Editorial: Open minds key to Amherst development

Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2014

In town-gown relations, as in real estate, three factors matter most: location, location and — you guessed it — location. Nowhere is that more evident than in the latest arguments over proposals to bring University of Massachusetts students and year-round Amherst residents out of their separate spheres and into closer proximity downtown.

This month, consultants hired by the university and town proposed a strategy that would more directly connect UMass and its host community through commercial and residential projects designed to have students and townspeople living, shopping and dining side by side.

Amherst needs a good strategy on growth and this one deserves consideration. The report presented to the Town Gown Steering Committee would focus development in two areas: Massachusetts Avenue between North Pleasant Street and the Southwest dormitory complex, and North Pleasant Street from Massachusetts Avenue to East Pleasant Street, an area known as the Gateway Corridor. Said George Smith of the Philadelphia-based U3 Advisors, “Those are the places where I think you can really energize the edges of the university campus, (and) you can make the connections to the downtown.”

The plan envisions a mix of classrooms, restaurants, shops and entrepreneurial spaces. But the consultants include another element — student housing — that triggers familiar arguments among those who fear the disruption of their residential communities.

“Do we want to even maintain healthy neighborhoods around the university?” asked steering committee member Rolf Karlstrom, who lives on Fearing Street. He said a better approach would have been to revive the idea of a student village along University Drive, which would cluster students between the Southwest dorms and McGuirk Stadium — i.e. away from non-university neighborhoods.

While guiding development away from the center may appeal to some, it is not in Amherst’s best interests to shield its downtown from change. The center needs to remain vital and appealing to shoppers. The heart of Amherst must remain a destination — not just be the biggest of a variety of commercial zones.

Business development along the North Pleasant Street corridor near UMass continues to make sense. People already travel that busy artery and it is a natural home of commerce. Year-round neighborhoods nearby would not face dramatic change. But given where they lie, these neighborhoods should accept that some change is inevitable.

Meanwhile, commercial life in the center is hardly sitting still. As debate unfolds about the consultants’ grand plan, residents have raised questions about plans by Archipelago Investments to market apartments they say would appeal not only to undergraduates but also to UMass staffers, young parents and retirees. “Surprise! Surprise”!” Amherst resident and Town Meeting member John O. Fox writes in a column on this page today. “Both buildings are designed for undergraduates.”

To be fair, people who live in the non-university neighborhoods have legitimate causes for concern. Swelling the number of students living downtown could create a parking crunch and raise questions about the upkeep of apartments with an ever-changing group of residents. And memories of Blarney Blowout and countless smaller eruptions of student rowdiness naturally put the residents of otherwise peaceful neighborhoods on alert.

At the same time, however, Amherst residents and business owners are people who have made an affirmative choice to live and make a living in a university town. They benefit in ways small and large from their proximity to the school’s intellectual and cultural riches. They should remember that this richness exists in large part due to the 22,000 UMass undergraduates who arrive in Amherst to learn not only in the classroom but also in the dwellings where many get their first taste of independent living.

Time after time, anxious residents have resisted student housing projects and other business development. The result, the consultants noted, has been a place largely devoid of the kinds of partnerships that invigorate town and gown in other places. By opening their minds and trying to find a healthy balance, townspeople and the university could bring some of that vigor here.


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