Thursday, November 7, 2013

Charge Of The Retreat

Landmark Properties recently filed a "Preliminary Subdivision Plan" for The Retreat (along with a check for $10,000), an upscale student housing development bitterly opposed by many North Amherst "neighbors."

147 acre woodland was sold by W.D. Cowls, Inc to Landmark Properties for $6.5 million 

The Amherst Planning Board has 45 days to respond, thus the upscale project will come up for public discussion in December.  This is only a preliminary round of hearings where the Planning Board offers advice and guidance, so it's not a drop dead approve/disapprove thing.

 Henry Street welcome sign

Sure to be controversial -- or I should say more controversial -- are the two "secondary entrances" on Henry Street and Flat Hills Road.   Primary access is on Market Hill Road where a service stub was put in when the Atkins Water Treatment plant was constructed back in 1994 on land sold to the town by W.D. Cowls, Inc.

Market Hill Road access near Atkins Water Treatment Plant

Henry Street is of course the home of Amherst's famous Salamander Tunnels, a save the salamander project that brought Amherst international media attention 25 years ago.

Landmark plans to work closely with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment to ensure the little critters do not become extinct in North Amherst (although they are not endangered anywhere else in the country).

 Why did the salamander cross Henry Street?

The proposed "Cluster Subdivision" consists of 123 lots, comprised of 175 total housing units -- 104 duplex, 71 single family -- for a total of 641 beds.  By clustering the units in a tighter manner more of the natural environment can be forever preserved.

This plan will, however, require Site Plan Review waivers from the Planning Board over frontage and setbacks.  Otherwise, to achieve the same number of units allowed by right, much of the open space would need to be sacrificed.

According to the recent state certified Housing Production Plan: "Housing supply has not kept up with increasing demand, resulting in higher housing prices and residents paying more than they can afford to live in Amherst."

Solutions?  The Housing Production Plan continues, "Appropriate housing for students, both on and off campus, in order to reduce the demand on the housing market in Amherst."

Amherst's number one demographic -- because of the University of Massachusetts -- consists of "college students" by a whopping 59.4% of our total population.  Landlords cater to this market by buying up older homes in the heart of residential neighborhoods, expanding their capacity and cramming them full of students.

Providing safe, convenient housing for 641 students with on-site management at The Retreat could free up 160 single family houses that could revert back to their original target audience:  families.  

The housing crisis in Amherst is the single most vexing problem to arise over the past generation.

We must not retreat from simple sound solutions.

The Retreat: a blueprint for positive change


Anonymous said...

ugh. how is this not sprawl development where any building can go anywhere regardless of the land surrounding it? welcome new jersey.

Larry Kelley said...

Pretty quick analysis. Glad you're not on the Planning Board.

Anonymous said...

The retreat is an excellent welcomed addition to Amherst. We are lucky to have it. The students need to live somewhere. Better on taxable land than un-taxable land. I think the deal is a good one for Amherst. Part of the land is developed and the other par,t at least half goes to conservation, and we don't have to pay for it. It is really a win win once the NIMBY's crying dies down.

GO RETREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Only pro-development people are allowed on the planning board, haven't u noticed? How did this land go from a proposed forest reserve on town plannning documents to this?

Larry Kelley said...

It's never been a priority of our Conservation Department, and has always been considered ripe for development (with adjacent water/sewer line).

Why do you think the town installed a partial road 25 years ago?

Walter Graff said...

Go Retreat!!!!

"former" south amherst resident said...

Do you guys know if any transportation or traffic topics have been discussed? Does anyone have any information?

Based on the location and the image it looks like they are designing this for a car user. Alternative transit options are quite limited, the level of service on the 44 is quite bad. I do not see anyone stepping up to pay for more service either.

It looks like there are 280~ish different households? Under the lowball assumption that each household has 1 car, can this town really take another 280 "peak hour" cars? How about Hadley? What if they have more than one car per household?

