High-Density Housing Looking for a Home in Amherst

In the last few weeks, a housing developer from Columbus, Ohio has approached residents in an area south of the UMass Amherst campus about buying parcels of land on Sunset Avenue for the construction of student housing. Despite a rising need for such high-density, space-efficient housing stemming from the university’s large student population and long-term plans to continue expanding its student enrollment in the coming years, the project has faced criticism from some homeowners in the area.

According to the Hampshire Gazette, James Frey, vice president of land acquisition for Edwards Communities Development Corp. of Columbus, Ohio, has been meeting with local residents to present a plan to create an 800-person student housing complex. These meetings, however, have not met with much positive reception from the current residents. The company did not respond to an e-mail request from the Valley Post seeking comment, but its website (www.edwardsstudenthousing.com) notes that the company has been in business for more than 45 years.

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A house on Sunset Avenue in Amherst with UMass’s Southwest dormitory high-rises in the background. (To make photo bigger, please click on it.) photo by Darren Lone Fight

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The Gazette reports that residents in the area are not interested in selling their parcels in order to facilitate the new development. Such opposition is largely rooted in concerns regarding the disruption it would cause in the neighborhood. A fear of falling property values is one main concern, but area residents also fear that a housing complex such as the one proposed by Frey’s company will lead to an increase in the already-present disruption by students in the high-rise “Southwest Dorms” buildings located on the adjoining block across Fearing Street.

Despite the opposition of some residents, this kind of housing development may become more attractive to Amherst and other towns in the region in the near future. Philip Dowds is chair of the “executive committee” of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club. He told the Valley Post that his organization is interested in the issue of population growth and its attendant problems. “As long as population is growing, we have to find a way to accommodate this growth,” Dowds said. “Living closer together is going to be a part of reducing our demand on resources, and high-density housing is seen by the Sierra Club as an important component of [addressing] the energy crisis.” Multi-family housing is more efficient than living apart in separate homes, said Dowds.

Outside of his function within the Sierra Club, Dowds is also a citizen activist in Cambridge, Mass. Having been the owner of a single-family house near the Harvard and MIT campuses, he spoke about two important issues regarding such housing units: property values and the changing neighborhood. “Will [surrounding] property values go down? No. Residents will very likely see an important appreciation [in value],” Dowds said. Dowds previously owned a single-family unit near a college campus and saw his own property values go up. He has since sold that house and now lives in a multi-family housing unit.

But financial value is not the only thing that residents of Sunset Avenue in Amherst and the surrounding area fear. There is also the changing climate and atmosphere of the neighborhood. Though very close to UMass already, a high-density housing development like this one will undoubtedly change the neighborhood, Dowds said. “Universities are, to some extent, their own self-contained communities that don’t always interact with the larger community. It may not feel like the same old neighborhood somehow, and that is a legitimate concern.”

As the negotiations between the residents of Sunset Avenue and Edwards Communities Development Corp. continue, the balance between the benefits of such smart growth housing projects and the priorities of the current owners of the parcels will play an important role in how the city of Amherst envisions its future. With the projected population expansion of UMass, debates such as this may very well influence how other areas facing similar circumstances resolve this important and mounting issue.

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Darren Lone Fight can be reached at darrenlonefight@gmail.com Please put “Valley Post” in the subject line.

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Editor's note: Construction of multi-family housing, instead of single-family houses, can reduce the pressure to develop the Valley's farm and forest land. This map shows the Pioneer Valley section of the Connecticut River watershed. Land outside the watershed is light green, meaning streams in that area do not flow to the Connecticut River. Dark green land has been protected from development. Red land is vulnerable to being "developed." Please click on the map to enlarge it. Map by the Trust for Public Land, 2006.

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Comments

Proximity

I appreciate all your feedback, Adam! You are clearly extremely knowledgeable on the subject. I can certainly see how a town like Amherst differs in important ways from urban environments like Manhattan, and your excerpts regarding European cities in similar situations were enlightening.

My hopes regarding the article was simply to bring an important voice into conversations such as this in the form of Smart Growth and environmental advocates. While I take your criticism regarding the scope and priorities of such a project (and its critics) in the Amherst area to heart, I do feel that such environmental considerations are merited in such a discussion and need not be rolled over in the name of triage.

A high-density, 800-person apartment complex such as this seems to be a relatively special case. Due to the specific demographics of the population (college students over the age of 20) and the location of the project (less than one block away from the UMass campus), I think the benefits are relatively apparent.

