Guest columnist Suzannah Fabing Muspratt: The town’s latest zoning proposal is outrageous

Sunday, July 18, 2021

When the rezoning of two Limited Business districts in downtown Amherst reappeared on the Community Resources Committee (CRC) agenda June 22, those following this topic were surprised that substantial changes had been introduced without explanation.

Rather than encouraging three-story, 39-foot buildings along the street edge — the previous version, which the Planning Department had staunchly defended — the newest revision proposes four-story buildings, 51 feet tall. Behind this overlay, buildings could now be three stories tall, rather than two.

The blocks in question, along the west side of North Pleasant Street between Cowles Lane and McClellan Street, and along the northeast side of Triangle Street from the playing fields to the roundabout, currently house one- or two-story small shops and professional offices. I’ll focus on the North Pleasant blocks, the historic ones.

No design guidelines were incorporated in the new revision, but the accompanying language suggested that future guidelines might “encourage scale, massing and architectural elements that are consistent with the historic buildings in downtown.”

What buildings? Surely not the ones there now. Probably the later brick commercial buildings around the northwest corner of Town Common, but only one of those buildings is four stories tall; the others are three stories. This language mysteriously disappeared after the document was posted in the meeting packet and is not in the version now archived. A more modest statement under “Purpose” is lined out.

Personally, I don’t favor even three-story buildings here. I’d like to see an alternative that preserves the historic buildings and permits development behind them. Many residents and members of the Historical Commission agree. But the latest proposal is outrageous.

Fifty-one-foot tall buildings would entirely upend the scale of the blocks where Henion’s Bakery, Hair by Harlow, and Amherst Laser & Skin Care (formerly the Silverscape building) stand. They would tower above almost every building in Amherst except Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, Archipelago’s five-story projects along the east side of Kendrick Park (Archipelago is currently seeking permits for another mega-building between those two).

The likely effect would continue their aesthetic and create a city-like canyon of tall contemporary buildings along the main axis of town center. Any semblance of small-town character and historic charm would disappear.

What is driving this rezoning? Answer: the much-ballyhooed “housing crisis,” which officials have never properly explained or quantified. Let’s be clear: Amherst does not have a housing crisis. It has reached its housing goals over the past decade and averaged over 100 new permitted dwellings a year. Bulldozers and Tyvek are everywhere.

Amherst definitely has an affordable housing crisis, but the mega-buildings downtown do nothing to address that, with sky-high per-bedroom rents. The town is on the case: Town Council just passed an inclusionary zoning amendment that will require 10-12% below-market-rate units in future large residential buildings. Several admirable initiatives are the pipeline. More still needs to be done to address this problem, one shared by many communities across the commonwealth.

UMass is implicated in the perceived “crisis,” in that it enrolls thousands more students than it houses. It leaves the rest to fend for themselves, which they do — in Belchertown, Hadley, Sunderland and all over Amherst. Developers see this not as a “crisis,” but as a boon — a steady supply of would-be renters to occupy whatever they can build. Hence, the rush to “densify” our town center with accommodations designed for, and marketed to, students.

But even if four stories enabled another 500 students to move downtown, that wouldn’t “solve” the university’s housing shortfall or end the pressure on other Amherst neighborhoods: more off-campus students would likely leave Belchertown and Sunderland to live in Amherst, closer to their classes.

Amherst cannot build its way out of the university’s self-generated “crisis.” The solution must lie with adding student housing on university-owned land. If developed in public-private partnerships, like one being planned on Massachusetts Avenue that will replace existing graduate student units, such housing can contribute to the town’s tax base, another perennial concern. Yet town officials seemingly aren’t pursuing such conversations with UMass.

At the CRC meeting, Councilor Evan Ross pronounced the Limited Business zoning amendment “almost ready to go to Town Council.” This should raise alarms! On June 28 the CRC brought three other zoning amendments to Town Council for referral for public hearing before the Planning Board had completed its review. In what one public attendee called a “process foul,” CRC sidelined the Planning Board, which is charged with zoning matters.

Will this end-run be tried again with the Limited Business amendment? Will CRC conduct the community impact analysis it is mandated to perform before advising Town Council on policy and bylaw measures, and will it make public that analysis and its methodology? So far, we have seen no such analyses of any proposed zoning changes.

Many residents had high hopes for the change to a Town Council and “open government to the max.” We are growing disillusioned. Promises of “robust opportunity for public input” have not been met. Developers and business interests appear to have the ear of town officials, while impassioned citizens are ignored. As November elections approach, it’s time for further changes — not to zoning, but to those in charge!

Suzannah Fabing Muspratt is a 29-year resident of Amherst.