Bandstand proposed for Amherst Town Common

  • Georgie Lellman of Northampton, left, Lucy Grossman of Hatfield and Terra Szuhay of Amherst eat lunch Wednesday at the eastern edge of the Amherst Town Common, near where the Amherst Business Improvement District is proposing a permanent bandstand for musical acts, theater and other pastimes. GAZETTE PHOTO/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 06, 2017

AMHERST — The Amherst Business Improvement District is proposing a permanent bandstand for musical acts, theater and other pastimes for the eastern edge of the Town Common, near the Lord Jeffery Inn.

“The time is right with all the talk about the need for cultural activity and gathering spaces,” BID Executive Director Sarah la Cour said.

Designs for the bandshell are being developed by John Kuhn, a senior principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects, but won’t be publicly unveiled until later this month.

La Cour anticipates pushback from people worried about adding a permanent structure to the Town Common, which, despite its regular use for events such as the Taste of Amherst and the Amherst Rotary Community Fair, has had no buildings or markers on it since removal of the Chamber of Commerce information booth in 2014.

Changes to the Town Common have often met with resistance.

In 1991 the Amherst Rotary Club offered to design and build a $20,000 steel and masonry bandstand there at no cost to the town. However, the Select Board rejected the offer following an advisory Town Meeting article in which 72 favored and 76 opposed the gift.

Even though the erstwhile information booth made it onto the Common, how it did so remains a mystery. Legend has it that the booth only arrived in the late 1960s when businessman Walter Jones, the former owner of W.D. Cowls, Inc., had it built off site and installed overnight on a concrete pad that had been surreptitiously poured.

In 2009, when a permanent sign was proposed for the Amherst Farmers Market, which also would have had a designation for the Amherst Town Common, the project never advanced, despite support from then-Town Manager Larry Shaffer.

La Cour said she is not fazed, observing that on the original 1874 designs for the Common by Frederick Law Olmsted, a spot was reserved for a bandshell along Boltwood Avenue. The Common’s natural slope toward the South Pleasant Street side also would make a perfect ampitheater, she said.

A report from former Planning Director Jonathan Tucker shows that at least two permanent bandstands have been on the Common since the 1870s. One was there from 1875 to 1877, when it was destroyed, likely by vandalizing college students, and the other between 1903 and 1905, when it was removed for unknown reasons.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the bandstand is one of two capital projects the BID is focused on, the other being to bring public bathrooms to downtown Amherst. The bandstand is seen as the less expensive and easier project, even if it faces some criticism.

“It’s a high-profile addition so it would bring a lot of attention,” Bockelman said.

The Amherst BID, created in 2011, is up for renewal in fall 2018, Bockelman said, and the bandstand would be a tangible project to show how it has made a difference in the town.

La Cour said Kuhn’s designs will be brought to the BID board meeting July 14. The formal plans would then be presented to the Select Board in August.

In addition to the Select Board, the Design Review Board and the Amherst Historical Commission would both weigh in.

The bandshell proposal comes as a private group, called the Amherst Firehouse Arts Center, explores the possibility of converting the downtown fire station into a performance venue.

That project, though, is several years off, as the fire department continues to use the 1929 building and will do so until a new fire station is built in South Amherst. Bockelman said that the group wants to plant its stake so town officials understand there is interest in reuse of the Central Fire Station when it is vacated.

La Cour said the bandshell can be done more quickly.

“In lieu of the fire station, we see this as an opportunity to have a three to three-and-a-half season location for all kinds of performances and events,” said la Cour.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.