Guest columnist Alex Kent: There’s a lot not to like about Archipelago buildings

  • One East Pleasant, right, and Kendrick Place, background left, pictured in May 2021, are two mixed-use buildings by Amherst developer Archipelago Investments LLC. Gazette file photo

Thursday, June 03, 2021

As a 20-year downtown Amherst resident, I wish to respond to Nick Grabbe’s guest column, “Why so much hate for these buildings?” (May 21, Bulletin)

Mr. Grabbe’s claim that the two five-story buildings in question, Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant (developed by Archipelago Investments), make meaningful contributions to Amherst’s tax base is undeniable and, as a homeowner who pays approximately $9,000 per year in property taxes, most welcome. I would also enthusiastically support any efforts made by the town to attract other commercial ventures outside of the downtown business district.

What I do not welcome, however, is the sheer bulk of the buildings, the lack of setbacks, and the way One East Pleasant in particular towers over the sidewalk, making a walk down that stretch of Amherst’s main thoroughfare a disagreeable plod through brick-lined shadows.

Mr. Grabbe says that some people call these buildings “dormitories.” I do not call them dormitories because dormitories at the university do not typically rent for approximately $1,700 per room per month. This is in fact luxury housing that can be afforded only by a certain segment of the student population.

Standard shared or single dormitory rooms at UMass are $3,700 per semester (approximately four months), or around $925 per month. As Mr. Grabbe says, these properties also house non-students. It should be borne in mind that these apartment buildings do not in any way address the critical shortage of affordable housing in Amherst.

I am aware that both buildings have received Gold LEED certification for energy efficiency. Through direct conversations with several residents of the buildings, however, I understand that the build quality of the apartments is lower than what one might expect, given the exorbitant rent charged. Residents have complained to me about dead electrical outlets, of washer-dryers that repeatedly malfunction, and of low-quality workmanship that is inconsistent with the high rent.

Mr. Grabbe says that people “don’t complain about” the Ann Whalen Apartments and Clark House, both of which are multistory buildings. But Ann Whalen Apartments and Clark House are not on the town’s main street. They are set well back from the street, surrounded by greenery and trees. They are virtually invisible from the shopping district. The Archipelago buildings make virtually no provision for trees or screening of any kind.

I find Mr. Grabbe’s mentioning of these two public housing buildings and the Archipelago buildings in the same breath to be baffling. He goes on to say that people “don’t seem to mind the nearby Bank of America building….or the strip-mall style shops on Triangle Street.” I don’t know whom Mr. Grabbe has been listening to, but I and others in my neighborhood do mind the Bank of America drive-through: I think it’s an eyesore. Nor do I have any great love for the buildings on Triangle Street. But those buildings are single-floor storefronts that communicate their purpose to the street and do not crowd passersby.

Unlike the “some people” to whom Mr. Grabbe refers, I am not nostalgic for the Carriage Shops that were demolished to make way for One East Pleasant. Those buildings had long since outlived their usefulness and needed to be taken down. What I do miss, however, are some of the small businesses that occupied the Carriage Shops: the music store, the wines and spirits shop, the tailor’s shop. The site was also home to the Hampshire Masque.

Low rents made it possible for these small businesses to maintain a downtown presence. The Archipelago buildings make no provision for those kinds of small businesses. In fact, the large commercial space at the north end of One East Pleasant has remained vacant for the several years since the building was completed, a storefront hidden behind enormous window banners which exhort the residents of Amherst to take pride in their town. Clearly, rather than making this space available at an affordable rent to one or more small businesses, the owner of the building prefers to receive no rent at all.

Mr. Grabbe raises the issue of “hostility to students.” I and the downtown neighbors I know are not hostile to students. Many of us made a conscious choice to live in a college town, and college towns typically come with students. What I am hostile to are rowdy, over-privileged, and disrespectful students. I never expected the Archipelago buildings to contribute to more student rowdiness or to crime, and happily they have not.

They have, however, greatly contributed to increased car traffic and, above all, to residential streets that are perennially parked up with the cars belonging to residents of the Archipelago buildings. A couple of Zip cars and some bike racks do nothing to solve that problem.

Finally, I must respond to Mr. Grabbe’s assertion of “demagoguery” on the part of those who oppose these large apartment buildings. Those who oppose misplaced, over-sized, and anti-community buildings are not demagogues, reactionaries, or knee-jerk opponents of change.

For my part, I enthusiastically support greater density in downtown Amherst. I support change to make Amherst’s streets more walkable and bikeable. I support the reconstruction and expansion of the Jones Library while I oppose the construction of additional Archipelago-style luxury rental buildings.

There is no contradiction here: We need public buildings that are open to and intended for everyone. Let Amherst find other ways to expand its tax base without further compromising its human-scale of its downtown business district.

Alex Kent lives in Amherst.