Amherst, UMass to share $60,000 cost of development study
JOSH KUCKENS UMASS Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy talks with members of the Amherst community at th Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — A new study is expected to provide a long-term view for shaping development of the town and University of Massachusetts and creating a better and more vibrant host community.
UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy came before Town Meeting Wednesday to outline his concept for hiring an independent consultant to explore key strategic planning issues where Amherst and UMass intersect.
“How do we look at the long-term planning of both the town and the university?” Subbaswamy said. “In other words, in 25 years, what would we like that boundary to look like?”
The town-gown study, approved by a 122-46 vote at the fourth session of annual Town Meeting, will be paid for with $30,000 from municipal cash reserves and $30,000 provided by UMass.
Subbaswamy said both the town and UMass depend on each other for long-term sustainability.
“We must work together for the sake of both communities,” Subbaswamy said.
Town Manager John Musante said such strategic planning will strengthen neighborhoods and boost the local economy. “We need to pursue this joint hiring of a consultant,” Musante said.
The study will focus on housing issues, such as pressure on housing stock, public safety issues, including a rising number of police and ambulance calls, and economic development, Musante said.
“This is a unique opportunity, with a new chancellor coming in (with a) a willingness and openness to work with us,” Musante said.
Subbaswamy said that relationships already happen, as UMass contributes to the Business Improvement District, works with the town on the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking and applies the student code of conduct to off-campus behavior.
But Subbaswamy said master plans undertaken by the town and UMass have been more insular, including one that UMass completed last year, which didn’t deal with so-clled boundary issues or how to make a coherent community with the town.
Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said it is important that UMass understands its impact on Amherst. She complimented Subbaswamy for recognizing the need to plan together by using someone not associated with the town or UMass. “Sometimes it takes new eyes to see what’s not there,” O’Keeffe said.
Finance Committee Chairman Andrew Steinberg said the proposal recognizes that UMass challenges Amherst’s traffic, housing and public services.
“This would just be another small western Massachusetts town if the university weren’t here,” Steinberg said. “The university and town must plan together to assure the challenges are addressed and we continue to benefit from having a world-class university as part of this community.”
Lewis Mainzer of Precinct 10 said he supported the spending because a vote against it would be the town turning its back on UMass and would be a bad way to start a relationship with Subbaswamy, who was formally installed as chancellor last month.
Niels LaCour of Precinct 9, a former town planner who now works at UMass, said this should improve the relationship between the two entities.
“I see this as a real opportunity for the town and gown to work together in a very public, participatory process,” LaCour said.
A motion by John Fox of Precinct 10 to refer the article back to the Finance Committee for further consideration was defeated by a standing vote. Fox argued that the town has already conducted four housing studies in the past three years, and residents and officials need time to understand and critique these before beginning a new study.
“What could a $60,000 consultant offer that we haven’t already learned?” Fox said.
Nelson Acosta of Precinct 7 said the town and UMass have smart people that could work together without hiring an outside consultant.
“Should we be throwing money away because, hurrah, the chancellor is here?” Acosta said.
Carol Gray of Precinct 7 said the town is cutting teachers and yet keeps paying for studies. “That concerns me,” Gray said.
Subbaswamy pre-empted one likely question from the floor about whether UMass could house more students on campus. Subbaswamy said it is impossible to have all students living in dorms, though UMass will become the third largest residential campus in the United States when the Commonwealth Honors College opens in the fall, trailing only Michigan State and Rutgers University.
Subbaswamy said he was honored to participate in Town Meeting form of government. “This is great to be part of democracy at work,” Subbaswamy said.
It also may have marked the a unique appearance by a UMass chancellor to address Town Meeting.
“We believe that might be the first time that’s ever happened in history,” O’Keeffe said.
In other business, Town Meeting approved $464,500 in capital spending for buildings and facilities, including $150,000 for security improvements at the elementary schools, $30,000 for fire system upgrades at Jones Library and $15,000 to make the basement of North Amherst school a place to store town records. The vote was 95 to 56 in favor.
It was the $15,000 that became contentious, as Kevin Noonan of Precinct 5 made a motion to remove this and instead use the North Amherst building as future low-income housing rather than storage.
Noonan said because the space was used for the Amherst Survival Center, it has a full kitchen, showers and handicapped accessible bathrooms, and might make ideal for living space.
“It seems there could be other purposes, more human purposes,” Noonan said.
Janet Keller of Precinct 1 said converting the basement for people-related rather than storage-related uses would be preferable.
“It’s a critically important spot for us, it’s a critically important building for us,” Keller said.
Musante said basement space is not appropriate for sleeping quarters of any kind, even though some have argued it could be permanent overnight homeless shelter.
“I’ve thought about shelter reuse at that space, it just doesn’t work,” Musante said.
Town Meeting also accepted new rights of way for the roundabouts at Atkins Corner.