Amherst needs to get growing

What do you think of when you think of downtown Amherst?

I think of un-tapped potential, new economic opportunities and room to grow. I think downtown is a valuable resource and we haven’t yet discovered how much more it can contribute to our quality of life.

In Amherst we are lucky enough to have a downtown steeped in history, whimsically eclectic in its streetscape and welcoming to multiple generations. But it can be more.

Over the past few years we have seen development funds coming back into downtown. The intention is to create modern residential units and new and improved commercial space suited to 21st-century innovation and entrepreneurship. Those projects bring more people into town on a 24/7 basis. We should embrace that. More people living, working and playing downtown provide a vibrancy that is sustainable. Yet Amherst has been a regulatory morass for too long. We need to change that.

Our preservation of Amherst’s rural character and agrarian heritage has been stellar but we now need to address the economic impact of those choices and create a better balance. Leveraging strong partnerships now in place with our local institutions, like the BID’s agreements with the town of Amherst, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts, the time has come to move forward on economic development and expansion.

We are a community of nearly 40,000 people with a geographic footprint of 17,700 acres, yet we have a downtown commercial area of less than 1 percent of that. In fact our downtown commercial area is ridiculously small considering the world-class institutions we are home to. We have room to grow but have been impeded by our exclusionary zoning bylaws and perpetual process.

We could be growing in many directions. Up is a start, but there is significant redevelopment capacity throughout downtown. Holistically rethinking our downtown zoning districts and their dimensional regulations needs to be our next step. Allowing mixed-use redevelopment in a broader geographic context will significantly increase our economic growth and viability. We collectively developed a vision for this several years ago. The Master Plan, formulated with huge public participation, identifies the need to protect our significant natural and cultural resources by directing growth to our downtown and village centers.

Amherst hosts UMass, the biggest employer in the region. We, and they, deserve a downtown that provides the necessary goods, services and housing to support such an enterprise. We have the capacity to create a thriving downtown that entices locals and visitors to spend their time and money. One opportunity identified in the recent town/gown study initiated between the town and UMass is the North Pleasant Street corridor, running from Kendrick Park to the edge of the university. Also known as the Gateway, this area is ripe for redevelopment and provides a valuable physical connection between downtown Amherst and the university campus. This area should be a priority for economic revitalization projects both public and private.

There are steady complaints about Amherst’s tax rate, the ongoing burden to residential taxpayers and that there isn’t enough money for community services.

The answer is to diversify the tax base and generate additional tax dollars. Not easy in Amherst, but we are at a critical juncture and cannot let the opportunity slip by.

Figuring out issues like inclusionary zoning and downtown parking are important to the overall picture but we can’t let them place economic growth on hold. Visionary planning and zoning techniques such as form-based code and non-regulatory strategies such as tax increment financing districts are solid tools for our future but they require us to work together from a unified vision.

Now is our moment to change the way we do business and invite developers to build their projects in Amherst’s commercial core. We cannot let process impede progress. Downtown Amherst can be so much more.

Sarah la Cour is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.