Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The decline of downtown Amherst

UPDATE: 9:00 AM Wednesday

Talk about prescient headline. This morning’s crusty Gazette has a banner headline announcing the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop—a downtown institution for over two generations—calling it quits.

Interestingly Barry Roberts said he had two bookstores as tenants (must be the other two) and they seem “to do well”. Well, I guess they will do a little better now.

Original post: Tuesday 10:30 PM

If all roads lead to Rome then you better have ample spaces for folks to park their chariots.

Hometown developer Barry Roberts drove home that message in a 1.5 hour discussion with the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-state agency with the power of eminent domain made up of four locally elected members and one Governor appointed.

Barry was the guest speaker at our meeting tonight (also attended by rookie Select Person Diana Stein) And since the undersized downtown parking garage was the last project the ARA had any involvement with, his message hit home.

He noted “A significant change in the atmosphere of the downtown,” for commercial rental property (a fair amount of which he owns.) “There’s just not the demand like 10 or 15 years ago. Most of the people are looking to open restaurants.”

But he noted that Amherst College and Umass are doing a better job with food service, so the students no longer flock to the down town as they did in the good old days (at least not for food anyway)

With downtown business overly centered on restaurants we simply “Don’t have a great mix of stores.”

Barry’s advice? “Amherst has to figure out how to be that special place” (that attracts people to the downtown.) And they will want to park.


Anonymous said...

I posted my appreciation for the hard work and beautiful job that the Public Works people did on revamping the look of downtown in MassLive. Now that we have put lipstick on it how do we attract and as Barry stated make Amherst a place to go to. We lost Faces, Sweeties, and various other stores. What are some suggestion to give this town a pulse again and I agree with the missed opportunity for a real parking garage. It is a parking lot with a basement that is not utilized for parking.

-Ryan Willey

Anonymous said...

Good point! Stores like Sweeties and Faces attract teenagers (who, like it or not, do flock downtown and always seem to have spending money) and the college set. If we could find a good way to attract stores like that, I think they would do well. Newbury Comics is a store like that...how is it doing? Does the owner have any suggestions for attracting similar stores?

dominique said...

The closing of the Jeff bookstore is really a shame. Does anyone else remember that several years ago some were complaining that there were nothing but bookstores in downtown Amherst? And now it's turning in to the land of restaurants? I guess I'd rather eat than read, too . . . ?

Anonymous said...

Has anyone noticed how many new businesses have come and gone in Amherst in the last few years? The rents are high and we all know parking is limited.

Take Faces for instance. The owner tried to make a go of it, but the landlord stood firm on his price. That building has been sitting empty for years. Not to mention it's falling apart. Brick by brick, daily. Ask Ren Gladu at the Mobile station.

But high rents and parking aside, we all know the real reason downtown Amherst is on the downslide. Money. It's taken twenty or so years, but the onslaught of corporate stores in Hadley continue to swallow the students cash. And this is just the beginning. The route 9 developing won't stop until every inch on both sides is used from the Amherst town line to the Coolidge bridge. You can count on it.

Certainly, UMass isn't upset by Hadley's growth. It seems like the PVTA buses coming from Amherst stop at each mall every ten minutes. They, like Hadley, want students to spend money on their own turf. Just look at the new 50 million dollar recreation facility on campus. Why would a student, faculty or staff pay for a gym membership at Gold's or Planet Fitness. You'll already be paying for that membership in your increased student activities fee.

Just about every college student has a car now. Jesus, every high school kid has a car. And THEY will travel to get what they want. As long as there's parking.

So my advice to fix the "decline of downtown Amherst" is. Build a four to five story parking garage over that parking lot with a basement. The way it should've been done in the first place. You can skip the pretty flower beds and fancy walkways this time. Save that stuff for the store fronts. Next, build an indentical one... say maybe behind CVS.

Then pull every tree out of Kendrick Park and build a mini mall. Otherwise, don't expect anytime soon the five-college community to flock downtown "like in the good old days".

Once before, again and always. Amherst is a college town.

Give the people what they want.

LarryK4 said...

Hey Ryan,

Yeah, the downtown is starting to look better—but pity the poor businesses that have endured the disruption while the DPW does the job.

Yesterday I went thru town center on my bike and it looked like the entire DPW department was engaged in the construction project, making me wonder what other routine things are not getting done.

In other words, I wish BIG projects like that would go out to the private sector that specialize in such things.

We really need to address the parking problem first and foremost. As I seem to be the only one to remember, I will remind folks that the ONLY stipulation the ARA put on donating the central land in town (valued then at $350,000) for the Garage was that it had to be EXPANDABLE.

So about $50,000 was added to the initial cost in order to fulfill that stipulation. Thus the garage could easily (constructionwize anyway—certainly not politically) support another deck at a relatively cheap cost.

The parking lot behind CVS can also easily and cheaply support a deck as well. Either one, either way, but we should start today.

At one point Diana Stein (yeah, we let non ARA members speak) asked Barry if “high taxes” are a burden to business. He looked her right in the eye and said “If the CPA tax increase passes I’m simply going to pass it along to my tenants…. another nail in their coffin.”