This particular population is less likely to have a car, more likely to need a low-rent residence, and more likely to feel comfortable living in such high-density complexes. It is rare to have a residential complex such as this with all 800 people having a full-time commitment to an institution located less than a block away from them. This prevents the common commute from Northampton/etc. to Amherst that contributes to congestion on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge, and would, presumably help bring down the cost of rent in the area. By serving such a large number of people's commuting needs, it would at least seem important to consider the impact such a plan would have on the dispersed students in the Northampton and outlying areas that commute into UMass versus those in Amherst itself.

While this particular project in this particular place may not be the solution to such problems, I hope you'd agree that placing 800 people less than a block away from where they need to be some 40-odd hours a week is a rational planning objective. Clearly this is part of a larger project; reducing the environmental impact of automobiles is another, as is facilitating the varying lifestyles and needs of different residents (from the single student to the 5-person family). Nevertheless, it seems important that such a project is seen as more than the simple, disruptive encroachment of students into residential areas.

Thank you again for your thoughtful comments, Adam. Clearly a subject such as this is quite complex and is deserved of careful and informed consideration. Your insight has been invaluable.

Best,

Darren Lone Fight

Caveats to Higher-Density Housing

Adding density to a neighborhood without regard to design, congestion and stormwater issues can be harmful. Please see this recent report on Houston's Cottage Grove district:
http://northassoc.org/2009/07/05/houston-chronicle-density-unkind-to-cot...

Moreover, it's not clear that high-rises are more energy-efficient than detached homes or townhouses. Factors that must be considered include the powering of elevators, air exchange requirements in large buildings, and lighting and climate control of common areas. It is also plausible that residents keep a tighter rein on energy costs when they pay for these directly. For more on this, see:
http://northassoc.org/2007/12/13/energy-intensity-less-in-homes-than-hig...

Adam Cohen
NorthAssoc.org

Thank you, Adam Cohen, for

Thank you, Adam Cohen, for your thoughtful comment.

The New Yorker is known as the most carefully fact-checked general interest magazine. Here is an article they did that seems to rebut your points (and is a great read for its own sake):

www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/10/18/041018fa_fact_owen?printable=true

Of course, it is possible to find a single-family home that is more energy efficient per resident than an average apartment building.

But assuming both are built to the latest building codes, and assuming the residents are equally careful about wasting energy (as you note, each apartment can and should have its own electric and gas meters) a multi-family home will be more efficient than a single-family home.

The other big factor is transportation. Buses and trains, bike lanes, and sidewalks all get much more use in a place like New York City (or downtown Northampton) than in a strip mall like Route 9 in Hadley.

Finally, according to the economic law of supply and demand, increasing the number of homes (whether they are apartments or single-family houses) should make rents more affordable, which helps poor and working class people.

More Caveats to Density and Multi-Family Housing

Optimizing housing stock for the population is enormously complex, in part because different population segments have different needs and priorities. A big problem with Smart Growth as it has been practiced in places like Portland is that it serves families with young children poorly. Many of these families out-migrate to places with larger homes and private yards--ironically causing a kind of sprawl. In addition, most families with children find that:

• Cars are useful, convenient, safe, time-efficient and comfortable
• Multi-story retail structures are hard to navigate (especially stairs and escalators)
• Drive-thru retail is convenient
• On-site parking is convenient, the family need not cross any busy streets to get into building
• Parking garages are hard to navigate and off-putting

Unless you have a lot of money, Manhattan is a hard place to raise children. Its demographics are highly skewed towards single adults, and correlate poorly with the country as a whole.

Here's what Smart Growth can mean if you're not rich:

http://northassoc.org/2007/12/20/smart-growth-winners-rich-people-and-lo...

The Massachusetts Municipal Association identifies the out-migration of 25-34 year-olds as a key problem for our state:

"Added to this weak jobs picture is a longer term challenge—the increasing loss of young workers and families from Massachusetts. Between 2001 and 2004, the number of 20-24 year olds increased by 5.7 percent, but this was much slower than the 9.7 percent increase nationwide. More worrying is that by the time young people begin considering settling down—when they reach age 25-34—they are most
likely to leave the state. There was actually a 4.8 percent decline in this segment of the Massachusetts population between 2001 and 2004 despite growth nationwide."

http://www.mma.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=708&Itemid=93

I agree that sprawl architecture is frequently ugly and has severe resource and social costs. However, Smart Growth proponents need to appreciate why sprawl living appeals to families with young children in order to present viable alternatives.

