Opinion: Town Needs A Comprehensive Parking Plan Before Beginning Work On North Common

Aerial view of parking on the Town Common across from Town Hall. Photo: amherstma.gov

I don’t claim to know a lot about the regulations and rules of our town, but I attended the Town Council meeting on March 22 and witnessed eight members of the Council vote in favor of Plan 3b to redesign the North Common without much discussion and without any public hearing.

At that time, those in favor of Plan 3b justified their vote with statements about a vision of the Town that deserved something more significant than a parking lot across the street from Town Hall.  The same eight council members approved Plan 3b again when the vote came up in May, after a brief public hearing in which only two townspeople expressed comments, both concerned about the loss of parking.

I actually agree with Town Council’s long-term vision for the Town, but their timing is wrong.  It would be great to redesign the Common and eliminate most of the parking, and maybe one day our town center can be a vibrant space for pedestrians who arrive on foot or by bicycle and electric bus.  That day, however, is not in the near future.  We are too decentralized a town for residents to be without a car, whether powered by electricity or fossil fuels, and as long as we need cars, we need easily accessible parking to create a vibrant space in the middle of our town.  This is the central argument against Plan 3b, which will remove almost half of the currently available spaces in the North Common lot.

The facts about Plan 3b are found in Paul Bockelman’s memo to Town Council dated March 17, 2021.   The town has about $1.5 million to spend on this project, already available through the Community Preservation Act and the town’s Transportation Fund.  The Town Services and Outreach Committee recommended that Town Council approve a modified Plan 2 with 38 parking spaces, or a modified Plan 3b with 27 spaces.  They could also have recommended just repaving the North Common lot, which would have resulted in 43 spaces.  The current lot has 48 spaces, but five spaces would.be lost with repaving due to redrawing the parking lines.  If you count 48 parking spaces currently, Plan 3b leads to a loss of 21 spaces in the center of town.  And 7 of the 27 spaces in Plan 3b are “angled” parking spaces on the south side of Main street that will require drivers to either back-in or back-out into traffic.  These will be dicey spaces at best, and even Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring expressed reservations about them.

I get stuck on the decrease in public parking from the current 48 spaces to the 27 spaces in Plan 3b, after the parking lot is removed and replaced by lawn, trees, tables, chairs, benches and walkways.  I worry that the Town’s businesses, and the Town itself, need those 21 lost spaces.  None of the eight members of the Council who voted for Plan 3b appear to share my concern, and in general these members appear unconcerned about town parking.  I make that comment based on their votes for development projects in the town, all of them private projects that have appeared to encourage student renters and that have not included integrated parking plans.

Consider the following:

  • Plan 3b would be implemented about the same time as the huge reconstruction project for the Jones Library, putting significant pressure on parking in the town center.
  • An Amherst Parking Study dated October 2019  documented the North Common lot was almost completely filled – 90% to 100% – on two different nights at 7PM, and in general “(The entire Town’s) public parking is highly utilized, peaking at 86% utilization on Saturday at 7PM.”
  • We have the Saturday Farmer’s Market up to nine months per year, and we have other events in the center of town that utilize all available parking.
  • Major stakeholders in the center of town, like Grace Episcopal Church and the Amherst Cinema, expressed  concern about the effect of Plan 3b on visitors.
  • The BID Director stated that the majority of businesses around the Common wanted to preserve parking.
  • All of the existing 34 spaces in the North Common lot have a four-hour limit but almost all of the new spaces under Plan 3b will be limited to two hours.  It will not be easy to enjoy a movie, dinner, and a coffee in two hours.
  • Unlike some other projects like the library reconstruction and new school, the funds for a redesign of the North Common will not disappear if they are not used immediately.  They are not time-limited.

When some councilors – and this writer – expressed concern about the impact of Plan 3b on existing parking and business, the councilors who voted in favor of the project ignored those concerns.  Some made a vague reference to plans for a second parking garage behind CVS as the eventual solution to the Town’s parking problems.  Currently that lot is a paved parking lot, owned by the town, and it is a logical site for a parking garage, even if it is a long walk from there to the doors of Town Hall. 

One council member – Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) – commented that the Council was in ongoing discussions with local developers to build a second garage, and that funding it wouldn’t be at taxpayer’s expense. The idea is that one or more local developers might be willing to build the garage if they received the income from the garage.  This is not small change – the Town estimates that in fiscal 2020 the North Common alone garnered over $57,000 in parking revenue and fines.

But what does it mean, to fund a new garage?  The price of constructing a garage would be $2 million or more, depending on the number of levels, and that doesn’t include the value of the land.  The parcel of land behind CVS was purchased by the Town in 1989 for just under half a million dollars.  Today it is likely worth well over $1 million.  Are developers really willing to pay $3 million or more to build a garage for rent money?  Or are they going to look for concessions from the Town to make it more profitable?

