Town of Amherst, born 1759. UMass/Amherst born 1863
This afternoon's meeting of the Town Gown Steering Committee, the first after a preliminary presentation earlier this month from their $60,000 consultant, was by far the best attended meeting since the super-committee was formed almost one year ago, with the audience numbering around 50.
Besides the usual crowd of neighbors living near the University, housing developers, business folks and elected town officials this meeting, for the first time, also attracted many students, most of them fraternity members.
Considering "college aged youth" make up the majority demographic in town it was nice to see that ratio nearly matched at this meeting which greatly concerns the future of the town and our flagship institute of higher education.
Town Gown Steering Committee
The critical component upon which much hope rests is the Public Private Partnership model. A private company develops a mixed use (housing and commercial) "student village" that increases housing supply for students (our #1 demographic) and commercial space for goods and services to sell them.
But the key requirement as far as the town is concerned is that the project be on the tax rolls. UMass is the #2 landowner in town, behind #1 Amherst College. As a tax exempt educational institution UMass pays no direct property taxes to the town, which has the highest property tax in the area, mostly shouldered by homeowners.
Good crowd on hand, including students
When an audience member asked why businesses seem to do well in Hadley compared to Amherst Committee member David Webber, also Chair of the Planning Board, pointed out Amherst Town Meeting prioritizes open space over development, trying to maintain that small town feel.
And any pro development zoning change requires a two-thirds vote of that legislative body. So until more progressive members are elected in larger numbers, economic development will continue to be an unrealized dream.
A couple of audience members suggested the University buy the run down tenements on Phillips Street and build a housing project for staff, faculty and grad students.
Back in 2006 UMass purchased 5 fraternity/sorority houses adjacent to Phillips Street, a slum area known as "Frat Row", and demolished them. The property now sits as open space.
Most of the students who spoke to the committee identified themselves as fraternity members and extolled the benefits of Greek life, pointing out they have more oversight than students who rent single family homes.
Maurianne Adams, a 40 year resident and long time neighborhood activist, told the Steering Committee this year long process was the first time she had witnessed the University and town really coming together to work for their own common good. She closed enthusiastically: "This has been a real morale boost for those of us who have lived here for many years."
Of course the elephant in the room was the March 8 Blarney Blowout incident, made even more palpable with the impending release of the $160,000 Davis Report.
Recent editorials in our two local papers lament the lateness of the report, saying it should have been released before the students' return.
Uncontrolled students -- as small a percentage as that may be -- feeds the ubiquitous anti-development behavior of Amherst Town Meeting, and the Blarney Blowout was the ultimate day of debauchery.
The Town Gown Steering Committee should orchestrate a pubic meeting just like today's to discuss the Davis Report with all the stakeholders -- especially students.
Because until we solve the problem of rowdy student behavior, all of these development projects are but a pipe dream.
Blarney Blowout busts