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Consultant begins work on improving Amherst neighborhoods

AMHERST — The representative of the company hired to develop a plan to improve neighborhoods in the area of the University of Massachusetts told members of the Town Gown Steering Committee Thursday that addressing housing needs is connected to economic growth in Amherst.

“The two issues are linked, you can’t do one without the other,” said George Smith, vice president of U3 Advisors of Philadelphia. Smith’s firm is conducting a study to offer solutions to issues that have long caused friction between the Amherst and the university. U3 Advisors is working with the Corneil Collaborative of Carlisle and The Cecil Group of Cambridge on the $60,000 plan which is being paid for by the town and UMass.

Smith, who has toured the town and the campus, said he is still in the “due diligence and research” stage of his work. He will present his preliminary findings in early August.

Thursday’s meeting, held in a conference room at the University of Massachusetts police station, was an opportunity for him to “frame the issues” and hear from the committee, he said.

One of the major issues identified so far, said Smith, is “how to channel student housing in a way that will be a benefit and not a detriment to the community.” Another one is how to create spaces on and off campus that promote what he called a “constructive social atmosphere.”

Former Select Board member Stephanie O’Keeffe told Smith the committee is seeking recommendations on how to organize the public process for integrating different points of view.

Rolf Karlstrom, a professor of biology who lives in a neighborhood that borders on the campus, said there is a lack of consensus in the town as to how to handle growth in the university.

Karlstrom said he hopes the study produces “some clear numbers” on the availability of housing in Amherst. “It’s really a miracle that Amherst has viable family housing right up to the edge of the campus,” he said.

The final report, due next fall, will incorporate case studies from other parts of the country, said Smith.

Nancy Buffone, executive director for external relations and university events at UMass, who co-chairs the Town Gown Committee, said after the meeting, “I thought we got a lot of good feedback and heard a lot of ideas that hadn’t yet been explored.”

Buffone said she is especially enthusiastic about the suggestion that the town and the university find ways of providing social spaces for students and young professionals.

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