A strange case of shoot-the-messenger took place at the most recent regular Amherst Town Council meeting. Matt Smith and Jason Novsam from Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates presented the final draft of their second study of parking downtown. Their report: follows their previous report, from 2016. They came bearing good news but were treated as if they were prophesizing doom.
The consultants concluded that the town doesn’t have to build a parking structure in the near future. Despite public perception otherwise, they reported there is no shortage of parking downtown. They reached their findings by spending one full weekday, and one full weekend day, counting every car that pulled into available public parking spaces as well as some private spots.
The consultants found that parking demand reached a peak of 86% at 7 p.m. on Saturday night. Parking demand also increased at 7 p.m. on the weeknight studied, although to a lesser extent. These changes are due to the shift from retail to restaurants as the focus of downtown business. Nelson\Nygard also found that there was an abundance of under-used parking available in permit spots, which non-permit holders can use after 5 p.m.
Nelson\Nygaard only recommends making major changes to a town’s parking infrastructure when demand consistently exceeds 85%. Smith explicitly cautioned against building a new parking garage, citing the cost of construction and maintenance. Given the substantial capital projects planned by the town, it was a relief to hear that a public garage is unnecessary any time soon.
Rather than celebrate—or even acknowledge—Nelson\Nygaard’s findings, the general tenor of the Q&A was shoot-to-kill. Councilors peppered Smith and Novsam with pointed questions about the use of parking funds, the permitting process, the relationship of parking to new development, and other details. But they missed their mark.
None of the councilors questioned Nelson\Nygaard’s methodology, which was based on just two days of counting. Presumably this is a “best practice,” but I’m not sure it is enough to get an accurate picture of parking downtown. Novsam suggested that the town do these counts on a quarterly basis, perhaps by hiring college students. Should the final version of their report wait until further counts are conducted and a more accurate picture can be drawn? A town-funded parking structure should be excluded from long-range planning until more counts have been done.
For now, Nelson\Nygaard recommends that the town let people know about all of the unused, off-hour permit spots. While those spots are a bit further away from the center of downtown than other public parking, they’re usually available after 5 p.m., and users get a bit more exercise because of the slightly farther walk. I’ve been parking under Boltwood Walk because it’s cheaper,and the paid hours end earlier than other metered spots. Now that I know about these free permit spots, I’m going to look for them so I can avoid the Boltwood stairwells, which reek of urine. Let’s add keeping the stairwells clean to our list of future parking improvements!
Percent for Art Bylaw
A quick update on the Percent for Art Bylaw Ad Hoc Committee. We held our first meeting on September 23rd. The committee consists of Jim Barnhill from the Public Art Commission, Councilors Andy Steinberg, Steve Schreiber and Cathy Schoen, and myself. Former Public Art Commission chair Eric Broudy was also present, as were Council President Lynn Griesemer and Comptroller Sonia Aldrich.
We elected Schoen as chair and began discussing how much we felt the old bylaw needed to be amended. Schreiber asked if we’re doing a gentle sanding or taking an angle grinder to it; consensus indicated the former. Our next meeting, at which Aldrich will present on the financial implications of the proposed bylaw, will take place on October 8, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Town Hall.