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Editorial: North Square significant development for Amherst

  • Gov. Charlie Baker, from left, and DaraKovel, president of Beacon Communities Development, listen to Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc., during a June 14 groundbreaking for North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use, mixed-income project featuring 130 new apartments and space for eight to 10 businesses on Cowls Road in North Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Friday, June 29, 2018

A visit by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this month for a groundbreaking in North Amherst celebrated a significant mixed-use development, North Square at the Mill District.

The partnership, involving a private developer and local, state and federal support, will add to the town’s tax base, increase affordable housing and provide more commercial space while continuing the redevelopment of former industrial property.

“This is exactly the kind of thing we like to support,” Baker said June 14 about the $47.5 million project on Cowls Road, which will be built by Beacon Communities Development LLC, of Boston.

He was echoed by Select Board member Connie Kruger who said North Square represents values important in Amherst. “I see it as very progressive on affordable housing for this town,” she added.

The project, proposed nearly two years ago, will add 130 apartments and 22,000 square feet of commercial space for between eight and 10 businesses. Eight of the apartments will be designated for people earning up to 30 percent of the area’s median income, or about $12 an hour, and another 18 will be for households earning up to 50 percent of the median income.

This is the first time that Amherst has taken advantage of legislation allowing the town to grant special tax incentives for projects that include affordable housing for low- and moderate-income tenants. The tax break will be in effect for a decade. While North Square would generate an estimated $4.37 million in real estate taxes without the break over the 10 years, the town will collect $1.57 million during that period under the incentive adopted by Town Meeting.

Still, even with the tax break, the town will see a significant increase in tax revenue resulting from the development. It will be built on 5.3 acres of land owned by W. D. Cowls between the Atkins Farm Country Market satellite store and The Harp Irish Pub. Formerly the site of a sawmill and lumber production, that property currently generates $10,000 a year in taxes.

Also critical to the partnership are federal and state low-income housing tax credits and a grant from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

The property is being prepared for construction by removing foundations of old buildings. Dara Kovel, president of Beacon, said she expects about 70 apartments to be ready for occupancy next spring, with the rest completed a few months later.

She estimated that the project will create about 100 construction jobs and North Square eventually will permanently employ between 20 and 25 people.

Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls, is the ninth generation of her family to manage the business, which she said has adapted continually during its 275-year history. “Every generation of our family since 1741 has built what their generation of community has needed on this home farm site, north and south and west of Cowls Road,” she said.

Jones added that North Square at the Mill District is the latest addition to what she and her brother Evan Jones, president of Cowls Building Supply, envision as an “eats, arts and entertainment” destination in North Amherst.

Besides the Atkins farm store, the Mill District already includes the three-story, mixed-use Trolley Barn, with The Lift salon on the ground floor and a second Jake’s restaurant expected to open in August. The original Jake’s has been an institution on King Street in Northampton for four decades.

Kovel cited the commitment of the Jones family and the leadership of town officials. “This would not have been possible without the town of Amherst’s support every step of the way.”

The Joneses’ plan for the Mill District, which also includes the potential development of 12 acres on Sunderland Road, matches the town’s master plan guiding growth in village centers. “It has been Amherst’s vision for a long time to create a circumstance like we’re seeing today,” Select Board Chairman Douglas Slaughter said at the groundbreaking.

Also in attendance was retired congressman John Olver, who recalled that the first time he addressed the Select Board was last year to advocate for the North Square project. He described it then as “a double win for the town” because it provides residential and commercial development in North Amherst and sets a high standard for future projects.

We commend the Jones family, Beacon, and local and state officials for the partnership that we expect will produce a successful project in North Amherst.

The editorial was changed June 29 to correct the time period during which the North Square project would generate an estimated $4.37 million in real estate taxes. That is over the entire 10 years of the tax incentive granted by the town. Under that plan, Amherst will collect $1.57 million during that decade.