Guest columnist Nina Weyl: Why we don’t want more of these buildings

  • One East Pleasant, right, and Kendrick Place, background left, are two mixed-use buildings by Amherst developer Archipelago Investments LLC. Photographed on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Gazette file photo

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Walk through downtown Amherst and notice the generous sidewalks with random benches and tables. Notice the on-street parking on both sides of the street, and notice the variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and businesses.

Maybe you park in front of Hastings for a quick errand, or linger at Amherst Coffee. Many of us have enjoyed a movie at Amherst Cinema, maybe stayed afterward for a drink or dinner or wandered into the art gallery. Some of us remember when that area was an abandoned movie theatre, and now, thanks to a citizen-initiated development we have a vital lucrative addition to downtown.

Bueno y Sano and Insomnia Cookies are popular places. We bump into friends and neighbors; we stop for pizza at Antonio’s or a beer at Stackers. Further down we enjoy a treat at Henion Bakery, or a gift for a child at the Toy Box. But, continue a few more steps and it all abruptly ends.

The sidewalk narrows, bounded on one side by a 45-foot wall rising straight up just a few feet away from the pedestrians; and on the other side cars whiz by, there being no on-street parking. This is the One East Pleasant building. There are no shops on the ground floor of the building looming above you. Businesses have not been attracted to the site; they remain empty bringing in no rent, except for one, a sunken café.

A few more steps and you cross a driveway to a private parking lot for the tenants of the building, who pay $200 a month for a covered space and $100 a month for an open space. A private parking lot is a waste of prime downtown real estate. There are no affordable units, and there are vacancies in the building. There is no public space associated with this building, which translates into there being nothing here for the citizens of Amherst.

We are told the money is flowing in, and yet our property taxes go up and up. Do these buildings raise our quality of life along with the profits? Designed well, we can have both.

Keep walking and you come to Kendrick Place. This building was designed for students — the units are rented per bedroom, meaning a four-bedroom unit would have four leases.

Tenants in this building can pay $25/year for a parking space in town, while UMass asks about $300/year for a parking space. Why are we giving virtually free parking to students when parking downtown is such an issue? Will this arrangement force us to build an expensive parking garage? Buildings designed for students needn’t and shouldn’t be on our major streets downtown.

Olympia Place has 232 units of student housing with plenty of space for parking. North Square, the new development behind Cowls Lumber, has 130 units designed primarily for students. Twenty percent of the units are affordable units with 300 people on the waiting list.

Student housing in a college town is essential, but location is key. The entire ground floor of Kendrick Place’s “mixed use” area is rented by Mass Mutual, an international Fortune 500 corporation. This company is a great addition to Amherst but it belongs in the Amherst Office Park, our business center, not on the ground floor of a building downtown, offering nothing to foot traffic, and offering no parking to its employees.

However, the sidewalk on Triangle Street, running along the length of the building, is so narrow that retail shops wouldn’t have been interested in renting a space. The building, with its 45-foot wall, is so close to the street that there’s no room for even a shoulder or a bike lane, making bicycling on the street dangerous.

How do most of the citizens of Amherst benefit from this building in any way? Do these buildings raise our quality of life along with the profits? Designed well, we can have both.

Nina Weyl, retired architect and 32-year resident of Amherst.