Given how bad traffic is during peak hours of the day, this town should consider growth with less cars in mind, not more. This is (probably) unsustainable for the town.

Either way, I am more interested on seeing what happens. Given the scale of the project I am sure we will all learn something from it after it is completed. :)

Anonymous said...


Your report seems to contain a contradiction. At one point you say, "The proposed "Cluster Subdivision" consists of 123 lots, comprised of 175 total housing units -- 104 duplex, 71 single family -- for a total of 641 beds."

Further down you say,"Providing safe, convenient housing for 641 students with on-site management ..."

Please explain how 71 single family units can exist in housing for 641 students? Are you saying this will house students with families? If so, that seems to be very different from the earlier proposals.

Larry Kelley said...

They are in discussion with PVTA for extra bus runs much like the town just announcing extra runs out to the Amherst Survival Center in North Amherst.

"Single family" is just an archaic term used in zoning. These days it mostly means "four unrelated tenants".

Nate said...

If there were "anti-development" people on the planning board, we would see far more student intrusions into residential neighborhoods and the worst-case scenario for affordable housing. I'm thankful we have smart and sensible people on the board who try to balance the crushing need for more student housing and an expanded tax base with the need for environmentally friendly, properly placed development. I just wish we didn't have the kind of "democracy" we get with Town Meeting, which indirectly, but clearly has given us The Retreat and student-free North Amherst. Town boards seem to recognize what many TM members do not: Amherst is a university town not a college town. There's a big difference.

Henry David Thoreau said...

If the residents of North Amherst want to keep that tract of woods undeveloped, there's a simple way for them to do it: put up their own money and buy the land. Once the residents own it, they can set up a trust, or donate it to the city or the state.

Instead the residents want to make the town spend other people's money to keep property owners from profiting from their land.

This is selfish and wrong.

Anonymous said...

Or the planning board could have recommended that it be rezoned for less dense use. Or tried to buy the development rights. Or followed the open space and master plans.

Anonymous said...

Remember the HAP Project in South Amherst? Remember all of the screaming about that? Remember the NIMBYs who came out to run for Town Meeting from Orchard Valley because of it?

You don't?

How about those horrible soccer fields on Potwine Lane? Do you remember the apocalyptic predictions about what would happen to the neighbors there?

You don't?

These things tend to blow over.

722 said...

Just put a quarter in your meter for ya! 722

Anonymous said...

In this instance, it doesn't matter if Planning Board members are pro-development or not. As I understand it, the project proposed is in keeping with the zoning regulations of the area, making it a "by right" development. The only thing the Planning Board can do is put conditions on it. And even then, I think their latitude is pretty limited.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Anon 1:15, the question of "by right" is up for a decision in the Mass state Land Court. This project won't move beyond preliminary stages until that question is settled.

Anonymous said...

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Thanks, Cinda.

Anonymous said...

The biggest blunder in this project is the mislabeling of the Cushman neighborhood as a "village center" which makes it fair game for commercial development.

Save Historic Cushman didn't help their cause by scattered and unfocused marketing. They focused on salamanders and a vague sense of "history" as an argument to block the Retreat. They should have focused on the real problems of the Retreat: traffic, infrastructure, transportation and displacing of families.

Larry Kelley said...

Displacing what families?

They are building something way off in the woods. Nobody is being displaced.

And by providing housing for all these college aged youth (99% of them who don't have kids to impact or venerable schools) it frees up the market for traditional one and two family houses.

For, you know, families.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 3:18: The ongoing legal challenge of the by right zoning doesn't change the fact that the Planning Board, as of now, is totally lacking in power to either deny or substantively influence the development as proposed. So attributing blame to the board because of an assumption that they are "pro-development" is ignorant and baseless.

