details.

Further, rather than being a truly objective document, the master plan contains language that has been subject to radically different interpretations. This is why the concept of densification, particularly of the downtown, has created alarm and opposition. The type of urban density we are now seeing — witness the already looming character of 1 East Pleasant St. when only two stories have been erected – seems out of scale with the rest of the streetscape, and with what many participants in the master plan process had originally envisioned.

And it does not seem to fulfill the stated goals of a more diverse housing stock downtown, as well as more economic development. We are getting housing, but for whom? Passing by Kendrick Place at night during the summer reveals a mostly dark building, a fairly good indication of predominantly student residents. And economic development? The MassMutual office on the ground floor of this building seems to have few people present, even during the day.

And we will likely see a similar situation when 1 East Pleasant is completed: more seven-month residents, and fewer retail establishments to replace the small local businesses that once thrived in the Carriage Shops.

Do we really want to change our zoning to allow more of what looks to be the dormification of downtown Amherst? Did we really anticipate such a radical physical change that imposes a very urban aesthetic on a small downtown?

What evidence do we have that these changes benefit the town as a whole, rather than a small group of individuals? Is this truly the future we collectively envisioned for the downtown in 2007?

Denise Barberet