AMHERST — Large mixed-use buildings developed in downtown in recent years, and their consistency with both Amherst’s master plan and the town’s values, remain a focus for several of the candidates for the 13-member Town Council to be seated Dec. 2.
At a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters Tuesday at the middle school auditorium, the candidates running for the council’s 10 district seats at the Nov. 6 town election were largely in agreement on the need to pursue several capital projects. Among those are a new fire station in South Amherst, a new Department of Public Works headquarters and new or renovated elementary school buildings. They also agreed with increasing affordable housing, enhancing the town’s relationship with the University of Massachusetts and pursuing green initiatives.
Many of the candidates also spoke of the need for bridging the divides in the community, not only related to in-fill development downtown, but on the school building project that failed to win Town Meeting approval, and finding ways to engage the community, be open minded and to be transparent and accountable.
Much of the appropriateness of downtown development was taken up by the eight candidates running in Districts 4 and 5.
Planning Board Chairman Stephen Schreiber, who is one of four residents seeking two positions from District 4, said he is proud of his record that has included a focus on smart growth, bringing a variety of housing and commercial development to downtown, that is both supporting the tax base and is consistent with the master plan to have projects done in commercial centers.
But David Reffsin, who is also running in the district that encompasses Precincts 5 and 9, said he is concerned about the Planning Board not requiring these projects, such as Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, to have housing for low- and moderate-income people.
“Large apartment complexes marketed to students must include affordable housing,” Reffsin said.
Jacqueline Maidana, of District 4, said affordable housing has to always be kept at the forefront. Like Reffsin, she said she worries about dorm-like buildings in town center that don’t have affordability requirements and adequate parking.
“Many young families can’t afford to live in our community,” Maidana said.
Evan Ross, also running in District 4, said he appreciates that Amherst is seeing new development to support the tax base. But he, too, said he wants to see more affordable housing, which benefits low- and moderate-income renters, young families looking for starter homes and senior citizens trying to downsize.
For District 5 candidate Darcy Dumont, downtown development should be immediately paused to make sure it is proceeding as residents want. Dumont said sustainability will be a priority for her, observing that the town can find savings in future municipal building projects through conservation and zero-energy efforts.
Paul Bobrowski, who is also running in District 5, which will serve residents in Precincts 7 and 8, said he disagrees with Dumont on the concept of a building moratorium, and called the downtown development consistent with generating less pollution and reducing climate change.
“I think the situation downtown comports with our master plan, it comports with smart zoning,” Bobrowski said, adding that the projects will generate significant revenue every year and bring people to downtown to patronize businesses.
Samuel MacLeod, of District 5, said the downtown development is not inherently bad, but he has concern about the way the buildings were constructed. He wants the public to have more input going forward. “We need to adjust to hear the needs of all our residents,” MacLeod said.
Shalini Bahl-Milne, of District 5, said the first priority should be to set up governance and processes so the councilors can begin responding to the needs of the community.
Almost all of the other candidates for district seats also spoke Tuesday, including George Ryan, Dorothy Pam, John Page and Stephen Braun in District 3, Peter Vickery, Lynn Griesemer and Patricia DeAngelis in District 2 and Nicola Usher, Sarah Swartz, Cathy Schoen and Sharon Povinelli in District 1. Only District 2 candidate Victor Nunez-Ortiz was absent.
The candidates offered a variety of ideas for the new Town Council to pursue, such as Page suggesting there be an annual breakfast that would be hosted by the Town Council and Pam pushing for more arts and culture in the downtown, Povinelli calling for a new downtown parking garage and Usher wanting a civic education project in the schools to do outreach to families and children.
The at-large candidates for Town Council, Andrew Steinberg, Jim Pistrang, Rob Kusner, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Robert Greeney and Alisa Brewer, were also part of the three-hour event.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected]
Here is a link to the Amherst Media video of the LWVA forum, for Districts 4 and 5 https://amherstmedia.org/content/lwv-candidates-forum-town-council-districts-4-5-10-23-18