Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best Laid Plans ...

27 Kendrick Place

I guess the only way to ensure a contract is carried out after you die is to never die, or quickly return as a vengeful ghost.

Eva Schiffer, former Select Board, Finance Committee member and long-time German language professor at UMass, left very specific instructions when she bequeathed her cute little house on Kendrick Place (the street, not the five-story mixed use building currently under construction in the north end of town center) to the Amherst Housing Authority.

After she dies, sell the house for 40% off to a blue collar town employee -- police, fire or DPW -- who would otherwise find it hard to afford the high property values in town combined with the highest property tax rate in the area.

In fact she was so specific she even banned anyone associated with those other branches of Amherst public services, the schools and library.

Thus the buyer, a town employee, would have benefited somewhat greatly via a hefty discount; but not so much the Housing Authority for brokering the deal.

Instead we have a town employee, Sandy Pooler, with a bleached white collar and member of the $100K club benefiting by a reduced price, $225K vs $269,700 assessed value ($307,000 appraised).

And the Housing Authority also greatly benefits by about $200,000 vs zero if the original contract had been followed.

Finance Director Sandy Pooler presenting to Amherst Town Meeting (showing them the money)

A dozen people did make inquiries about the property and they had equal opportunity to place a bid, so no special favors were shown to Mr. Pooler, the sole bidder.   Plus, those that know him would agree he's about as strait laced, goody two-shoes as they come -- so no aspersions on his involvement.

After all, who doesn't like a great deal on a house within walking distance to your office.

But there's also no doubt that the auction could have been better publicized, or the project turned over to a professional real estate agent (of which Amherst has many) who would have been motivated to work tirelessly for the greatest return.   

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saving Miss Emily

 Sun going down on Emily Dickinson

I'm not a lawyer of course, but I do understand English.

And the wording -- especially "perpetual" -- of the legal easement between Carriage Shops owners/Trustees, the late Dick Johnson and Jerry Gates, and the town clearly indicates in plain English that the wall used to paint the historic mural was guaranteed to remain standing and undisturbed ... forever.

Sure, back ten years ago the owners obviously never thought they would sell the entire complex lock, stock and mural.  But a local developer friend of mine told me 30 years ago, "When you own property everything is for sale ... if the price is right."

 Carriage Shops main building from above (Mural on back wall facing West Cemetery)

But when million of dollars are on the table, it's hard not  to be convinced otherwise.  Problem is the town does not stand to gain an immediate windfall, and they do have a legally binding document that should cause major design considerations, or torpedo the lucrative deal.

"The trustees shall not undertake nor permit any activity which will alter or deface the appearance of the mural."  Like, maybe, a wrecking ball for instance?

From the vantage point of her placement high on the wall, Miss Emily looks out over her final resting place and that of her entire family.  In a town brimming with history, West Cemetery is our most hallowed ground.

So too is the mural. 

Miss Emily (and Lavinia)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Building With A View

Looking north from above The Trolley Barn, North Amherst

The Trolley Barn, Amherst's newest mixed-use building, is ready for (full) occupancy after only one construction season, although many hurdles were overcome before first breaking ground.

Kuhn Riddle design, Integrity Development construction gurus

The $2 million 12,000 square foot three-story building will provide 4,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor hosting up to three small businesses.  

The upper two floors are divided into a total of four 4-bedroom apartments, two per floor (although Cinda Jones said she is in negotiation with a party who may rent the entire top floor).

 Recessed sprinkler (right), smoke detector (left)
Full sized $70,000 elevator, ready to handle furniture move in

 Since the building is greater than 7,500 square feet it has an elevator and a nifty sprinkler system that provides both form and function. The sprinkler heads are retracted flush with the ceiling until needed (should the beast come calling), and they then drop down to douse the fire.

Without the sprinkler heads sticking out, tenants cannot use them as clothes hangers, which drives the Fire Department crazy.  But it doesn't come cheap, as the cost for the entire building was $85,000.

Since Town Meeting did not approve zoning tweaks last year the building is limited to only two units per floor which means l-o-t-s of room (2,000 square feet) per apartment.