Housing types have implications for municipal finances. In Salem, Oregon, an ECONorthwest analysis found that single-family homes were net revenue positive to the city, while multi-family homes were negative. The analysis concludes that balanced growth is wise.

"...single-family, commercial/office, and industrial uses contribute more in revenues to the general fund than they generate in service costs. Multi-family and government uses have service costs in excess of revenues."

ECONorthwest cautions against simplistic applications of this finding, noting that a particular land use may have benefits beyond its contribution to municipal revenues:

"...one might conclude that the City should aggressively pursue commercial and industrial development to strengthen its fiscal position. However, an exclusive focus on these activities would not be sustainable in the long run. Indeed, a non-residential focus with little accompanying housing would produce a community with traffic congestion and long commutes. Moreover, were the City to shun multi-family housing to foster its budget, the policy would have impacts on neighboring communities and would deprive Salem businesses of access to workers, not to mention conflicts with other City and state goals and policies.

"These differential impacts do, however, underscore the importance of balanced growth."

http://northassoc.org/2008/06/17/salem-oregon-analysis-econorthwest-reco...

Thanks for the New Yorker article. I would advocate a middle way between cities like Manhattan and tiny towns of 4,000. I agree with J. Terrence Farris when he writes,

"...smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

"Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns). The density of most cities is 5 to 10 times that of their suburbs (Downs 1994)..."

http://northassoc.org/2007/10/28/the-new-draft-sustainable-northampton-p...

Excessively dense environments are psychologically wearing:

http://northassoc.org/2009/01/14/boston-globe-how-the-city-hurts-your-br...

I applaud the efforts of UMass emeritus professor Rutherford Platt to advocate for "nature in the city":

http://northassoc.org/2007/12/31/ecological-cities-project-greenspace-in...

Planners often err when they try to impose simple solutions on complex problems. The future is hard to predict. Changes in technology may make cars less harmful as well as stimulate economic activity in rural areas (e.g. cellulosic ethanol). Urban planning should be done with subtlety, balance, variety, complexity, flexibility, caution, and humility.

-Adam Cohen
NorthAssoc.org

Thanks again. For more on

Thanks again. For more on this, please see:

http://valleypost.org/node/133

especially the "sidebar" at the end, headlined, "Land Use Done Right."

Thanks!

Thanks for the reference to

Thanks for the reference to your prior article. European experiences actually resemble America's in some cases. Here's one example from NY Times Magazine:
"The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)"
"...Smart-growth advocates say that suburbs have flourished at the expense of cities because of government policies promoting cheap gasoline, Interstate highways and new-home construction. What if the government, instead of devastating urban neighborhoods by running expressways through them, instead lavished money on mass transit and imposed high gasoline taxes to discourage driving?
"As it happens, that experiment has already been conducted in Europe with surprisingly little effect. To American tourists who ride the subways in the carefully preserved old cities, the policies seem to have worked. But it turns out that the people who live there aren't so different from Americans. Even with $5-per-gallon gasoline, the number of cars per capita in Europe has been growing faster than in America in recent decades, while the percentage of commuters using mass transit has been falling. As the suburbs expand, Europe's cities have been losing people, too. Paris is a great place to visit, but in the past half-century it has lost one-quarter of its population..."
http://northassoc.org/2007/12/19/autonomist-manifesto-smart-growth-drawb...
Here's another example from Germany:
"...Halle-Neustadt was only "sustainable" during the socialist period. When Germany reunified, many residents moved out, and those who stayed bought cars so that auto ownership "reached nearly the level of western Germany." Naturally, this created major congestion and parking problems: "The cars are parked everywhere -- on pavements, bike-ways, yards and lawn."
http://northassoc.org/2008/05/13/smart-growth-compact-transit-oriented-d...
The theme I take away is that the car offers compelling benefits to most and will not be easily pried away from consumer fingers. I feel that reducing cars' impact on the environment is a more feasible solution, along with increasing the density of new developments along the fringe of developed areas.
I encourage you to read "Seeing Like a State", which offers valuable cautions about top-down state planning. Here are some excerpts:
http://northassoc.org/2007/11/30/seeing-like-a-state-planning-gone-awry-...
-Adam Cohen
NorthAssoc.org

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