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Editorial: Amherst cannot escape need for more rental housing

One of the most pressing issues facing Amherst is the need for more off-campus student housing, along with better management and control over what now exists. As the University of Massachusetts expands, the likelihood is great that more older homes in neighborhoods close to campus will be converted to student apartments.

As we’ve seen, that can make for a fractious mix. The town has a Safe and Healthy Neighbors Initiative under way and discussion continues on a rental permit system to hold landlords accountable.

These efforts may mitigate conflicts in existing neighborhoods, but more housing units are needed. The question is where.

Proposals for new student housing complexes have not fared well in Amherst in the last decade. And a plan that just surfaced has quickly run into the same opposition that sunk previous proposals.

Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga., has an agreement to buy 154 wooded acres off Henry Street in the town’s Cushman neighborhood from W.D. Cowls Inc. The company would build a 170-unit development with cottage-style homes with a mix of two, three and four bedrooms. Units would be clustered to maintain open space, which would also create a buffer from the rest of the neighborhood.

Landmark would have on-site management. It has built similar projects in other college communities.

The proposal garnered early support from Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber or Commerce: “The benefit I see is there is a need for high-quality student housing that is itself separate from local neighborhoods.” Maroulis said The Retreat, as it is called by the developers, would expand the town’s stock of student housing without increasing the number of rentals in existing neighborhoods.

Neighbors in Cushman worry that their quiet, wooded neighborhood will be turned into party central when 500 or more students take up residence there. The development will mean more cars and a loss of woodlands that now provides a place for outdoor recreation.

In letters to the Gazette, some neighbors have already challenged whether the project meets the letter and spirit of the town’s master plan, which supports denser development in town centers while preserving open space in outlying areas.

The Planning Board will need to see all the details to determine what the review and permitting process will be.

In 2004 a Texas firm, also in the student apartment business, proposed a complex of 200 to 300 units, which would have housed up to 1,000 people on land off Rolling Ridge Road behind Hobart Lane in North Amherst. It was primarily for students but included affordable units for families. The size and density of the project concerned many and the plan ran into stiff opposition from residents.

Because of the location and the scope of the project, a comprehensive permit was needed. but this was turned down by the Select Board.

Four years ago, another out-of-state apartment developer floated the idea of an 800-bed project on the west side of Sunset Avenue near Fearing Street, but that project never got beyond informal discussions.

More recently, a proposal to rezone property in North Amherst center for a mix of housing for families and students was turned down by Town Meeting. And the Gateway district, a project to erect mixed-use buildings between the university and downtown, including rental housing, is stalled.

Town leaders must balance competing interests: a commitment to land conservation, respecting established neighborhoods and housing students, all of whom cannot live on campus.

If the planning and review process for The Retreat proceeds, there may be good reasons why it will not succeed. But Amherst must face the fact that the university’s strategic plan calls for adding students.

New housing must go somewhere. Build it, because those students will come.

Those who cannot be housed on-campus will continue to test the supply of rental housing in Amherst, exacerbating current problems.

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