Report on the Meeting of the Community Resources Committee (CRC), July 13, 2021
The Community Resources Committee (CRC) met in the Town Room at Town Hall. The meeting was not accessible to the public via remote participation. It was apparently recorded but not posted on the town’s YouTube channel. (Recordings of CRC meetings are not posted there.)
CRC members: Town Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair, at large); George Ryan (District 3), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Evan Ross (District 4). Steve Schreiber (District 4) joined via speaker phone.
Staff: Christine Brestrup (Planning Director), Rob Morra (Building Commissioner), David Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager and Director of Conservation and Planning)
- Discussion of rezoning from RG (General Residence) to BG (General Business), Parcel 33 of the Official Zoning Map 14A, on North Prospect Street (the two parcels that the town owns in the parking lot adjacent to the CVS lot)
- Discussion of CRC meeting format going forward — in person or remote?
Public Hearing on Rezoning the Town Parking Lot Behind CVS from RG to BG
Councilor Evan Ross (who is co-sponsoring the zoning bylaw amendment with Councilor George Ryan) introduced the proposed amendment. He explained that parking has long been a contentious issue in Amherst. With four capital projects (elementary school buildings, DPW, Fire Station, and Jones Library expansion) in the future, the town cannot also afford to build a parking structure downtown, he said, so the town can enter into a public-private partnership in which it will provide the land and a private entity (or entities) will build and operate the parking structure.
As a first step in that process, Ross and Ryan are proposing to rezone the two parcels the town owns on North Prospect Street (to the north and adjacent to the parking lot behind CVS). The next step, they said,would entail determining the feasibility of locating a parking structure in that location. Councilor Ross emphasized that the rezoning is just a first step in a long process and that the town will have a great deal of control over the size of any construction and other details of the lot since it will continue to own the land.
The current RG designation (as well as B-L, Business-Limited) doesn’t allow for enough lot coverage to build a parking garage. In a B-L district, building coverage is limited to 35 percent of the lot (and limits height to three stories). In a B-G district, building coverage extends to 70 percent of the lot and the height limit is five stories. Ross stated that the reason for rezoning the parcel to BG would be for more lot coverage, not for additional height, and said that there is no plan to build a parking structure that exceeds three stories even though the new zoning designation would allow for such.
Councilor Dorothy Pam stated that she does not doubt the good will of the sponsors of the proposed zoning bylaw amendment, but asked, why take the first, permanent step of rezoning the parcels before determining if a parking structure is even feasible in that location? Many of the recommendations from previous parking studies (as well as the downtown parking working group) have not yet been considered. There might be better options than building a new garage on North Prospect Street to satisfy any need for parking downtown. She also suggested doing a feasibility study to determine the best location for a new parking garage, if it is determined that a garage is needed , before taking the irreversible step of rezoning the parcels.
Councilor George Ryan echoed Ross, saying that we are “just opening the door,” and are not close to making final decisions about a parking garage there.
Public Comments In Favor Of Rezoning The Parcels
Gabrielle Gould, the executive director of the downtown Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), stated that the BID brought the idea for a parking structure on North Prospect Street, supported through a public-private partnership, as part of their concept for “Destination Amherst” in the hope that it would serve a projected increase in automobile traffic to Amherst because there could be a live music venue, an attractive and lively new North Common, and a new library, as well as the Amherst Cinema and “other downtown attractions.” Gould added that the lot is currently in disrepair and underused, due to poor “wayfinding” (signage), and maintained that the BID intends to build a garage that will not exceed three stories and will be screened from the residential street by trees. She said that there is no money to be made in parking garages, so a public-private partnership is the most feasible option.
Public Comments In Opposition To Rezoning The Parcels
Suzannah Muspratt shared her concern that it is premature to rezone now, before implementing the recommendations from the many parking studies the town has funded over the years, many of which do not point to a parking shortage downtown, but rather an underutilization of currently available parking spaces. Muspratt pointed out that the studies recommended a variety of approaches including use of technology and cell-phone apps that are available to direct drivers to available parking spaces and use of parking lots owned by businesses that are not used after business hours but that could be made available in the evenings, probably with compensation.