Amherst needs to significantly change its anti-business attitude. After all, Small Business owners (and we do two-thirds of the heavy lifting in the overall economy) are NOT ALL REPUBLICANS.

Amherst is a $65 million multi-national corporation and we have a “Human Rights Director” but not a Public Relations Director (Umass has an office of, I believe, five and about a $500,000 annual budget for Umass News Services).

Perhaps if we had a knowledge marketing PR person we could avoid those embarrassing “Only in Amherst” moments that make us the laughing stock of the nation. And they could also work to accent the positive on all the good things in our downtown. You gotta spend money to make money.

Even Obama now grudgingly admits “The Surge” worked in Iraq.

Sometimes when things are at their darkest and you only have a limited supply of fuel rather than rationing it, take a chance: fire it up in one big bonfire!

(See ya at the Pancake Breakfast)

Anonymous said...

I will be there is Jada going enjoy some pancakes?


LarryK4 said...

Jada loves pancakes! (she's already an All American Girl)

Mark said...

It is time to ban cars from downtown. I am proposing a car free area for Amherst - one that will reconnect us with our neighbors. It is time to break free from our addiction and stop sending $$ to exxonmobilbush.


Sammy Jo said...

I'm not surprised about the JA bookstore. I stopped going in there when the attitude of the employees turned so snotty that I didn't feel welcome, which is too bad because they had some nice books. I try to support as many local businesses as I possible can with my wallet.

Business owners have to remember that you need to WELCOME every person that enters your store and to act as if you WANT their business, not just their money.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a car free downtown is a brilliant idea. We can all park in Belchertown and take the monorail. Wait, does it run during the winter?

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to meeting Jada at the pancake breakfeast Larry. No traffic in downtown, to radical of an idea, kinda like Ron Paul. great ideas but not in the modern world.


maryd said...

Hi Larry, I'm going off topic here. Has anyone else used the town website request/complaint tracker? I left a question there on the 7th, logged in and left another comment on the 15th, and here it is another week with no response. With all the hoopla over it I thought someone would reply to me by now.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that Amherst is an unhealthy downtown. Sure, Faces is gone and so is Sweeties but they both left many, many years ago. The downtown has changed. Think of it as a restaurant haven, which is something a mall will never be.

Downtowns change, and ours is not filled with lots of empty storefronts.

JA Bookshop is closing because it is a marginal business as is every independent bookstore in America.

I do agree we need a bigger parking garage and that's because the downtown is healthy. It doesn't need an appliance store or hardware store or a buggy whip store to prove it.

Written from my table at Amherst Coffee, which is packed morning 'til night.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, Barry was, understandably, very proud of The Amherst Cinema project and Amherst Coffee.

Although he did say in reference to Amherst Coffee "I don't know how they make it work: everybody sits for hours and only spends $1.50 for a cup of coffee...

Anonymous said...

Compared to, say, Greenfield or Turner's Falls, downtown Amherst is a veritable Hong Kong of wealth creation.

Of course, I don't go there much any more.


Because I am not made to feel welcome. I'm a Republican. Just about every business has signs or material on display which insults me. The independent bookstores both made a point of showcasing Leftist works -- why should I shop there? The coffeeshops (with the honorable exception of Amherst Coffee) are similarly unwelcoming.

Nobody insults be at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. Maybe if our home-grown businesses didn't alienate nearly half their customer base, downtown Amherst would be in better shape.

LarryK4 said...

Business and politics don't mix, at least not very well. And I know some of you think that this is the case of the pot calling the kettle black.

At my club I try (and again the key word is try) to never start a conversation about politics with a member.

If, however, a club member wants to talk politics and initiates the conversation then I'm more than happy to give my opinion.

And these days...

Anonymous said...

...the McCain/Palin ticket is in trouble.

Anonymous said...

This town is so boneheaded that it built a parking garage (if you could call it that) and then went around taking spaces away all over the place. Perhaps there would be enough spaces if they restored some of the spaces (such as in front of J. Austin and scandahoovian that disappeared over the last few years.

Anonymous said...

The blind (BR) leading the blind (LK) here? Or would that be the Palin Plan to rescue Amherst: get more kids addicted to drivin' and parkin', let sea levels rise a hundred feet till the Hadley Mall looks just then like Venice (Italy, not California) - you betcha!

Anonymous said...

“If the CPA tax increase passes I’m simply going to pass it along to my tenants…. another nail in their coffin.”

what a great community leader...i am a rich developer simply willing to stick it to my customers...where is the hometown spirit, jackhole? roberts just wants to kill, that is what roberts is about...don't be fooled by his horse show and coffee movies, he only got that to happen by bending the rules for special easements...for his ultimate profit of course. lipstick on a developer is still a developer.

ryan, i duely responded to your lame public works glorification, just like i said, and LK confirmed...it should have been private sector work...and pubic works can take some classes on road building and patching techniques, since they desparately need a clue.