Recently, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and Planning Board have seen residential project applications seeking to provide tenants with much less than the two parking spaces per apartment required by the current Zoning Bylaw (Section 7 for those who love detail). Some projects have actually dropped below the one parking space per bedroom standard for hotels, motels, inns, rooming houses, and nursing homes (Section 7.001).
Of course, developers always want to increase profits by increasing the number of residential units—and by evading Zoning Bylaw requirements for parking, property line setbacks, etc. They make more money that way.
But that’s not always best for tenants, best for neighbors, and best for our community. Fortunately, the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals have a broader mandate to make sure that new buildings work well and promote “the health, safety, convenience and general welfare” of Amherst residents (Zoning Bylaw Article 1).
Our current Zoning Bylaw requires two parking spaces per dwelling unit (except in the No Parking District in Amherst Center where residential developments are not required to provide parking). Thus, the number of parking spaces required in most of Amherst is tied to the number of dwelling units. Some cities tie parking spaces to the amount of floor space (Northampton) or the number of bedrooms. Any measurement that is used, whether it is the number of dwelling units, the number of bedrooms, the number of square feet of floor space, will always be a rough approximation of how much parking tenants, their guests, and others using a building actually need. No one parking bylaw rule will fit every situation. But our Zoning Bylaw accommodates the fact that many Amherst residents need and use cars every day.
The ZBA and Planning Board can grant waivers to the parking space rule in specific situations. Central to a decision to waive the two parking spaces per dwelling unit requirement is the question: How much parking will the tenants and their guests need? The clear goal of the Bylaw is to make sure there are enough parking spaces for people using a building. Consider the language below:
Parking requirements may be modified if:
* “peak parking needs generated by on-site uses occur at different times” (Section 7.910).
* “A significant number of employees, tenants, patrons or other parking users of the site are common to and shared by more than one use on the site” (7.911).
* “A parking management plan approved by the Permit Granting Board or Special Permit Granting Authority is implemented with occupancy of the building or buildings. Said plan shall include the implementation of such measures as car and van pooling, bicycling and public transit use sufficient to reduce the need for parking. Periodic documentation of reductions in vehicle trips and parking utilization as a result of the parking management plan may be required as a condition of any permit granted under this section.” (7.912)
You can see that this waiver language focuses on the parking needs of users of the building—not other laudable goals like reducing car use or slowing climate change.
The management plan, that is, the plan that describes how parking needs will be met, must be “sufficient to reduce the need for parking” (7.912).
What kind of measures? Well, ones that reduce the need for parking—car pools, van pools, bicycling and public transit. The parking management plan can require the owner to track and report on reductions in vehicle use (7.912). Sharing parking space between business and residential users also is okay—if [p]eak parking needs occur at different times (7.910). (The Zoning Bylaw does allow parking waivers for “compelling reasons of safety, aesthetic or safety” but it’s hard to figure out when this would apply. (Cliff dwellings?)
The South East Commons Project
Nowhere does the Zoning Bylaw say that developers can simply not let tenants park, while letting developers add more and more units. This isn’t grounds for a waiver. But the South East Commons project received a waiver and a parking management plan with only 45 parking spaces for 57 apartments—with lease conditions that 12 tenants could not have a parking space. Without that waiver, the Zoning Bylaw would require 114 spaces for 57 apartments, requiring the developer to reduce the number of units or the building size.
How far could this go? Could the Planning Board or ZBA allow developers to provide even less or no parking, adding even more units? What happens to tenants who need a car or two after signing the lease? Are they forced to move out? The bank next door to the South East Street Commons development rightly worried that tenants and their guests would park in its lot.
I don’t think Planning Board can approve a waiver and management plan that simply tells tenants they can’t park—without any evidence of tenants’ needs. We need to implement the Zoning Bylaw as it is written, not as someone may wish it was written.
Reasons given at the hearings on South East Commons included statements that the tenants at South East Street Commons would be young and not likely to drive. They could be expected to use buses, to bike or Uber. Tenants also could move out if they needed a car. One-bedroom units meant less than 1 parking space per unit was enough. Evidence supporting these ideas was sparse. For example, the evidence for The Valley’s “excellent bus system” was a bus schedule for the Route #30 bus—with its reduced service during university breaks and the summer. No data on car ownership was offered. (Even in Somerville, New England’s most dense city, there is 1 car for every 1.6 residents, a higher rate than Cambridge or Boston.)
There ought to be data to support these arguments. . Biking and mass transit use ought to be up and traffic should be down. But, statistics show the opposite.
What Do Amherst Data Look Like?
Only 10% of Amherst commuters took bus transit to work according to the 2015 Transportation Plan (p. 2-12) In 2018, PVTA bus ridership was down by 4% and bus service has been reduced. Only 2 % of Amherst residents bike to work and most non-work biking takes place on the UMASS campus. (Transportation Plan 2-9). 18% percent of residents walk to work overall, with 34% of people walking in Amherst Center that includes UMASS. The rest commute by car. Nearly 50% of Amherst residents drive alone to work (TP 2-19) and approximately 32 percent of residents travel outside of Amherst for employment. (2010 Master Plan, p. 9.1)
These statistics only cover commuting by residents, not car use for other reasons. The statistics don’t cover people who do not commute to work. And commuters by bus, bike or walking to work may still own cars.
