Council Reaffirms North Common Redesign, Endorses Roundabout For Pomeroy Village Intersection, Discusses Rezoning Of Public Parking Lot Behind CVS

North Common parking lot. Fifteen of these spaces will be lost with the design adopted for remodeling the Common. Photo: Art Keene

Report on the Town Council Meeting of May 24, 2021

This is one of two articles on the Town Council meeting of May 24, 2021. The other article can be found here.

The meeting was held via Zoom. A recording can be viewed here.

Present
Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Andy Steinberg (At large), Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Darcy DuMont and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Also: Christine Brestrup (Town Planner), Dave Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager), Guilford Mooring (Superintendent of Public Works)

Highlights

  • Public Hearing on Redesign of the North Common.
  • Design 3B reaffirmed for North Common Redesign in split vote
  • Increase in water and sewer rates approved.
  • Roundabout recommended for intersection at Pomeroy and West Street
  • Rezoning of Municipal Parking Lot  proposed to eventually permit construction of a parking garage
  • Members sought for Redistricting Advisory Committee
  • Council proclaims LGBTQ month and announces Race Amity Day celebration. Memorial Day Service to be held at the War Memorial Pool
  • Town signs a contract with the Mass Board of Library Commissioners to proceed with Jones Library construction.

Public Hearing On Redesign Of North Common
The Council had first heard proposals for the redesign of the North Common on December 17, 2020 . Town Meeting had allocated $500,000 to this project in 2013. This amount was supplemented by $400,000 from the Transportation Fund and $500,000 from this year’s Community Preservation Act Funds. 

Two plans were considered as more viable than any others, one preserving about half of the existing parking and another eliminating all the parking on the North Common and  adding seven spaces of back-in angled parking on Main Street . At the March 22 Council meeting, the latter plan passed by an 8-5 vote, but,  shortly afterward, it was called to the attention of the Council President that the required public hearing had not been held. Therefore, the hearing was scheduled for May 24 with a revote afterwards. The hearing was duly posted, and abutters were notified. The proposed plans were posted on the Town website and on Engage Amherst.

Ziomek and Mooring briefly described both plans. They said that most of the previous discussions had centered on parking. After input from the public, the Department of Public Works added the angled parking on Main Street for the second plan as well as eight spaces on the west side of Boltwood. Two spaces in front of Town Hall were eliminated, and Boltwood would be one-way from North to South in both plans. The first proposal has 38 total parking spaces and the second 27 spaces. The current North Common lot has 42 parking spaces.

Public Comment
Sam McLeod (District 5) said the Transportation Advisory Committee had concerns about parking downtown, especially that lack of parking will negatively impact the ability of businesses to recover after COVID. He urged the Council to consider the need for parking and said that if the second plan is chosen, Amherst will need a second parking garage.

Michael Childs(District 2) said he can’t see how we can proceed with the second plan unless we deal with parking. Although there is talk of a parking garage, nothing is planned yet, and we cannot put the burden of paying for the garage on taxpayers. He reminded the Councilors that the North Common lot is the busiest parking area in Town. He also felt that the back-in spaces on Main Street would be difficult for many residents. He noted that the Grace Church, the Business Improvement District, and the Amherst Cinema spoke against this plan. He urged the Council to have other parking options in place before voting on this plan, even if it means delaying the project.

The Hearing was closed at 6:50 p.m. 

Council Discussion and Vote
Schoen said that the North Common lot brings in about $60,000 a year in parking revenue and about $7,000 in fines. It is a lifeline to downtown businesses, and 66 percent of businesses surveyed preferred the plan with some parking. She also voiced concerns about the back in angled parking. Although she agreed that back-in is safer than the front-in, it is rarely used on a busy street or near a busy intersection. The angled parking moves the bus stop very close to the traffic lights. She recommended a traffic engineering study if this plan is adopted.

The vote was again 8-5 for the second plan (3B) with no parking on the North Common. (CouncilorsBrewer, DeAngelis, DuMont, Schoen and Swartz voted no.)

Water and Sewer Rate Increases Approved
By a unanimous vote, the Council approved the proposed increase in water and sewer rates. The water rate will rise from $4.20 to $4.60 per 100 cubic feet and the sewer rate from $4.60 to $4.90 per 100 cubic feet. This would raise the median water bill by $23 per year and the average bill by $37. The median sewer bill would increase by $17 and the average by $28. The rates are in the range of other local towns.

Because of the pandemic, the Town delayed looking at differential water and sewer rates for residential and business uses until next year.

Roundabout Recommended for Pomeroy Village Intersection
The redesign of the intersection between West Street and Pomeroy was first discussed at the May 3 Council meeting. The project is being financed by a $1.5 million MassWorks grant. After several public forums and a public pop-up event, the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) Committee of the Council recommended a single-lane roundabout for the intersection, rather than an improved traffic light. The design incorporates suggestions from the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) and the Disability Access Advisory Committee (DAAC), especially with regard to safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. Audible signals are planned for the crosswalks.