 Kitchen common area

 Each individual bedroom has its own private bathroom, with four bedrooms per apartment.  Rent is $800/bedroom.

Double Vision:  two bedrooms side by side
What light through yonder window breaks?
First development of many in The Mill District

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

First Day Celebration

Community spirit was alive and well on the Amherst town common as a couple hundred folks turned out for the First Day Celebration, a community party commemorating the first day of school tomorrow.  Parents seemed happier than their school aged children.

Thursday  UPDATE:

School Superintendent Maria Geryk introduced all the principals in the Amherst Regional Public School System and Town Manager John Musante welcomed the crowd as part of the new town/schools Amherst Together initiative.

 Carol Ross, John Musante, Maria Geryk .  All we needed was WHMP radio

Sam The Minuteman greets Ultimate Frisbee members

UMPD mounted patrol brought Miranda

AFD Ladder 1 towers over the Middle School chorus

Electrifying Move

Corner of Pray Street/East Pleasant Street, northern end of town center

Now there's a job that leaves little margin for error:  No doubt why power lineman are in the top ten for deaths per 100,000 workers.  

Probably a combination of working at higher altitudes where the fall can be fatal, and of course dealing with electricity, and often times (think October snowstorm) putting in long hours.  

In discussing the long, l-o-n-g awaited Pine Street renovation in North Amherst, DPW Chief Guilford Mooring told the Amherst Select Board that Western Mass Electric charges a $40,000 per pole relocation fee.   Yikes!

But this relocation work at the corner of Pray Street and East Pleasant is being done at the request of Archipelago Investments the developer of Kendrick Place, a five-story mixed use building that will tower over the Triangle Street/East Pleasant intersection, at the gateway to UMass/Amherst.

On Monday night the Amherst Select Board unanimously approved the DPW/Town Manager request to apply for a $1.5 million MassWorks Grant to pay for those same powerlines to go underground, from Pray Street through the Triangle/E Pleasant intersection up to Chestnut Street.  

Interestingly the Town Manager did admit to the Select Board that this would never happen with town money (not a high enough priority) but since its state money ...

Some anti-development folks are already pretty upset with the town over the development of Kendrick Place -- specifically the Planning Board waiving a traffic study to assess the impact of 102 tenants. 

Since the (student oriented) development is within the "Municipal Parking District," and within easy walking distance of UMass, it's not expected to require much parking.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

School Committee Fires Back OML

Lawrence O'Brien, Rick Hood,  Trevor Baptiste Chair

After a somewhat contentious 45 minute discussion the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee voted 5-2 to support new Chair Trevor Baptiste's response to an Open Meeting Law complaint filed by former School Committee member Tom Flittie, who was not at the meeting.

The contested 7/14 meeting was called by then Vice Chair Trevor Baptiste to put forth a resolution countermanding a memo signed by the Chairs of the Amherst, Pelham, and the Regional School Committees (but done so without any deliberation of their committees).

Lawrence O'Brien and Katherine Appy -- who both signed the original memo as Chairs -- adamantly opposed Mr. Baptiste's letter, which goes to both to Mr. Flittie and the Attorney General.  But five members did support it, so the motion passed 5-2.

The motion was slightly amended (by unanimous vote) to add to Baptiste's letter a memo from the town attorney suggesting the meeting was not legal, and a copy of the Regional School Committee's policy with regards to duties of the Chair and Vice Chair.

Voting in favor:  Trevor Baptiste, Rick Hood, Sarah Dolven, Dan Robb and Stephen Sullivan.

Two Amherst members who attended the renegade 7/14 meeting -- Amilcar Shabazz and Kathleen Traphagen were not in attendance this evening, but presumably would have voted in favor of the motion.

Things That Go Bump ...

Cottage Street near town center

Last night the Select Board gave unanimous approval for the DPW to install three speed bumps along the short length of Cottage Street, which connects Triangle Street with Chestnut Street and is often used as a "cut through" to get to the High School or Middle School.

Although rookie SB member Connie Kruger expressed reservations: "I see them as a last resort" and she feared, "Now everybody is going to want them." But she still went along with the other four members in voting yes.

