At-large Amherst council candidates stake out positions on housing, new garage, climate

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2021 8:40:20 PM

AMHERST — At-large candidates for Town Council are aligned in their support for creating affordable housing, preserving locally owned businesses and combating climate change.

But the six candidates, including two councilors who have served on the inaugural council, are offering different visions in advance of the Nov. 2 town election for how Amherst meets these objectives.

At a League of Women Voters candidates forum Oct. 7, At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said changes to the town’s inclusionary bylaw, requiring developers to provide affordable housing, will boost the variety of housing stock.

“We need to find a way to build housing in between apartments and single-family homes,” Hanneke said.

Fellow at-large councilor Andy Steinberg said the town’s affordable housing strategy has included partnerships to preserve affordable units at Rolling Green Apartments and assist with the North Square Apartments construction.

“We need to use those models to continue moving forward,” Steinberg said.

Robert Greeney, a physics professor at Holyoke Community College and one of four challengers, said the town should amplify its effort to get duplexes and triplexes built that will stimulate the housing market.

Former School Committee member Vira Douangmany-Cage said Amherst should explore rent control and provide more housing vouchers to aid in building, expanding and renovating affordable housing.

“As a town we need to do a better job of serving seniors on fixed income, people who are on disability,” Douangmany-Cage said.

Ellisha Walker, co-chairwoman of Community Safety Working Group, said giving incentives to landlords to provide affordable housing and adopting bylaws that mandate upkeep of rental housing would help residents. The town could also negotiate with the University of Massachusetts to have more of its students live on campus, she said.

The most aggressive solutions for housing came from longtime Town Meeting member Vincent O’Connor, who said UMass should not be demolishing Lincoln Apartments and North Village, where graduate students have lived, and that property owners who are “bad actors” should have their apartments taken by eminent domain to create more affordable family housing.

“We should not have LLCs all over town buying up single-family homes to house six, eight, 10 people,” O’Connor said.

The at-large candidates also addressed town officials’ interest in getting a new privately constructed parking garage built, possibly on the town-owned lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets.

“I would not support another failed parking garage,” said O’Connor, adding that the town spent $6 million to net 30 new parking spaces at the Boltwood parking garage 20 years ago.

“I think we need to do more research and planning in regards to the parking garage because businesses definitely said they need parking,” Walker said. She suggested reimagining downtown through an equity lens so people from diverse backgrounds can earn a living.

While not opposed to a new garage, Douangmany-Cage said the immediate controversy is the possibility of building it in a residential community. “I’m opposed to building there,” Douangmany-Cage said.

She also said that the garage is not a solution to diverse voices being heard. “Part of our problem is the same people running the show,” Douangmany-Cage said.

Greeney said Amherst needs more input on where a parking garage should be and what it should look like to support locally owned business. “I am not convinced the current plan for a new parking garage is the best one,” Greeney said.

Steinberg, though, noting that the nature of retail is changing and that rents are going up due to property values rising, said Amherst should model its garage after Northampton’s, giving benefit to the Amherst Cinema and the future Drake performance venue.

“Northampton has been very successful in its parking garage,” Steinberg said.

Hanneke said zoning can do more to encourage locally owned shops, including requiring mixed-use buildings to have 40% of the first floor be retail. Deliberative planning in turn, she said, will lead to an acceptable parking garage.

Candidates were in agreement on reducing carbon emissions in line with a climate action plan adopted earlier this year. Hanneke cited the $35.3 million project to renovate the Jones Library as helping the town to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

Walker said a public carbon emission dashboard would help people work together as a community to reduce consumption, and O’Connor said federal money could assist residences to be better insulated and other buildings to be retrofitted. Greeney said he supports any combination of ideas to reduce greenhouse gases.

Douangmany-Cage used the topic as a call to defund police and reevaluate the Jones Library project

“I’ll give you some concrete suggestions — get police cars off the road,” she said, adding that the Jones project demolition is wasteful. “Dumping tons and tons of debris into a landfill is not the way to go.”

Zero net energy for town buildings is a model Steinberg supports and the library project does fit into that. He said the disposal of material related to demolition is minimal compared to eliminating the building that is the largest user of natural gas in town.

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