My concern as a citizen of Amherst is that our Council appears to increasingly regard a parking garage as the long-term answer to our Town’s parking problems, but they have not proposed any plan to make this happen, and as parking demand increases, the Town’s ability to leverage their position in discussions with developers becomes more limited.  Wouldn’t it be better to build a new parking garage, or at least develop the plan for a garage, before the town eliminates the North Common parking spaces?  The Council appears to forgive the parking obligations of developers, and with Plan 3b it also appears to throw away public parking that already exists.  They appear to count on a garage to solve their parking problems in the future, but they have no public plan for this garage.

I am worried that taxpayers will either end up paying for this garage or that their representatives will make major concessions to developers to get them to build it.  As the adage goes, the Council is putting the cart before the horse, hoping for a new garage without a good plan or apparent backup.  Taxpayers will be stressed by the other municipal projects headed their way, including the new school, the public works building, the new fire station, as well as funding for the library renovation/expansion.  We should not be financially liable for funding a new garage as well, and I don’t want to give local developers a piece of land valued at over $1 million. 

People need to speak out now so that the Council does not take our money and our needs for granted.

Michael Childs has been a resident of Amherst for the last 37 years.

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4 thoughts on “Opinion: Town Needs A Comprehensive Parking Plan Before Beginning Work On North Common

  1. Councilor Bahl-Milne’s report that “the Council was in ongoing discussions with local developers to build a second garage, and that funding it wouldn’t be at taxpayer’s expense” is unsettling. Who is doing this negotiation on the behalf of the Council? Who authorized these negotiations and what exactly is being negotiated? Which developers are involved? Will there by an RFP or will this be some kind of exclusive arrangment? Isn’t an RFP required for municipal construction? What does “no cost to the taxpayer mean”? If, as Michael Childs suggests, some developer will build the garage in exchange for a handover of a valuable piece of downtown real estate, plus an agreement to waive taxes on the property, plus an agreement to hand over revenues from the garage – all in exchange for building and operating the garage – is that a good deal for Amherst taxpayers? So many questions and so little public information.

    And yet, a number of Councilors seem to be aware or emerging plans for the garage so one wonders when this ongoing process will be made public. A reasonable fear is that we will see a redux of the opacity that characterized both the school consolidation project and the Jones expansion – keeping the public in the dark until a single proposal is developed and embraced by those in the know, leaving the residents of the town (and particularly those or District 3) little choice but to consent to what they are offered if they hope to find some relief from the Town’s burgeoning parking crisis and more than likely, exacerbating the polarization and distrust that already plagues our town. Will we hear again – approve this proposal expeditiously or we will lose this wonderful opportunity?

    There is a better way to do this and that is to bring into the daylight whatever negotiations and planning are now underway, and to encourage broad input, from the town at large, and particularly from residents of District 3 ,where the garage will apparently be located. A lot of Amherst residents seem to think that another garage is needed now. No doubt they have all kinds of ideas on how to do this well.

  2. A few days ago, I posted a comment on Suzannah Muspratt’s piece, depicting two likely outcomes — parking lots and parking garages — when centuries-old buildings are demolished in the name of progress.

    Even if increasing parking were a popular idea, this outcome represents a tragic failure of the imagination: making a large, long-term investment in parking structures means we are less likely to invest in improving public transportation, both in the Amherst area, as well connections with the nearby metropolitan areas — Boston and New York — from where many of our student residents hail. That will make it even harder to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or improve mobility of our aging population.

    But if we insist on adding to our parking, and if we plan to keep any parking on the North Common, I’m puzzled why nobody has seriously considered taking advantage of the sloping grade to design a 2-level parking structure for that site, with access to the top from Pleasant and the bottom from Boltwood.

    Here’s an example of that near Brown University (I lived in an old house across the street for a semester a few years ago), viewed from the northwest (upper level) corner:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@41.8229878,-71.3998543,3a,75y,101.82h,90.97t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sVjWT_gQwAqVfScBj8M6DNg!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    and from the southeast (lower level) corner:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@41.8227147,-71.3986224,3a,75y,208.07h,96.27t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1svQv4lSd1PSZ8ORd6GyBJgg!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

  3. I’d believe the ‘if we build parking structures, we’ll have no incentive to invest in public transit’ line a lot more if the PVTA was funded enough to have reliable and regular service now. Sounds like a better use for that $1.5 million than closing a constantly-in-use parking lot in a town where parking is already a nightmare and local businesses are already struggling (RIP Lone Wolf). This is an unforced error, and it’s the height of silliness to do it before an adequate replacement of any kind is ready.

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