As a resident of the RG neighborhood abutting the parcels proposed for rezoning, she noted that the decision to rezone to B-G, instead of B-L, means there would be no buffer between the residential neighborhood and the general business districts. As did other residents offering public comment, Muspratt expressed concern that if it is ultimately determined that constructing a parking garage behind CVS is not feasible (or if no private partner can be found), then what happens to the parcels? What other types of structures could be built there due to the new designation?
Bob Abrams shared that he has lived on North Prospect Street since the 1970s and has always enjoyed this quiet and historic neighborhood, and implored the CRC not to “ruin our neighborhood” with traffic, noise, and tall buildings. He said that “no college town has developed their way to financial stability…a five-story edifice comes at a tragic cost to a historic neighborhood.” He also stated that the ability to rent an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is what enables him and his wife to afford to stay in their home and continue to pay Amherst’s high taxes during retirement. If North Prospect becomes a busy and noisy thoroughfare, with no buffer between residences and the BG, he asked, will their home continue to be attractive to potential tenants?
Sandy Muspratt encouraged the CRC to gather data first, and rezone second. As a resident of NorthProspect Street, he has observed the parking patterns in the lots behind CVS for years, and has noted that the town’s parcels are consistently empty. He also noted that the spaces adjacent to St. Brigid’s Church are rarely used, and suggested that perhaps they could be made available to the town for public parking. He urged the Council not to rush to rezone and invest in building a costly garage before conducting an inventory of available spaces and determining if technology solutions (which direct drivers to available spaces) would resolve our parking dilemma.
Alexandra Lefebvre joined other North Prospect residents in describing the traffic flow challenges on her street. Because two-way streets feed into it from different directions, drivers often inadvertently drive down the block in the wrong direction, and accidents aren’t an infrequent occurrence. She did say, however, that she would be receptive to an attractive parking structure that does not exceed three stories and is screened, with trees, from the adjacent street.
Jennifer Taub expressed her concern that once rezoned to BG, the universe of what can be built on the town’s parcels next to the CVS parking lot greatly expands. Ryan responded that “you have the word of 13 councilors” that once they are rezoned to BG, these parcels will “never” be a five-story building. Taub pointed out, however, that earlier in the meeting, Ross had said that “…at this point, the town’s interest only seems to be a parking garage.” She said that she understood that that is really the best assurance the current Town Council can provide “at this point,” but four or five years down the road, there will be new council members, and once it is rezoned to BG,there is no legal way to prevent a five-story building from being constructed there.
Is it possible, she asked, to have a condition written into the rezoning that would specify that the parcels had specifically been rezoned to accommodate a three-story parking structure?
Ross responded that the public comments had raised valid concerns and perhaps it could be written into an RFP (Request for a Proposal) or otherwise stated that a parking garage in that location would be a maximum of three stories, but he did not address the concern about the rezoning permitting other large buildings to be constructed. Schreiber suggested exploring contract zoning and deed restrictions to determine whether either of these could be part of the rezoning here.
The Committee determined to continue the hearing on the proposed rezoning until August 10 at 2 p.m. so that more information about contract zoning and deed restrictions can be gathered. By that date, there could also be a recommendation from the Planning Board.
CRC Meetings: Remote or In-Person?
|Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne stated her preference to continue remote meetings because it facilitates greater public participation. CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke stated her preference for in-person meetings, saying that, when chairing remote meetings, she can’t view all of the CRC members at once. She also said that “in theory, in the state of Massachusetts, we’re out of the pandemic.” All other Councilors stated their preference for continuing remote meetings noting that it increases public participation and that in-person only diminishes public participation.
Nonetheless, CRC members voted unanimously to support their chair and to continue meeting only in-peron.
(Hybrid meetings, in-person and plus Zoom, is not an available option.)
Jennifer Taub and Ira Bryck contributed to this article.