Guest columnist Karin Winter: A vision for Amherst

  • People walk through the downtown district, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Amherst. AP

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Amherst is a very special place. We see it as a kind of people’s “Aspen” of New England. By that we mean, it is a place special enough to attract many more than the local residents who happen to work and live downtown. Instead of the beauty of the mountains and the historical silver mines, we have the history of Emily Dickinson, the five great colleges and the beauty of a pioneer valley rural setting.

But we are at a crossroads.

Our businesses are suffering, and our tax base is high. This affects the survival of businesses as well as survival of Amherst as a residential community. The kind of development we approve now will set our course. But development must come.

We would love to see a thriving downtown, which becomes a magnet, not just for the people who live downtown, but for the surrounding community and for visitors from afar. That means places to shop, to eat, to linger, to spend time in. Communities like this have found that getting traffic out of town and making wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes, window shopping areas, places to gather, are magnets and businesses thrive.

How hard it was to see the outdoor dining trying to be attractive during COVID when separated by a few concrete pillars from the side of the road. We liked to see the restaurants and the community supported in this way. It was a step in the right direction, but now we have to make it more attractive.

To be able to develop and support thriving businesses, we need to provide parking that allows easy pedestrian access. Amherst has four obvious sites for a multi-level parking garage: The CVS parking lot. The area next to Amherst Cinema. The site by the Bang’s Center, and the site which is now proposed for the next Archipelago multi-apartment building near the historical cemetery.

What if that Archipelago site were made into an attractive multi-level parking garage with charging stations on the street side and garden-type apartments with balconies that would face out the back toward our historic cemetery where it is quiet and lovely, and which is itself a tourist destination.

What if traffic flow to town were aided by adding two more roundabouts on University Drive: one on Amity and one on University Drive, leading into Massachusetts Avenue. That would make it easier to go in and out of the university and also would lead relatively seamlessly to the lovely roundabout on Triangle Street and to a downtown parking garage, where ever we decide to put it. This would take stress away from East Pleasant and allow that area to be more pedestrian friendly.

And we need more businesses downtown, which would have wide appeal to the public.

What if we develop a Thornes Marketplace type of space with lots of pedestrian space around it for little shop fronts and spaces to sit and gather. This should be centrally located, as the CVS space is, for example. Again, it would be important to get traffic away from an area such as this.

What if student housing on the UMass campus were connected to downtown via a lovely bike path, which is wide enough for strolling and even has a free electric shuttle that you can hop on and off, which is what is provided in many other thriving pedestrian business areas?

We do need to plan and act quickly, but with a vision for the kind of town we want to spend time and money in. We have a great opportunity here, and a wonderful future, ahead if we decide to plan wisely.

Karin Winter lives in Amherst.