Community Spotlight: Amherst
In Amherst, Public, Private Investments Bear FruitTown Manager John Musante says a plan to position downtown Amherst as a center for innovation is gaining momentum.
“One of the keys is to make it an attractive place where people can live, play, and start and grow a business,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the town is doing all it can to redevelop its downtown and strengthen its relationships with UMass Amherst, Amherst College, and Hampshire College.
A recently released report from the 24-member Town Gown Steering Committee, titled “The UMass/Town of Amherst Housing and Economic Development Plan,” outlines strategies, interventions, and recommendations to enhance the overall desirability and affordability of living and working in Amherst. The report is based on an analysis conducted by consultant U3 Advisors that cites the need for an increase in quality housing for UMass students, faculty, and staff that will lead to a stable balance and strengthen neighborhoods, as well as an expansion of the tax base, which could be achieved by encouraging entrepreneurial and research endeavors and targeting opportunities to support the business sector.
The special committee formed by UMass Amherst and the town of Amherst to address the common housing and economic-development opportunities delivered its final recommendations only two months ago. But a number of significant public and private investments over the past year have already led to change that will help bring the plan to fruition.
“Overall, 2014 was a breakthrough year for Amherst,” Musante said, citing examples of how public funding and private investment have worked together to pave a pathway to success.
Last October, the town was awarded a $1.5 million MassWorks Economic Development Grant to bury the utility lines in the north end of its downtown, which will allow investors maximum use of any available property.
Meanwhile, Archipelago Investments LLC in Amherst has become a major player in that neighborhood and has ambitious plans to build two major, mixed-use, LEED-certified buildings there. The first is a five-story structure called Kendrick Place, which is under construction on a vacant lot on the corner of Triangle and East Pleasant streets across from Kendrick Park.
The ground floor will contain commercial space and a café, while the upper stories will house 36 luxury apartments with floor-to-ceiling glass, white-oak hardwood floors, stainless-steel appliances, and views of UMass and Amherst College. “We are tremendously excited about Kendrick Place,” Musante said.
The project is expected to be complete in August and is the second of its kind in Amherst by developers Kyle Wilson and David Williams, who invested $4 million into Boltwood Place, which opened in 2012 in the back of Judie’s Restaurant, featuring 12 loft apartments in a LEED-certified, award-winning, mixed-use building with 650 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.
Two months ago, Archipelago received approval from the planning board to build a third mixed-use, five-story building called One East Pleasant near Kendrick Place, on the site of the old Carriage Shops, which have been deteriorating for some time.
Plans call for demolition of the 52-year-old structure originally built as a motel before it was converted into shops in the 1970s, along with two additional buildings that house the Loose Goose Cafe and the law offices of Seewald, Jankowski & Spencer.
One East Pleasant will contain commercial and retail space on the ground floor and about 80 apartments on the upper stories. “The permits for the building have been approved. There is one ongoing appeal which will result in a short delay, but the goal is to have it built and occupied by 2017,” Musante said.
Both Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant will contain incubator and maker space on their ground floors.
“It’s an exciting component, and the developer is working with the town, the university, and the Business Improvement District to attract research and development spinoffs,” Musante said, adding that the report generated by the Town Gown Steering Committee shows UMass spent $194 million on research in FY 2013, and although 24 patents and 21 license and option agreements were issued, little of this potential was realized locally. Reasons cited include Amherst’s lack of space for startups, along with a lack of community among those that do exist.
Musante believes having incubator space close to the UMass campus in buildings where people can also live and play has real potential for the town, and free wi-fi and Internet service available downtown will also help to position it as an innovation district.
Sarah la Cour agreed. “Combining business and social space will make it easier for spinoffs coming out of the university,” said the executive director of the BID, as she explained that the business community is doing its part to promote downtown as a walkable, livable center.