Schoen worried about the interactions of the children from the nearby daycare centers and elementary school with vehicles and bicycles with the roundabout design. Also, she mentioned that one business, Slobody Development, is concerned about the amount of land it would lose to the new design. Pam wondered whether speed bumps could achieve the traffic calming as well as a roundabout could. Brewer said that these are not “new” concerns and have already been  discussed at TSO meetings.

DuMont said that many District 5 constituents have reservations about the roundabout, but that she was going to vote for it because of her confidence in TAC recommendations, and also because of a study that showed that many people who object to roundabouts become supporters of them after they are built. Bahl-Milne was worried about safety for those with disabilities, but the DAAC has given its recommendations for pedestrian signals to the TSO.

The motion to accept the roundabout design included a provision for the Council to have input on the plans when the project is 25 percent completed and again at 75 percent completion. Mooring said there would be ample opportunity for suggestions at the 25 percent completion. The motion passed 10-0-3 with Pam, Schoen and Swartz abstaining.

Proposal to Rezone the Municipal Parking Lot Behind CVS
Ross introduced a proposal from Councilors Pam and Ryan as well as himself to rezone the municipal parking lot behind CVS, which has been part of the General Residential (R-G) zone, to General Business (B-G). He noted that, before the pandemic, the “Destination Amherst” plan presented by the Business Improvement District and the Chamber of Commerce had included a public-private parking garage (a private garage built on public land) on this lot. Because parking structures are not allowed in the R-G zone, the first step in this process would be to rezone the parcel. The Town would  then need to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) and the developer would have  to go through the Special Permit process. He said  that this Permit would be under the purview of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Ryan noted that a garage on that lot would serve the expanded Jones Library and the Amherst Cinema. Pam said that a garage should be for general parking for visitors,  not for long-term parking for the residents of the new buildings being built. She has spoken to some abutters who have many thoughtful ideas about n how to protect the surrounding neighborhood and provide parking for visitors rather than bailing  out the developers of new buildings by providing long-term parking for residents of the large buildings downtown.. 

Schoen asked if this rezoning would allow an apartment building to be built on the land, but Ross assured her that the Town would retain control of the land and what could be built on it. Hanneke noted that only one of the four lots on the block was being rezoned. Pam responded that CVS uses its lot for the large trucks that deliver supplies to the store, and  would not want to change its design. The other two parcels are owned by the Historical Society and St. Brigid’s Church. 

DeAngelis asked if the Town will lose income from parking with private development of a garage. There are currently 70 parking spaces in that lot. Bockelman said the terms would be specified in the RFP. DuMont wanted to know why the request was to rezone the parcel to B-G instead of Limited Business (B-L); Ross answered that this is a small lot, and the dimensional limitations for the B-L district — not more than 85 percent building coverage and 20-foot setbacks — would limit “the viability” of the structure. He said the BID had described a modest structure, only a couple of stories high with surrounding greenery, but that the Town has not discussed specifics.

Because this was the first formal discussion of rezoning the area in order to approve a parking lot, it was referred to the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee of the Council by a vote of 11-2-0 (Swartz and DuMont voting no).

Redistricting Advisory Committee
Ryan noted that the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) of the Council is still seeking applicants for the Redistricting Advisory Committee, which will meet over the summer. Brewer asked if remote participation would be allowed with the expiration of the Governor’s Emergency Orders. The state legislature is discussing whether local governments can continue on-line meetings, so the answer is unclear at this time.

Resolutions and Proclamations
As part of the Consent Agenda, June was proclaimed LGBTQ Pride month. The proclamation was sponsored by Ross and DeAngelis. Ross noted ongoing violence against the Trans community and  legislation in several states that interfere with the rights of Trans children. A flag-raising ceremony will be held in person on June 1.

Brewer sponsored the proclamation for Race Amity Day on June 13 A celebration will be held at 4 p.m.

Griesemer cited Mira Setty-Charity for achieving the Gold Award from the Girl Scouts, the highest possible Girls Scouts award. Setti-Charity founded the International Students Club at Amherst High School to raise awareness about international communities and also guided school-wide discussions about xenophobia and racism.

Town Manager’s Report
The full report is printed in this issue of the Indy. Bockelman said he plans to open Town Hall to the public on June 1. The Main Street entrance will be the only  entrance open. Masks will be required in the building until at least June 15, and the number of visitors will be limited.

He also said that Amherst received a AA plus bond rating and was able to borrow money at 0.03 percent and 0.07 percent for two recent loans.

There will be a low-key Memorial Day service at 11 a.m. on May 31 at the War Memorial pool.

The Town will be fixing deteriorating crosswalks in the downtown.

President’s Report: Town Signs Contract for Jones Library Expansion
Griesemer reported that the Executive Session of the Council scheduled for May 21 was canceled because the lawsuit against the Town Clerk by Carol Gray had been withdrawn. (The day after this meeting, a subsequent suit was filed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court).She announced that the Town signed a contract with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and will begin to form a Building Committee for the Jones Library expansion. The Town should begin to receive some of the grant money in FY 22.

The meeting adjourned at 11:25 p.m.

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