Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Select Committee on Goals

I went back to the Jones Library a few weeks ago and read the "Select Committee on Goals (SCOG)" -- the planning document that (I'm told) Amherst has been roughly following for the last 35 years. It replaced the "Downe Comprehensive Plan" of 1969 (which I wrote about last month).

Reading the two documents, I can see why the Downe plan was rejected-- it actually made lots of very specific recommendations, like "4,863 acres of open space." The SCOG plan is much fuzzier, with general goals like "more open space." It was produced by a committee, with lots of input from the public (sound familiar?)

So... how well did it work? Did Amherst meet the Select Committee's Goals? A few of the goals identified in the SCOG report are:

Primary Goal: Moderate Growth.
Grade: A.
Between 1960 and 1970, UMass more than tripled in size, and Amherst's population doubled. I gather that kind of freaked people out, and the reaction was to try to limit growth. If I was cynical, I'd say that the SCOG plans had no effect at all on growth-- that UMass stopped growing fast, so Amherst did, too. But I'll give the SCOG the benefit of the doubt-- population growth did slow during the 70's, slowed more in the 80's, and Amherst's population actually declined in the 90's (by about 1%).

Goal: Create Village Centers
Grade: D

The idea of a Village Center (as explained in both the Downe and SCOG plans) is to have a concentration of small businesses, schools, and houses, all within walking distance of each other. Amherst has had 30 years to develop village centers... and developing village centers is still a goal. Ok, on this one I am cynical. The only real village center that Amherst has is the downtown business district (which I like a lot!). Which brings me to:

Goal: Revitalize the Downtown Business District
Grade: C

I like Amherst's downtown a lot, but I'd like it even more if it had a hardware store, a real grocery store, and a place where I could buy a pair of jeans.

Goal: Set aside open space, preserve historic stuff
Grade: A

We've got over eight times as much open space set aside as we did in 1970, and we now have a special tax for open space and historical preservation. Maybe it's time to start talking about doing a better job of taking care of what we have, instead of acquiring more and more...

Goal: Redevelop land between UMass and Downtown
Grade: F

The idea was to extend downtown towards UMass, so all the students living there could easily walk to shopping. Instead, they all take the bus or drive to the malls in Hadley. Ah well, maybe there will be some creative thinking about this part of Town as we think about what to do with Kendrick Park.

Goal: Improve Traffic
Grade: D-

The SCOG had a six-point plan for how to improve the traffic situation in Town:
A. Limit Growth (achieved!)
B. Develop Village Centers (failed)
C. Improve the Central Business District by implementing the 1969 traffic plan (failed)
D. Discourage families from getting 2nd/3rd cars, and discourage college students from brining cars to campus (failed)
E. No high-speed 'trunk' highways through town (succeeded-- but didn't this "success" make traffic worse?)
F. Public transit to apartments and village centers (mixed success, I'd say)

Before reading these old planning documents, I was very skeptical about them. I tend to believe that people will do what they want to do, and if your Master Plan dictates that they do something that they don't want to do... well, your Master Plan will be ignored.

After reading the old Plans, I'm a little less skeptical. Some things can be planned and directed; we can spend money buying land and putting it aside for Open Space, and we can discourage population growth (a moratorium on new apartment construction and a suspension of new sewer/water permits were proposed back in 1973, for example). We might even be able to encourage growth, but we should recognize that any Grand Plans about exactly where, and what type, of growth we get are likely to be just as successful as the Grand Plans we've had in the past.

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