Guest column Steve Bloom: Amherst Media should grab ‘wonderful opportunity’

  • The Henry Hills House on Gray Street in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The town of Amherst has been presented with a rare, wonderful opportunity. If only Amherst Media — founded and funded to serve the interests of Amherst — would seize it.

A little back story. In 2013, abetted by then-controversial rezoning predicated on its impending eviction from the Eversource Building on College Street, Amherst Media purchased the two lots directly in front of the Henry Hills House along Main Street, between Gray and Triangle streets, as the site for a new headquarters.

From the start it’s been a troubled endeavor. Questions regarding water drainage, plantings and illegal encroachments have led to lawsuits, counter lawsuits and legal proceedings, which are ongoing. More than five years have passed without Amherst Media breaking ground on its proposed headquarters or being evicted from its present one.

Along with the Emily Dickinson Homestead and the Evergreens, their august next door neighbors on Main Street, the Henry Hills house and the Amherst Woman’s Club (formerly the Leonard Hills house) are historical, architectural treasures situated in the center of the Dickinson Local Historical District. Built in 1862-63, the Henry Hills house, a palatial, neo-Baroque mansion designed by noted architect William Fenno Pratt, is a marvel of period detail and character as is its twin, the Leonard Hills House, built in 1864.

Since their construction over 150 years ago, the views of these two iconic residences, reigning side by side atop a sweeping slope, have remained unencumbered from Main Street. That view and park-like expanse, along with the Emily Dickinson Museum and grounds, are the heart and soul of historic Amherst.

The two lots on Main Street that Amherst Media bought are subject to the Amherst Local Historic District Commission’s regulatory jurisdiction and mandate to preserve the look and feel of historic streetscapes. In March of this year, Amherst Media submitted plans before the commission in the hopes of obtaining a certificate of appropriateness, which is required before a building permit can be issued and construction can begin.

The design, which lacked the benefit of an architect, was drafted by an engineer, who made variations on a barn kit and, because of drainage concerns, was located on a different, more obtrusive section of the lots than had been approved at the time of rezoning.

The commission voted unanimously to send Amherst Media back to the drawing board. New improved plans by a local architectural firm — with better building placement on the lots — are in process. However, abutters and concerned citizens throughout town have voiced their objections to any nonconforming structure being erected on the parcels.

Here’s where the opportunity comes in. The new owners of the Henry Hills House have offered to purchase the lots at the approximate value which Amherst Media, in their own court filings, has said they are worth. With a few minor modifications, they have offered to deed one of the properties in perpetuity to the town of Amherst, provided only that it will always be kept as green space, and preserve the other. This could be made a written provision of any sale.

An idea is also being explored in which Amherst Media would use space in the high school, which would be not only less expensive than constructing a new building, but more conducive to having students participate as volunteers, a large part of Amherst Media’s stated mission. Of course, there are challenges in relocating Amherst Media to the high school, but every possible effort should be expended in conjunction with the town and school system to make this option work.

Amherst Media receives its funding to accomplish the essential work it does from the town as part of the town’s cable contract with Comcast. With the rise of streaming, those revenues and appropriations are sure to contract. What happens if, in the future, Amherst Media has to move? What will take its place? A 7-Eleven smack dab in the middle of Amherst’s most hallowed grounds and premier visitor attraction?

Happily, with the offer to purchase the properties, there could be a win-win outcome for all involved. However, if Amherst Media passes on this opportunity, which is clearly in the best interests of the town as a whole, it risks forfeiting the goodwill it will need in its capital campaign, wherever its new headquarters are ultimately located.

Let’s make it happen. What matters most is preserving a beautiful, historic vista and public space for generations to cherish and enjoy.

Steve Bloom chaired the Lincoln-Sunset Local Historic District Study Committee and is a former member of the Amherst Historical Commission.