Even in the No Parking District in downtown, residents need parking. By September 2019, residents of the 36-unit Kendrick Place which is within the No Parking District had applied for 43 street parking permits. Residents of One East Pleasant Street with its 78 units, applied for 51 street parking permits—on top of its 36 on-site-parking spaces. Recent apartment projects provided ample parking spaces for tenants and guests. For example, North Square with 130 residential units and retail space has 299 parking spaces. And Spruce Ridge near Main Street has 12 residential units and 34 parking spaces. One Sunday morning, I counted 28 cars there.
In 2019, Amherst residents paid excise taxes on 2,095 more cars, then in 2009. (Town Assessors office), maybe because 3,000 more students attend UMASS now than 2010.
These numbers make sense to me. Compared to other places where I have lived, people really need cars to get around. Amherst lacks population density, except at UMASS. Shopping, jobs, services, doctors, restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, government agencies, etc. are really spread out. Hadley is a major destination for food, clothing, hardware and dozens of small stores. Most people drive there. People drive all over to hike, visit friends and towns, go to Northampton or Boston or kayak on a river. Almost everyone I know drives a car and most couples and families have more than one. Few bike in the winter. Biking is hard in wet weather, on bad roads, in speeding traffic and at night. Bike lanes around town are few and are poorly maintained. Many off-campus students own cars, if neighbors’ complaints about cars parked on student house lawns are any indication. And I doubt retirees only bus, bike and Uber.
Many neighborhoods have no mass transit. And Mass transit is cut for winter, spring and the summer college breaks. There is poor mass transit to Holyoke and Springfield and very poor connections east to Worcester and Boston. (Transportation Plan 2-12, 2-13) All this leads to a great need for cars.
Why then did South East Commons get a pass on parking requirements.?
Some Planning Board members talked about the 2019 Perfect Fit Parking study of overnight parking at 189 residential apartment and condo buildings in the metro Boston area. Two thirds of these buildings were less a half mile from MBTA rapid transit or a commuter rail stop. Using the Perfect Fit Study is fraught with problems. Amherst is not part of a major metropolitan area, nor tied into an extensive system of subway, bus and commuter rail service. The Perfect Fit Parking study looked at 189 apartment and condo buildings in Metro Boston over 3 years. It found an average of 70% of spaces were being used at any time. Since this is an average, there were many times when more than 70% of spaces were in use. “At about half of the sites, between 70 percent and 90 percent of the parking spaces were being used.” (Perfect Fit Parking, p.15) (italics added). Also, 14 apartment buildings had 100% parking spaces used.
No city studied required less than 1 parking space per unit or bedroom, except in select spots. Melrose required 2 spaces per unit and with reduced parking in a special district. Everett—2 spaces per unit and parking can be reduced by 25%. Chelsea requires 1.5 spaces per unit, 2 spaces (waterfront district), 1 space (Naval Hospital Development Area). In Arlington parking space numbers depend on bedrooms—for example 1.15 spaces for a 1-bedroom unit. Malden—1 space for a studio, 1.15 space for a 1 bed, 1.5 per 2 beds, 2 beds per 3 beds.
The Perfect Fit Parking study of Metro Boston does not and cannot answer the question: How much do Amherst residents need? How much do they use? How many cars do they own?
Usually we don’t know who the tenants will be, their ages, occupations, where they work, whether they work, how many trips they take per day, etc. Or who future tenants will be and how demographics in Amherst will change. How can the ZBA or PB know who the residents of a building be over time and what parking they will need?
Does parking use or need vary by age, family size, marital status, proximity to UMass, out of state vs. in-state students, graduate vs. undergraduate student, economic level, working v. non-working, on-campus student v. off-campus, proximity to UMass or a particular bus line? Will driverless cars increase car ownership and use? Will UMASS add more students and out-of-state students—and even more cars? Will PVTA ridership drop or rise?
These questions can start to be answered only by doing our own Perfect Fit Parking study. The 2015 Transportation Plan calls for a parking study before making changes to the zoning bylaw. “ 1. Building upon the recent parking forums, study actual parking supply and its use versus occupied floor space. 2. Amend zoning bylaws to reflect actual utilization, not untailored guidance….” (TP 4-79) The plan describes, in detail, a good parking study.
Parking Utilization Data Program
Parking utilization data measures the level of demand for parking in an area or municipality. Utilization counts are conducted in particular areas for both on-street and off-street public and private parking and provide a measure of how many spaces are used at a given time. Utilization data allows for informed decisions to be made about parking by demonstrating where the greatest and least demand for parking is in a particular area. Data also can be used to more-accurately model future demand based on actual performance. (TP 4-89)
Until we do the studies and collect data, we are just guessing at parking need and use and often ignoring the zoning bylaw’s parking requirements. Until then, we need to apply the parking requirements we have now and make sure tenants and their guests have the parking they need.