CRC To Town Council: Quick, Clear The Path For A Parking Garage

Architect's rendering for the Olive Street Garage, Greenfield, MA. Photo: greenfield.ma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Community Resources Committee, November 16, 2021


The meeting was held on Zoom and was recorded. That recording can be viewed here

Present
Town Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair, at-large), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)
Staff: Christine Brestrup (Planning Director), Rob Morra (Building Commissioner), Nate Malloy (Senior Planner)

Highlights

  • Voted to rezone parcel 33 (the town lot behind CVS) to create a parking facility overlay district to facilitate construction of a parking garage there
  • Voted to recommend the adoption of an amendment to Article 7 of the zoning bylaw, relaxing the requirements for parking spaces in residential developments
  • Voted unanimously to recommend the adoption of Article 14, which will extend for another year the emergency COVID provisions for permitting downtown businesses.
  • Voted to recommend the adoption of new definitions for mixed-use buildings
  • Voted to postpone filling two vacancies on the Zoning Board of Appeals until a new CRC is formed in January

The Community Resources Committee (CRC) voted to recommend the rezoning of parcel 33, the town lot on North Prospect Street behind CVS, to create a parking facility overlay district that will clear the way for construction of a parking garage on the parcel. The CRC also recommended the adoption of amendments to the zoning bylaws concerning parking, continuing emergency pandemic permitting measures to support downtown businesses, and the definition of “mixed-use” buildings. 

The rezoning and zoning amendments were sent on to the full Town Council for approval. They will receive a first reading at the Council’s meeting on November 29 and will come up for a final vote at their meeting on December 6.

At the last meeting of the Community Resources Committee, Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke reprimanded Councilor Dorothy Pam for comments that Hanneke called disrespectful of another member of the committee. Pam had criticized Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne for saying that she felt sorry for resident Rani Parker, who had recently purchased an historic home across the street from the proposed garage site when she moved to Amherst (see also here and here). Hanneke opened this meeting with a warning that the rules of procedure “include a rule regarding courtesy of conduct and debate and that discourse at Council meetings shall be marked by courtesy, openness, and respect, even in the face of disagreement.” In the meeting that followed, Pam strenuously disagreed with her colleagues on the committee on each of the issues on the agenda but did not go so far as to criticize them.

Pam had suggested at the CRC meetings of November 9 and November 16 that these zoning amendments were not ready for adoption, and that it would be prudent and respectful of voters to seek more data and analysis and to continue deliberation under the newly elected Council. She also worried that actions taken today will be viewed by voters as “some kind of quick lame duck movement” lacking legitimacy.

The four amendments to the zoning bylaws will be taken up by the council in a series of extra meetings between Thanksgiving and Christmas in order to get them passed and on the books before a newly elected Council is installed in January 2022. The CRC and Town Council have been criticized for rushing to pass these zoning amendments without due diligence (see e.g. here and here) and without respecting voters’ expressed desire for newly elected members of the Council to have a say in these matters. Both Councilors George Ryan and Evan Ross, the sponsors of the parking garage proposal, failed to win re-election (although Ross is contesting his loss in a recount that will be conducted on Tuesday.)

Pam had suggested at the CRC meetings of November 9 and November 16 that these zoning amendments were not ready for adoption, and that it would be prudent and respectful of voters to seek more data and analysis and to continue deliberation under the newly elected Council. She also worried that actions taken today will be viewed by voters as “some kind of quick lame duck movement” lacking legitimacy. However, other members of the committee agreed with Ross’s complaint that the current committee has worked too long and too hard on these amendments to hand them over to a new committee that “might not have the background” to evaluate them. Referring to the zoning for the parking garage, he said, “This has been a great process around a great proposal” and repeated his assertion that “study after study has shown that this is a great location.” 

