A Neighborhood and a College:
Quess Who Will Be the Victor?
By Edward Shanahan
A recent visitor to this website asked why the editor of downstreet.net had not weighed in on the controversy and bad feelings swirling around Smith College’s building plans for the West Street neighborhood.
Good question. Easy answer. Conflict of interest.
As the spouse of a graduate of Smith, who was a long-time and valued employee of the college, I am more than a minor beneficiary of the college – which supported us with income, 401K contributions, health-care coverage and for a long period of time in the 1970s and 80s enabled us to live in college housing on Paradise Road. By most of its employees, Smith was viewed over the years as commendably paternal, or perhaps maternal.
In other words what was good for Smith College was usually good for the rest of us, although we did not think about it in that way very much.
This extended also to the larger community as well. Smith College is a powerful economic engine for Northampton and has been through the good times and bad. It also has been a generous citizen both institutionally and through the community activities of individuals associated with the college. Smith and Northampton are linked firmly and seemingly forever, almost like members of a family.
But as with family members – our own included – there can be principled disagreements and conflicts, and in our household we have had our share when the subject of Smith College and its decisions, policies, and community relations came up.
Which brings us to the subject of Smith and its plans to construct over several years a multi-million dollar science and engineering center extending beyond Green Street into the so-called West Street neighborhood, which now consists of many rental housing units, including several that Smith has bought over the last several years by paying lavish windfall prices to owners, some of them absentee, for properties in the area. It earlier had done the same by buying property n the east side of West Street to make way for the college’s parking garage.
As is true with any major in-town development, the issues dividing the parties in the conflict are both complex and emotional. But basically, the college sees the need to expand its science facilities contiguous to its campus to meet the needs of the students of the future. Residents of the compact downtown neighborhood see their small community imperiled by having its housing removed and its residents, many of them transients, uprooted.
This is an old story in college or university towns - Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Cambridge, New Haven, Hanover – come to mind. Inevitably, the very size and influence of the large, well-endowed institution prevails, after all the community protests and organizing have run their course. In most political jurisdictions, including Northampton, non-profit educational institutions are not limited much by local zoning restrictions. They can pretty much do what they want, within the need to maintain decent public relations.
Usually campus expansion impacts lower-income neighborhoods, for obvious reasons. For example, the Kensington Avenue-Dryads Green neighborhood is contiguous to the Smith campus and, in fact, the college owns property there, but that is not seen as appropriate for a new science center, nor is land that was available at the former State Hospital property, or the choice property on Round Hill Road that the Clarke School would love to dump and which is right next to Smith-owned buildings.
In terms of financial heft, political influence and mainstream public support, the struggle that pits Smith against the residents and urban activists trying to save the quirky West Street neighborhood is a mismatch.
This is usually the case when the large institution—a college or university, big corporation (various supermarket projects come to mind) or even municipalities (the James House on Gothic Street)— formulates a proposal that will advance its institutional goals.
It may be irrational and journalistically unprofessional, but I tend to be biased against large institutional entities. (At least, I’m an equal-opportunity critic. I refer you to my letter to Harvard published recently on downstreet.net) My loyalties reside with those who want to ask more questions, challenge the authorities, and try to protect their self interests. That is pretty old-fashioned, and smacks more of being anti-progress and steeped in baseless nostalgia. But that is the way I view the showdown on West Street.
I’m rooting for little guys, but recognize that the outcome is hardly in doubt.
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