Variety of Undertakings
The town adopted an innovative master plan in 2010, and Musante said one of its primary focuses is to concentrate on development downtown and in the village centers of North Amherst, East Amherst, Pomeroy, and Atkins Corner. “The plan contains an anti-sprawl, smart-growth strategy.”
La Cour concurred, saying this is important because the town wants to preserve its farmland.
“We want to balance and protect our natural resources while creating more density downtown and in our village centers, and the types of projects envisioned in the Town Gown report follow the same principles as the master plan,” she noted. “And we are seeing that vision begin to take shape. Things have really moved forward in the last year or two, and since zoning was passed in 2012 to increase density downtown, we’ve seen private investment that will create incredible opportunities for an innovation district on the doorstep of the Commonwealth’s flagship campus.”
Private investment is also occurring in North Amherst, and W.D. Cowls Kamins and Jones Group Realtors have been seeking partners to build what they are calling the ‘Mill District’ in a one-block radius on the commercially zoned 10-acre former sawmill and Trolley Depot site in hopes that it will become a center for arts and entertainment.
Developer Cinda Jones built and opened the Trolley Barn there in December. It contains retail space on the ground floor and four large apartments above.
“The commercial space is completely occupied, and a salon and breakfast place in the Trolley Barn have become part of the village,” Musante said. “Jones Library has a branch in the Mill District, and there is a recreation area within walking distance. As a result, more and more people are becoming excited about its potential as a gathering place for families and young people.”
He added that Atkins Farm Market plans to open a satellite location in the former Cow Barn there this summer after it finishes renovating the formerly vacant structure. “There are also other opportunities available within the footprint.”
But ultimately, Amherst is a college town, he continued. In addition to UMass, it is also home to Amherst College and Hampshire College, and Musante said they are all making investments in the future, which include the two new science buildings UMass has put up over the past five years. “There has been a lot of positive momentum under the leadership of Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, and the university has been working collaboratively with the town,” he said. “Amherst College, which sits at the edge of town, has also been active in the BID and is an incredibly ambitious partner. They are planning to build a $200 million state-of-the-art science center and have some residential housing under construction.”
In addition, Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash is an internationally recognized expert on practical solutions to global sustainability, climate change, and development challenges. “He has really been positioning the college as a leader in environmental education and sustainability,” Musante said.
Hampshire’s R.W. Kern Center, which is under construction, is one of only a handful of buildings in the country that meet the rigorous requirements of the Living Building Challenge. “Jonathan is re-imaging the campus, and this will become the portal building,” said Musante, noting that it will house the admissions office.
The 50-year-old Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst is also active in town and is in the middle of a capital campaign to build a new facility on the Hampshire College campus, which will be another Living Building.
Musante said the development projects that were a dream when the master plan was created five years ago are beginning to be realized.
“Two studies completed in 2013-14 show pent-up demand for housing, and the new projects by Archipelago Investments will meet that demand,” he told BusinessWest. “Kendrick Place will become the gateway to our downtown, and we are expecting a wide range of tenants: college and university faculty and staff members, young retirees, and some students. We are a college town, so having more residential units in the center is key to strengthening the entire BID, as it will increase foot traffic downtown.”
The Town Gown Steering Committee recommended creating a University-Town of Amherst Collaborative to continue their combined efforts, and also suggested the town would benefit from hiring an economic-development director.
Musante said he and Subbaswamy will announce the next steps they will take in the weeks ahead, and he included funds to pay for an economic-development director in his budget recommendation.
“We are working to build relationships and strengthen our partnerships and have all the permitting processes we need to bring great concepts and ideas to reality,” Musante said in conclusion. “Amherst and its downtown are really on the way to becoming an innovation hub. We plan to leverage the research and development spinoffs from UMass, and we have a road map for the town to reach its full potential. The momentum here is palpable; it’s a tremendously exciting time.”
Amherst at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 37,819 (2010)
Area: 27.8 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $20.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.54
Median Household Income: $53,191
Family Household Income: $96,733
Type of government: Select Board, Town Meeting
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available