Public Hearing On Rezoning “CVS Lot” For Construction Of Parking Garage

Rezoning the parking lot behind CVS was the subject of a public hearing of the Community Resources Committee on July 13. Photo: Art Keene

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.) 


Present
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)

Highlights

  • 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.

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7 thoughts on “Public Hearing On Rezoning “CVS Lot” For Construction Of Parking Garage

  1. The CRC and its chair Mandi Jo Hanneke should be called out for their lack of transparency. The committee deals with zoning and appointments which affect the whole town, yet they meet at 2 p.m., making attending their meetings impossible for anyone who works full-time. The meetings are recorded, but the last recording posted is from March 9. There are no minutes posted for all of 2021. This is the only committee in town that meets only in person. What are its members trying to hide?

  2. Corroborating the evidence that this is how things are done in the City of Strehma, *** backwards!

  3. CRC minutes that have been approved are all posted at https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/Index/3574 and include those that were approved on July 13th. You may have to scroll through the three separate pages to get to them, but they at all there. CRC currently has four sets of minutes outstanding—two from joint meetings where we joined either the PB or the AMAHT, and those Boards, as of the 9th, had not approved them; June 22nd minutes, which are in the July 13 packet but Councilor Pam asked to wait to approve; and the July 13th minutes, the last meeting we held.

  4. These are great questions from members of the public and need to be answered before any re-zoning by the Town Council. Is a parking lot feasible on the CVS lot given the setback requirements of the BG district. Is another zoning district category more appropriate–that limits heights to 3 stories (but always with the issue of a “footnote a” waiver.) Also, each 3 town parking lots need to be analyzed and then compared. There is data from a consultant report comparing the 3 parking lots which needs to be read and analyzed. Questions about whether the Bangs Center lot can have floors built on top of it. How many spaces could be added to each lot, if 2-3 floors of parking were added? Could underground parking be built at the Amherst Cinema or CVS lots? What if the Amherst Cinema parking lot was expanded by adding the the Bank of America and/or People’s Bank lots? What about access to and from each lot? Planning Board member Doug Marshall had a question about the narrow entry way from North Pleasant Street to the CVS lot. Others have raised questions about traffic impacts on the streets feeding to and from each lot–and which would sustain the most traffic? Would street improvements be needed? What is the input and suggestions from the Transportation Advisory Committee? These are all questions sent to me by a few residents and local planners.

    A critical issue is public input, especially from the people most affected by this rezoning and who use this lot and streets every day. That includes the small businesses in downtown, who have a special interest and understanding of customer and employee parking needs. We have 3 town employees working as Community Participation Officers. Their help is needed to get the word out at a time of year when many residents are on vacation.

    The Planning Board first discussed this rezoning for the first time at it formal, state-mandated Public Hearing–quite a deviation from its usual thoughtful process of analyzing proposed changes, alternatives, hearing from residents and town boards and then going to a formal Public Hearing. Here we are at that almost final stage — but we have been reassured by the Planning Director that the Planning Board can take its time to fully analyze and assess this rezoning proposal before making its recommendation to Town Council. Town Council chair Lynn Griesemer also has reassured the public that there is plenty of time for public input and the work of the Planning Board with the able help of the Planning Department. This is great to hear.

  5. In terms of remote access to the CRC meetings, even after the fact, on the Town of Amherst’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnjhMYHUcZMCfGbukz05DhA), the most recent CRC meeting recording that currently seems to be available is the CRC meeting from March 9th, 2021.

    With some Council committee meetings, such as CRC’s, being held only in person, my understanding is that some committee members have still be able to participate remotely for health reasons and concerns about Covid. If that’s the case, it would be nice if the Council and those committees would extend remote access as well to members of the public who are not able to participate in in-person meetings for similar reasons.

  6. Deerfield Select Board commits to hybrid meetings

    Daily Hampshire Gazette 7/18/2021 6:55:04 PM

    DEERFIELD — The Select Board committed to hybrid meetings for the foreseeable future and laid out its priorities for the new fiscal year during its meeting last week.
    As the town emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and meetings return to in-person formats, the board stated its intention to continue to attempt hybrid meetings despite any technical difficulties that may arise.
    Select Board member David Wolfram said hybrid meetings are allowing for more public participation than he’s seen in years.
    “I’m in favor of continuing hybrid until the glaciers come back,” Wolfram said jokingly. “In the number of years that I’ve participated in local government, we’d have an average of two people. Right now we have 19 people signed on (to this meeting). Even though they might not be participating, they’re listening and better informed on what’s happening in Deerfield.”
    Sound feedback, low volume and unmuted mics on Zoom are a few of the issues Select Board member Trevor McDaniel said the board will work through, much like how they adjusted on the fly to the pandemic last year.
    “We’re doing the best we can with technology,” McDaniel said. “We learned all along last year and we’ll figure this out, too.”
    Last month, the Select Board authorized $7,500 to buy improved audio and video equipment for the ease of conducting hybrid meetings.
    McDaniel said the board is willing to take the time and money to pursue hybrid meetings because it facilitates public participation, but he mentioned if someone really wants to have their voice heard then they should physically attend the meeting.
    “We’re going to do the best we can to make sure you can hear us,” McDaniel said. “If there’s something really interesting to you and you want to participate in democracy, come to Town Hall.”

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