I happen to be personally opposed to The Retreat and hope that the legal challenge is successful. If it proves unsuccessful though, it's not the Planning Board I'm going to blame. It's the residents of Amherst, many of whom finagle to get themselves on Town Meeting to oppose ANY proposal that is geared towards housing undergraduate students regardless of where it is located. We've had many opportunities to approve more sensibly located large scale undergraduate housing projects and have shot them all down.

The lesson, I think, is to be careful what you wish for. Or, perhaps more aptly, to be careful about the results of that which you wish for.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:36:

Just to clarify: I think you are conflating my comment at 3:18 with the one I was responding to at 1:15 or some other comment. I said nothing about the planning board in my comment.

Anonymous said...

the colleges/universities (whatever you wish to call them) only seem to be growing with more and more students. they are going to have to live somewhere. if this particular Retreat falls through, another one will be brought up soon enough. Again, they have to live somewhere

Anonymous said...

In answer to what families are being displaced ... The neighborhood surrounding the Retreat will no longer be populated by single-family, owner-occupied homes. Homes are already going on the market as people bail before their property values and quality of life plummets. Because of the zoning that allows the Retreat, these houses will be turned into rentals or replaced with businesses. That's how families are being displaced.

Anonymous said...

re: Larry Kelly @ November 7, 2013 at 11:31 PM ...

Extra PVTA buses and bus stops to serve the Retreat are just the first of many extra municipal costs this project is making necessary.

The problem with the Retreat is not its format per se. A large university needs a lot of off-campus student housing. The problem is the location of the retreat too far from campus.

Dr. Ed said...

If the residents of North Amherst want to keep that tract of woods undeveloped, there's a simple way for them to do it: put up their own money and buy the land.


Look at the GIS photo of where people built their houses relative to their property lines -- they built in the back, close to the Jones' land, likely presuming that it would always be forest.

In other words, that they would always enjoy the benefits of land which they did not own. Benefits for which they weren't even paying anything (including taxes) to have -- their houses had the seclusion/privacy of acres of forestland which they weren't even paying property taxes on.

Yes, the value of their property will drop when Cinda develops HER land, but they will only drop because she is no longer subsidizing them -- the values will drop down to what the actual properties are worth on their own and without what was a de-facto gift from Cinda.

They could have bought either this land or the development rights to it -- they likely still could if they paid enough money for it -- but instead they want the town to pay for it. So instead they want the town to buy it -- for them to enjoy.

They want the people living in The Boulders and Puffton to pay higher rents (property taxes are passed on to tenants via rent) so that they can continue to enjoy living in a bucolic forestland.

They want people who don't have this to pay for them to have it. This is the poor subsidizing the rich -- it's what Ronald Reagan was accused of trying to do, it's what people refer to when they mention things like "corporate welfare" and the like.

While I'd still would have principled disagreements, I would have some respect for the left if it was at least consistent. Where is the "social justice" in asking low-income people to subsidize those who are far better off then themselves????

Please don't ask me to listen to you "talk the talk" when you not only aren't "walking the walk" but instead driving your hydrocarbon-consuming automobile in the other direction.

Anonymous said...

"I'm going to blame ... the residents of Amherst, many of whom finagle to get themselves on Town Meeting..."

Finagle? In many (if not most) precincts, all you have to do to get on Town Meeting is nominate yourself. Very few seats are contested.

So if you're not a member of Town Meeting but you don't like what Town Meeting decides, quit your whining. You have no one to blame but yourself.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 11:09 points to one of the many problems of our Town Government. Those with an axe to grind are more motivated to participate than others. Since there is little or no competition for Town Meeting seats, special interest candidates are recruited to fight for or against particular articles. Possessing a special interest often blinds members to the larger issues facing the town, resulting in a "neglecting the forest for the trees" dichotomy of focus. In this instance, it is both the forest and the trees that will be suffering.

Anonymous said...

One of the advantages that will come from this is that thousands of students will now have a place to party in one spot. It will take the pressure off our neighborhoods. They will be able to safely party without interference. Maybe even Townhouse apartments will be spared.