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‘Student villages’ proposed for UMass

AMHERST — Parking lots and other underdeveloped sites on the University of Massachusetts campus would be turned into student villages featuring a mix of commercial space and housing built by private developers under preliminary recommendations made by consultants completing a town-gown study.

At the Town-Gown Steering Committee meeting Tuesday, consultant U3 Advisors of Philadelphia offered four concepts for development, primarily on university-controlled property, that would reduce the impact of student rentals on Amherst neighborhoods and promote economic development. They would also require public-private partnerships before moving forward.

“Our recommendations are really going to focus on mixed-use development that caters to students and retail development that caters to students,” said senior consultant Steve Jacobs, a representative with U3 Advisors.

George Smith, vice president of U3 Advisors, said the recommendations resulted from trying to find sites that can absorb such growth, which are unlikely in downtown Amherst.

Even though state legislation would be required to do this private development on campus, Smith said it can happen. “We think it’s viable,” he said.

The first concept would be creating a mixed use “main street” along Massachusetts Avenue where graduate students and juniors and seniors might live, combined with commercial space for start-ups, such as firms that may arise from research being done at UMass.

The second area would be building a student village along University Drive, featuring academic and research space, with ground-floor retailers. This would also depend on creating a pedestrian-friendly streetscape across from the Southwest towers.

The third concept is adding housing for faculty, staff, students and residents to the already-developed Gateway section of North Pleasant Street between the campus and downtown Amherst. That might be most beneficial to downtown, Smith said.

“From an economic development standpoint, that’s an important connection to make,” Smith said.

Finally, redevelopment of North Village Apartments into cluster-style housing for graduate students and families was the fourth recommended area.

The preliminary recommendations by the consultants undertaking the $60,000 study, jointly funded by the town and UMass, are striving to “create a stable balance in housing and economic growth that allows both the university and town to prosper.”

Jacobs said Boulder, Colorado, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, all have vibrant downtowns and universities have been instrumental in achieving this.

“UMass should play that role here in Amherst,” Jacobs said.

Reaction largely positive

Reaction from residents and committee members was largely positive.

Maurianne Adams of Beston Street said she is pleased to see a shift from using zoning tools to create new housing to economic drivers, including the potential public-private partnership.

Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said she appreciates the inclusion of the Gateway section as a connection between UMass and downtown.

Though downtown does not have vacant parcels that could easily be used to create student villages, it does have great opportunities for incubator space, la Cour said.

Committee member Andrew Churchill said he is intrigued by the concept of building a student village on University Drive, but he wonders if it might hurt downtown businesses.

“One of the concerns I’ve heard is, do we have the scale of activity to support a student village on University Drive without sucking the life out of downtown?” Churchill said.

Smith said the preliminary recommendations are aimed at supporting the downtown and stabilizing neighborhoods. “One of the things we’re hearing is that (students are) either on campus or they’re going to the mall,” Smith said.

Dennis Swinford, director of campus planning at UMass, said the Massachusetts Avenue plan is identical to one already included in the campus master plan, while both the potential development of the Gateway section and North Village redevelopment have been discussed.

“By idea, or intent, or desire, those three are definitely in our planning,” Swinford said.

Swinford termed “interesting” the concept of University Drive development, which has not been considered.

Smith said such developments could reduce pressures on a housing market that has made Amherst an expensive town in which to live, with the supply not keeping up with demand and the average single-family home now assessed at $340,000, compared to just $273,130 for surrounding communities.

“You have housing expensive and getting more exclusive,” Smith said.

These recommendations will help low- and moderate-income families by freeing up more housing. “Compact developments in village centers benefit everybody,” Smith said.

While UMass provides 14,300 beds on campus for 24,961 students, that leaves more than 10,000 students living off campus.

Even without these recommendations, the consultants pointed out that some of the pressures are already being reduced by 469 beds approved for construction over the past year, including 236 in 75 units at Olympia Place, 102 in 36 units at Kendrick Place and 96 in 52 units at an expanded Presidential Apartments.

“It’s responding, I think, to pent-up demand for different kinds of units and a good chunk of these are targeted toward students,” Smith said.

Before the consultants’ work is done, Nancy Buffone, executive director of external relations and campus events at UMass, said students need to be engaged.

Smith said this information will be used to add details about amenities that students would appreciate having in any developments, such as events and performance space.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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