Guest columnist Kenneth Rosenthal: Better planning in Amherst

  • Interim Hampshire College President Ken Rosenthal, seen here in 2016. Gazette file photo

Friday, March 05, 2021

Amherst’s Town Council, its Planning Board, Planning Department and subcommittees are considering a number of changes in its zoning bylaw. What has been largely absent until recently is the opportunity for the general public to participate in anything but a cursory way. Now that is beginning to change.

We have long had formal planning, of course: a master plan, zoning and building codes, and rental permit requirements, to name four. Best practices require that community members be encouraged to communicate their values and hopes for our town before the plans are written that will result in bricks and concrete. By “community members” I mean ordinary residents, not just the boards and committees formally charged with giving reality to visions.

Not all of the town’s residents have opinions on these matters, but many do. So it’s important that the town create the forums, websites and similar places where those ideas can be lodged for everyone to see and consider.

The focus of the current changes is the town center and the adjacent residential districts near the University of Massachusetts. Probably few would disagree that Amherst should be a vibrant place where people who work here should want to live, and be able to afford to live here as renters and as home owners — faculty members, police and firefighters and town hall employees, school teachers, store clerks and restaurant servers. And when they retire, they should be able to remain here. To live in Amherst means to shop, dine and recreate here, and send their children to great public schools here.

Amherst has long been a place for builders and entrepreneurs. Not long ago it was a three-industry town: manufacturing, agriculture and education. The word “Mill” appears in place names all over town for good reason. When I was in college, Amherst had more cows per square mile than any other town in Massachusetts. The products made here used to be sent to the world by horse and carriage, then by train and truck. Now, the products of Amherst minds and hands find their way to their customers by Internet. There is a conscious effort by some to keep and attract to Amherst the designers and creators in our 21st century economy who thrive best in an academic community. We are that community, and we have to find ways to accommodate them and their families right here in Amherst.

Yet there is an almost irresistible pressure that threatens the stable growth of the town. UMass and the colleges bring thousands of students every year to live for eight months or so as temporary residents. Amherst and Hampshire colleges house almost all of their students. UMass doesn’t, and theirs spill over in large numbers into Amherst and surrounding towns. Those students compete with our workforce for off-campus housing, and only conscious planning can fairly accommodate both temporary students and permanent residents.

That means we need to understand the nuances of “affordable” when it comes to home ownership as well as home rental. We need to provide the small and large green and open spaces that make neighborhoods healthy and attractive to families and individuals alike. Paving over side yards for parking to accommodate ever more crowded homes is not the way. It’s important to remember that historic buildings, once torn down, are gone forever.

Our town’s neighborhoods were where our town’s workers always lived, and should live today. And not to put too fine a spin on it, good residential design has been important in Amherst for a long time, and not just on the campuses. Designers in our off-campus residential districts have included Frederick Law Olmsted, Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri, Donlyn Lyndon, and a clutch of fine architects practicing right here, right now. Every day the buildings in the center of town remind us that once built they stand for 100 or 200 years, and more.

Town center housing has always been a part of Amherst. Thoughtful design respects heights, setbacks, rooflines and facades that are compatible with what we were, and who we want to be. For Amherst to succeed as a vibrant residential community, not just the number of new residences but their layout and design must receive the full attention of the town’s planners.

Kenneth Rosenthal has lived at 53 Sunset Ave. for 15 years, his fourth residence in Amherst. He was a founder of Hampshire College, its principal business officer at its opening in 1970, and interim president in 2019. He has been chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the former Development and Industrial Commission, and a member of the Select Committee on Goals for Amherst and the University/Town of Amherst Collaborative.