DPW Chief Guilford Mooring called them "The best option," pointing out that the majority of speeders are not local residents who live on the street so "education" will not work all that well.  

And the road is already undergoing major renovations, so to install the bumps now would be slightly more economical. Total cost of the project is $122,000.

'Twas A Conspiracy!

Helen Berg, former Select Board candidate

Forget who fired the fatal shot on the Presidential motorcade or how much thermite was used to bring down those gorgeous towers of glass and steel, little old Amherst has its very own wacky conspiracy theory:

The Blarney Blowout, the most disruptive public disorder of the decade, was a plot "fabricated and orchestrated" by town officials to increase the (woefully inadequate) public safety department budget.

Umm ... yeah.  Safe bet Ed Davis did not interview Helen Berg for her observation about the Blarney Blowout as part of his $160,000 study, due out any day now.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Culinary E-X-P-A-N-S-I-O-N

Judie's Restaurant, arguably the top sit-down-and-stay-a-while eating establishment in the downtown and icon for most of their 37 years of operation, received unanimous approval from the Amherst Select Board for an expansion into the 650 square foot ground floor of Boltwood Place, formerly occupied by Scandihoovian's.

The function room is a separate stand alone open space attached to the rear of the restaurant with a lift allowing for handicapped access.  Partner Dave Williams told the Select Board, who are the town's Liquor Commissioners, an operation that does group art will be hosting events in the new facility, which is expected to be operational in late September. 

Dave Williams (left) and  Attorney Kristi Bodin (right)

A Question Of Priorities?

Leisure Services & Supplemental Education (aka Recreation Department)

In addition to the $212,000 tax dollars lost on one golf course and two outdoor pools last year, the main governmental recreation entity that manages both of those, LSSE, also lost an additional $349,246 on other recreational programs.

Yes, that brings total losses last year on recreation to well over a half million dollars.  Or $561,246 to be exact.  For RECREATION.

Recreation program fell short of budget revenue projections by $141, 984
Hidden costs:  Employee Benefits, capital = $207,262 in additional losses

Expensive Summer Pastimes

 Mill River Pool, North Amherst

So in addition to the $100K the town spent subsidizing the expensive game of golf last year, we also lost another $112K on the outdoor pools.  No big surprise since they, like the golf course, never break even.

But still, $112K is a lot of cash.  

$66,600 total revenues, well below projected $90,000

Expenses of $178,969 on revenues of $66,600 = $112,370 in red ink

Main difference between the two recreation items is of course the pools attract far more families -- especially children -- and folks of lesser economic means, since swimming does not require expensive equipment to participate. 

In addition, a few years back when I requested under Public Documents Law (which the town bitterly opposed) the names and hometowns of Cherry Hill season pass holders, it turned out that a majority were not even Amherst residents. 

Dimming The Light

The door to open government just closed a few inches with an "emergency" measure signed earlier this month by Governor Duval Patrick (so it went into effect immediately) forbidding police departments from releasing the names of perps arrested for domestic violence.

Apparently proponents of the measure feel victims are less likely to report acts of domestic abuse, fearing the local paper will publish their address, thereby identifying them.

But most (good) newspapers have policies in place to protect underage victims or those impacted by sensitive issues such as sexual abuse, suicide, or domestic violence.

In the interests of protecting the victims of this sordid scourge that strikes 25% of American women, this broad stroke measure will also serve to protect the perps. 

Last Fiscal Year APD arrested 59 individuals for domestic Assault & Battery.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

If A Reporter Falls In The Forest ...

The painful decline in the newspaper industry nationwide continues unabated.   Once again it hits close to home.  The Daily Hampshire Gazette has parted ways with Bob Dunn, yet another front-line reporter from the ranks of an already decimated stable.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in Amherst, home of the state's education flagship -- and city unto itself -- UMass/Amherst:  25 years ago the Daily Hampshire Gazette/Amherst Bulletin news operation employed 13 full-time benefited employees (10 Bulletin, 1 Gazette, 1 shared) and another 15-20 Bulletin part-timers. 

