Guest columnist Evan Ross: Downtown Amherst is rising. Let’s keep it going

  • Kendrick Park playground in August 2021 when it opened. gazette file photo

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Late last month, I attended the grand opening of The Drake, downtown Amherst’s newest music and live performance venue, featuring jazz violinist Regina Carter. I left the show feeling more optimistic than ever about the future of our downtown.

Not just because we now have a live performance space that can attract world-class talent. But because outside the venue I watched a gaggle of concertgoers leave The Drake and head to Amherst coffee for a post-show cocktail. I overheard another group say “want to grab a drink at the Lagoon?”, referencing the recently-opened restaurant and nightclub Hazel’s Blue Lagoon.

With concertgoers coming into our downtown and grabbing a pre-show dinner and post-show drink at our local restaurants and bars, The Drake is showing itself to be more than a new venue for arts and culture. It’s a local economic driver.

It’s another example that when we invest in our downtown and create vibrant local attractions and supporting infrastructure (like housing) we can make Amherst a destination that supports a thriving and resilient local business community.

We saw it with the Kendrick Park playground, which opened in summer 2021 and has since brought families from within and around Amherst into our downtown.

There are more projects in the pipeline. Last year, voters overwhelmingly affirmed a renovation and expansion of our Jones Library, creating a 21st century facility in our downtown open to all, and the Town Council approved the location of a permanent bandshell on the Town Common to host outdoor summer concerts.

On Spring Street, construction has resumed to turn a previously vacant lot, a weed-filled and litter-strewn eyesore, into 58 units of badly needed housing and new commercial space. On the other side of town, work has begun to turn a decrepit surface parking lot into 90 units of housing, including 11 affordable units for low-income residents. I look at all that’s happening and see a downtown resurgence.

But to keep it going we have to continue to invest in our downtown’s future. The Drake didn’t happen on its own. It was the product of partnership between the Business Improvement District (BID), the Downtown Amherst Foundation, the town and the state.

The Drake happened mostly because of the grit, determination and, most importantly, courage of BID Executive Director Gabrielle Gould. She has put her vision for our downtown into action and worked tirelessly for transformational change. That’s not easy to do in Amherst. As the chair of the library board of trustees, Austin Sarat, once said, “Change is hard, especially in a place as progressive as Amherst.” We are a town often better known for NIMBYism and obstruction than for forward movement. It takes courage to do what Gould has done.

Now we need other folks to step up and show some courage to keep us going. The best way to ensure a thriving downtown business community is to have more folks living downtown who then become patrons of our local economy. With Amherst facing a serious housing crisis, we should be laser-focused on housing production in our downtown and village centers. There is so much untapped potential if we enable it!

A large mostly empty surface parking lot on Triangle Street begs for redevelopment. But right now our zoning is so broken that you couldn’t build new housing or commercial space there. A proposal to fix the zoning by creating a Smart Growth District (also known as a 40R District) in downtown, which would fix the zoning while requiring that at least 20% of any new housing units there be affordable housing (more than required by our Inclusionary Zoning bylaw), has been stalled for over a year by our Planning Board and Town Council. Our councilors need to have the courage to pass this proposal and open up new opportunities for people to live downtown.

Last year the Town Council also voted to rezone an underutilized and deteriorating parking lot to allow for a new parking structure in Amherst. As The Drake and the library and other attractions make Amherst a destination, we need to ensure visitors have a clear centralized parking option. And we can use a public-private partnership to have a new structure built by a developer at no cost to taxpayers.

A centralized parking option not only makes it clear to visitors where to park in our downtown, but can lessen pressure on street parking. This allows us to reclaim some street parking to expand sidewalks, reinforce bike lanes, and create permanent opportunities for outdoor dining. We can reimagine our downtown streetscape to prioritize people enjoying our downtown as opposed to driving through it.

Our Planning Department is stalling the next step of this project, and even considering spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary further study. We need our town councilors and town staff to have a bias for action, and to show the same courage and ambition for our downtown that Gould exhibited.

We have so much potential. There are things happening in downtown Amherst. We can be a destination if we have the courage to keep moving forward. Let’s not stall. Let’s act.

Evan Ross is a former Amherst town councilor for District 4, representing downtown Amherst.