Rezoning Of Parcel 33, The Town Lot on North Prospect Street Behind CVS
The committee considered the proposal to rezone the lot behind CVS, exiting onto North Prospect Street, as a parking facility overlay district, which would clear the way to build a garage on the parcel but not any other kind of construction, such as apartments or retail shops. (see here and here). The committee voted 4-1 to recommend the adoption of the parking overlay district, with Pam dissenting. The full amendment can be read here.

Councilor Discussion
Before the vote, Councilors Hanneke, Ross, and Bahl-Milne offered extensive comment on why they support the zoning change and construction of a garage at this site, but offered little response to the outpouring of opposition from residents throughout Amherst at previous public meetings (see e.g. herehere, here, here and here). Pam raised objections that had been raised previously by many of her constituents, and called for more study but was largely ignored by her colleagues.

Ross repeated his claims that there was a demonstrated need for parking in downtown Amherst, even though three fairly recent parking studies have suggested that this is by no means the case and the evidence that Ross and other members of the CRC have offered in support of a “parking emergency” has been anecdotal.

Bahl-Milne asserted her strong support for the rezoning and the construction of the garage on North Prospect Street. She argued, without offering any supporting evidence, that downtown businesses were not thriving at least partially because of parking problems downtown. She emphasized that the garage proposal was part of the Business Improvement District’s (BID) “Destination Amherst” proposal and that it has already been studied by town staff, vetted by the BID itself, and sufficiently aired in public forums and hearings. She was dismissive, as was Ross, of the previous parking studies, which demonstrated that there was sufficient parking downtown, and argued—again, without offering evidence—that downtown parking is neither sufficiently visible nor readily accessible and thus a parking garage is needed. She asserted that it would be fiscally irresponsible to do another parking study. She also indicated that a garage for that site is already planned, saying that it will be built through a public private partnership “and will not cost the town anything.” She acknowledged that the garage would likely have “an impact” on the historic North Prospect street neighborhood and “we need to acknowledge that, too,” and proceeded to suggest that perhaps parking fees could be used to add height to the buffer or beautify the structure.

Hanneke noted that the committee had heard a lot of opposition when the proposal was first made public, but suggested that most of the opposition had dissipated since then. She felt that changing the proposal to create an overlay district instead of rezoning it entirely had sufficiently addressed many resident concerns. Bahl Milne and Ross also asserted that little opposition remains aside from that of a few abutters. And Bahl-Milne said that she knows of residents of North Prospect who support the garage “but are afraid to say so in public for fear of alienating their neighbors.” (Note: on various occasions, supporters of Amherst Forward have charged their opponents with harassment and intimidation, e.g., in the recent voter veto campaign  as well as the effort to create a temporary moratorium on downtown construction, claiming without offering evidence, as Bahl-Milne has done here, that support for their point of view is much greater than it appears).

Councilor-elect Jennifer Taub (District 3), who attended this meeting, was taken aback by these assertions that there is now widespread support for building the garage in this location and suggested in an email to the Indy, that opposition to the garage remains strong in her district.

Councilor-elect Jennifer Taub (District 3) who attended this meeting, was taken aback by these assertions that there is now widespread support for building the garage in this location and suggested in an email to the Indy, that opposition to the garage remains strong in her district.

Hanneke and Bahl-Milne returned to an old argument that the rezoning is “just a preliminary step,” necessary to create an RFP for such a project sometime in the future, and  to solicit proposals that might lead to the construction of a garage at the site. They also said that there would be plenty of time after the rezoning for traffic studies, deliberation, and public input. “If we want to figure out whether this is possible, we need to change the zoning …we can’t move forward without it,” Hanneke said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll build the garage but we need to change this zoning to figure out whether we should do this or not. We need consolidated parking downtown if we want business to thrive.” Ross and Ryan have said previously that “no other site” will be considered for the construction of a garage.  

Hanneke emphasized the loss of parking in response to the COVID-related outdoor dining downtown, suggesting that such dining was highly successful “and if we’re going to do more of that then we’re likely to lose more parking.” She said that “centralized parking is the way to go” to help downtown businesses and mentioned a parking study done in the 1980s that, she said, established that the CVS lot was “the ideal location” for a parking structure.