Now the Gazette/Bulletin operation consists of only two full time benefited employees:  reporter Scott Merzbach and editor Debra Scherban. 

And that simply reflects national trends, although probably a lot worse, set in motion by a rise of the Internet over the past ten years: Classified advertising down 74% (thanks to Craigslist), overall print advertising down 61%, weekday circulation down 47%.

Simply put, the newspaper industry is drowning in red ink.

Plunging profits mean cuts in overhead.  Newsroom staffing has dwindled from 54,700 journos in 2002 to 38,000 in 2012, a drop of 31%. And it's only going to get worse.

If you really think Facebook works as a news provider then simply look what happened last week.  The riotous events in Ferguson, Missouri dominated Twitter and cable news, while Facebook was awash in the "Ice Bucket Challenge."

The loss of this vanishing breed -- a good reporter -- should be a wake up call.  You know, like a bucket of ice water dumped on your head!

Friday, August 22, 2014

DUI Dishonor Roll

 Scott Urban, 22, stands before Judge Madous on Monday 

This week it's a tie:  the perp, Scott Urban, and the downtown bar that served him his last drink, obviously when he was already quite intoxicated, McMurphy's Uptown Tavern.

Even if he did have only "two cups of bud light" while at McMurphy's, with a BAC a few minutes later of .189% -- more than twice the legal limit -- he was pretty plastered when the bartender slid him those drinks.

McMurphy's Uptown Tavern, Blarney Blowout day 2012

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Another Open Meeting Complaint

Trevor Baptiste (2nd from left) leads rebellious 7/14 meeting which attracted a quorum 

Former School Committee member Tom Flittie has filed an Open Meeting Law complaint over the renegade 7/14 meeting called by (then) Vice Chair Trevor Baptiste, where five members passed a resolution decrying a critical memo sent out from Amherst, Pelham and the Regional school Chairs strongly criticising Amilcar Shabazz for statements he made at a Equity Task Force Meeting in June.

Of course the interesting thing is his complaint alleges that the 7/14 meeting was not properly posted in Amherst.  Actually it was ...  for about an hour.   And then the Town Clerk's office was told to take it down and send out a follow up cancellation notice.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, now chaired by Mr. Baptiste, will take up discussion of the OML complaint at their next meeting. 

Controlling The Message?

A two hour frank discussion about race 
Although WHMP was not snarky enough to set up up empty chairs at the "Reading, Writing & Racism?" community forum this morning on the Amherst Town Common to represent Amherst town officials last minute cancellation, they did manage to mention it a few times during the two hour broadcast.  To the applause of the studio audience of 35 or so.

 Crowd on the town common watching live radio broadcast

Town Manger John Musante (whose brother Dave is WHMP general manger), School Superintendent Maria Geryk and new "Media & Climate Communications Specialist" Carol Ross had originally accepted the offer from WHMP  (not exactly a Fox News) to discuss the new "Amherst Together" initiative, a direct response to the racial turmoil over the past year.

Town Manger Musante already caught criticism on Monday night at the Select Board meeting, which consisted entirely of his "evaluation," where SB member Alisa Brewer bristled at his entering into an agreement with the schools without first checking with his bosses, the Select Board.

The schools lack of transparency was repeatedly cited as a problem.  And not just from parents, activists or the media.

Recent ARHS graduate Catia Correia, who worries about her brothers in the aftermath of #Ferguson, talked about the racial incidents surrounding teacher of color  Carolyn Gardner:

Other panelists brought up all the usual criticisms of our public schools -- the achievement gap between students of color and white students, low percentage of minority teachers and just the perception that the administration takes an us against them stance with community members who are trying to help.

By failing to show up for this important unscripted event, town and school officials sent a message that they are uncomfortable having a frank discussion about race when they are not in control of the microphone. 

Makes you wonder what they are (still) trying to hide?

Sonji Johnson-Anderson tells panel they did not need a question mark after the title "Reading, Writing & Racism?"

Stephen Armstrong, Ph.D. and owner of Kumon in South Amherst asks panel "Specifically what are you going to do over the next 12 months to level the playing field?"