Guest columnist Jon McCabe: We are a good small college town. Let’s build on that

  • People walk through the downtown district in January. AP

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Reading Eric Broudy’s guest column, “The developer bear can wait” (May 14, Bulletin), I was struck by the hostile tone of his argument. Like it or not, Amherst is a college town. And a good one at that.

While we all enjoy many of the delightful attributes of our old New England township, we also have a variety of pressing needs associated with being home to UMass, which has now become one of the nation’s top research universities with almost 29,000 students. Amherst College with its nearly 2,000 students is also an important part of our downtown identity.

Demanding that we preserve a “quaint” old Amherst that has not existed for decades since the expansion of UMass is not only quixotic, it leaves our fundamental problems unsolved.

Housing is chief among the needs we face as host to UMass. The 40% of students currently not living on the UMass campus have to live somewhere. UMass is adding to its student housing inventory via the North Village and Lincoln Apartments projects, but it also makes sense to have more students living at the northern end of downtown within walking distance of campus.

College downtowns are spaces to be enjoyed by everyone, including lots of students. Students bring diversity, youthful vitality and support for a broad array of business activity.

Building more apartments downtown aimed at the student rental market also helps solve a less visible, but frankly, more important problem faced by the town as a whole: the conversion of affordable starter homes in residential neighborhoods to student rental units.

The enrollment losses at our elementary schools in recent years, particularly in the Fort River school district, are directly attributable to the conversion of affordable homes to student rentals in neighborhoods like the Main Street area. The same trend has been on the rise in my Orchard Valley neighborhood.

For the most part, our student neighbors are pleasant and well behaved. But it would still be better in the long run for our neighborhood and our elementary school (Crocker Farm) to see young families with children buying these homes.

Of course, the town should be working with developers who will build apartments for people with low and moderate incomes. But for the most part, we are forced to rely on market-oriented builders to construct housing in the areas that our master plan and zoning regulations allow for multi-family housing. It is also the case that federal and state subsidies are required for below-market-rate housing; the town alone cannot finance or require such development. And we are not at the head of the queue for those limited subsidies.

Amherst is no longer a rural village, home to a small elite college and a Morrill Act Ag/Tech school. There is no way back there from here. I personally enjoy rural living, and even considered locating to a hill town when I returned to Massachusetts with my family more than a decade ago But I prefer to raise my child in a college town where she can benefit from real racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity; cosmopolitanism; and yes, vestiges of the rural world of farming, animal husbandry, and equestrianism that we still enjoy here.

If we solve our housing problems and revitalize our downtown, we will remain one of the more desirable college towns in America. Let’s do it.

Jon McCabe is an Amherst resident, a retired college administrator and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Holyoke Community College.