Guest columnist Gerry Weiss: Council needs to be more upfront with its zoning goals

  • Amherst Town Hall

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Town Community Resources Committee and the Town Council recently voted to send a set of zoning priorities to the town manager, instructing him to send those priorities to the Planning Department, who in turn will work with the Planning Board to develop those priorities into new zoning amendments for a council vote.

There were six zoning amendments with a March 15 deadline, and four more due by Sept. 1. However, missing from this document is a rationale for why these priorities are desired; what the council hopes they will accomplish; what studies will support these ideas; and what unintended consequences might occur if they become law.

This is extremely worrisome. Last week I attended a Zoom meeting of the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and Planning Board, during which members of the Planning Board read their instructions from the Town Council and town manager. They have been told to work on these proposed changes and will offer their expertise and opinions as the work goes on. However, without a clear destination, other than add this exemption or delete that restriction, how will anyone know why they are doing all this?

These priorities have the potential to change the look of Amherst drastically as they are designed to build more and bigger buildings over nearly the entire town, especially downtown, in the neighborhoods near downtown and in village centers. For instance, one of the orders sent to the town manager is to “add footnote ‘a’ to maximum lot coverage and maximum building coverage.” This would affect the size, the height, the setbacks and lot coverage of buildings nearly everywhere in town.

Ostensibly the goal for all the proposed changes is to greatly increase the number of living units in Amherst. That is a fine goal. What is not clear is who will end up being housed in these units, and what other things, wanted and unwanted, might occur.

We have been told that if enough units are built, it will bring down the price of rentals and homes, thus allowing more diversity. That is another fine goal.

However, are there studies supporting this idea? There is certainly a lot of evidence in the U.S. of what happens in small college towns when such development occurs. Examples abound of formerly owner-occupied homes being converted into large apartments, turning neighborhoods into blighted, rundown, absentee-owned areas of towns and cities.

Is this where low income, or town employees, or young families will live? Will this lower the price of home owning? It seems to me that it will more likely raise the value of outlying homes, like mine, making it even harder for young families and town employees to live in Amherst.

And building more large apartment buildings like 1 East Pleasant St.? Rather than lowering the cost of rentals, it seems to have raised the cost of other apartment rentals. The prices of those new apartments are extraordinarily high at $1,885 for a one-bedroom and $3,000 for two beds. Other landlords in town have already raised their prices, since even raised, their rents are a bargain compared to the new high rents.

There seems to be an ethos working here of “a rising tide raises all boats.” I’m not sure just who’s boats we are talking about, and I’m afraid it won’t be those of the lower- and middle-income, two of the priorities cited in the Town’s Housing Production Plan.

The only sure outcome of these zoning changes is that there will be more student rentals. UMass added more than 4,000 more students in the last decade, but did not build enough on-campus housing to accommodate them. Amherst faces being turned into what other small towns with large universities look like, such as Athens, Ohio and Storrs, Connecticut.

I visited Athens a few years ago. For easily a mile around the university there is a vast area of blighted neighborhoods. It was almost a solid village of large and medium-sized older houses — poorly kept up and filled with students. Downtown Storrs is filled with sterile brick apartments. What effect does that have on affordability of rentals and homes when students can pay higher rents for poor-quality housing than families can?

I again find myself wanting to see studies supporting these ideas.

It’s time for the Town Council to be more transparent about their goals and show us evidence these powerful moves will accomplish the outcomes we want, not just provide more student housing. Otherwise, it’s beginning to look like “trickle down economics” is arriving in Amherst and we know the results of such economics: money percolating up, and goals not being met.