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Columnist Johanna Neumann: Building resilient communities

  • A rendering of 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 Amherst, is displayed June 14, 2018 during the groundbreaking at the site. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



For the Gazette​​​​​​
Thursday, September 20, 2018

Last winter, the opening scene of Amherst Community Theater’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” charmed many of us as we crowded into Bowker Auditorium. We were swept into another world as Belle traversed her village en route to the bookstore, basket dangling from one arm and a book tucked under the other, waving bonjour to her neighbors as the town woke to a new day.

Many of us have experienced something similar here in the Pioneer Valley, where many of our downtown areas share the walkable features that make that scene so charming. Our downtowns and village centers, coupled with our strong values of preserving open spaces, producing food locally, supporting public transportation, and more, position our Valley’s towns to be models of resilient and sustainable communities for the 21st century.

Modeling the walkable community of the future will be critical because so much of America missed the mark. And it continues to miss the mark, as I recently witnessed on a trip to the eastern slope of Colorado, where sprawling one- to two-story housing developments gobble up the semi-arid grasslands at breakneck speed. It will take significant resources and focus to orient our nation away from these kinds of automobile-centric community layouts that contribute to air and climate pollution, social isolation, and the obesity epidemic. 

In our communities, notably in Amherst, there has been a thoughtful and robust public process to inform how our town will grow. A key aspect of Amherst’s Master Plan, which more than 1,000 residents helped shape 10 years ago and which our Town Council will revisit and codify in the coming years, calls for densifying our downtown and village centers to create vibrant community hubs while protecting the surrounding open spaces we love.

I recently asked our town manager at one of his “Cuppa Joe With Paul” outreach events how he thinks about the Master Plan. He told me pointblank that he sees that document as the vision of the people and he seeks to advance only projects that are consistent with it.

After a generation of relatively little new development in downtown Amherst, recently the vision laid out in our Master Plan has begun to unfold. On the northern end of Amherst’s downtown, modern, highly energy-efficient five-story buildings have sprung up on a vacant parcel, and replaced a rundown former motel across from a public greenspace. Several similar buildings have been approved in other downtown areas.

Some in our town have voiced concern about these buildings. I’ve heard complaints about their appearance — and about the changing character of our town. And there are arguments that, despite their LEED Gold standard and solar panels, the buildings are not green enough, that they don’t have a big enough setback from the road, that they don’t provide spaces for cars, and more. One Town Council candidate has even gone on record to say that if elected, she would put a moratorium on downtown construction.

I think these concerns fail to see the forest for the trees.

Greater density, which the new buildings offer, protects the open spaces we love, conserves resources and enables more of our neighbors to get to where they work, play and shop without using cars. That’s good news for our environment.

To date, the new five-story buildings approved for construction in Amherst will provide 600 new bedrooms. More people living downtown creates a natural clientele for establishments like Amherst Cinema and hopefully our new Amherst Food Coop. And more people living downtown will strengthen our sense of community as we walk to the bus stop or zoom by on one of the cool new electric bikes our town has made available to us. 

If the ecological and social benefits of the higher-density buildings alone don’t win you over, perhaps the financial benefits will. Already, the two inhabited buildings contribute $200,000 per year in taxes. When the rest of the buildings that have been approved in town get built, they will add $700,000 to the town coffers year in and year out.  

Those funds will help pay for the services we want — expanded bike paths, improved and more accessible sidewalks, attractive parks, robust libraries, responsive police and fire departments, excellent schools, well-maintained roads, and more — without soaking homeowners or pricing low- or moderate-income families out of our town. 

Unlike Belle’s provincial town where every day is like the one before, Amherst is changing with the times. And while these changes may not be an “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” they will improve our town and help us become the vibrant, resilient and sustainable community for the 21st century that so many of us envision.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She writes a monthly column on environmental and public interest issues and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.