Pam responded, “I do find it hard to keep hearing that this is the unanimous choice of old studies, because I went to all the Nelson-Nygaard meetings [the most comprehensive parking study]  and he was very clear that we don’t need to build a parking garage…that there were many other ways to solve downtown parking problems.” She later added, “In my real life, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think this proposal is anything except a total disaster.”

Article 7, Proposed Changes To Parking Regulations For Residential Dwelling Units
This amendment replaces requirements for a fixed number of parking spaces per dwelling, in most parking districts, with a more flexible requirement to provide “adequate” parking, the amount to be determined by the owner and approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Planning Board on a case by case basis. The full text of the bylaw can be read here. The committee voted 4-1 with Pam dissenting to recommend the adoption of Article 7. 

Discussion and Public Comment
Planner Nate Malloy offered that under the new bylaw, criteria about parking will be more clear.  Planning Director Christine Brestrup noted that the Planning Board has spent a considerable amount of time at their meetings deliberating about parking, mostly because we don’t currently have clear criteria.

Pam said that the amendment fails to address the range of problems created by students with cars and that such problems are plentiful in her district.

Planning Board member Janet McGowan commented after the vote that she believed that the amendment was not ready for adoption and that there were no studies or data supporting any of the proposed criteria.

Article 14 -Extending COVID Provisions For Expedited Permitting
Article 14 of the zoning bylaw permitted certain uses, such as outdoor dining—during the pandemic emergency with expedited permitting through the town’s building commissioner. The article is set to expire on December 31, 2021 and the amendment will extend the effective date through December 31, 2022. The committee unanimously recommended adoption of the bylaw (5-0) with little discussion. Town Manager Paul Bockelman noted in a memo to the council that there is an ongoing need for Article 14 to enable the town to continue its economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. The full amendment can be read here

History
Since its adoption in the summer of 2020, Article 14 was used to expedite 23 zoning approvals for both temporary and permanent changes including the following:

Temporary Changes
• The Lift North Amherst at 68 Cowls Road for outdoor salon services
• CVS on University Drive for vaccine kiosk
• Town of Amherst for vaccine tents at 70 Boltwood Walk
• 75-85 Cowls Road for outdoor movie nights
• 65 Cowls Road for Farmers Market
• Mission Cantina, 485 West Street for outdoor structures
• Tents at various locations including Jones Library and educational institutions 

Permanent Changes

  • Powerhouse Nutrition at 113 North Pleasant Street for outdoor seating
  • Stackers Pub at 57 North Pleasant Street for patio improvements and expansion
  • Amherst College for athletic field modifications on Northampton Road 
  • The Spoke at 35 East Pleasant Street for interior and exterior expansion 
  • Atkins Farm Market at 1150 West Street for generator installation 
  • Garcia’s Restaurant at 51 East Pleasant Street for a new Class II establishment 
  • Protocol at 1 One East Pleasant Street for new Class II establishment 
  • Mexcalito at 17 Kellogg Street for new Class II establishment 
  • Savannah’s Restaurant for modification of previously issued special permit 
  • Hangar Pub at 10 University Drive for multiple interior modifications 
  • Kaiju at 30 Boltwood Walk for new food establishment, catering kitchen, and office 
  • La Veracruzana at 63 South Pleasant Street for restaurant expansion 
  • Stackers at 57 North Pleasant Street for patio improvements and expansion 
  • Dragonfly Healthcare at 17 Research Drive for new parking area 
  • Balanced Birch at North Square for new fitness studio 

Articles 3 – Mixed Use Buildings
Article 3 refers to the definition of mixed-use buildings, the percentage of space that must be allocated to non-residential use, the kinds of non-residential use that count toward that percentage, and the required location of such non-residential space. This has been the focus of considerable debate at previous CRC meetings with the majority of the committee favoring making the regulations as flexible as possible. The committee voted 3-2, with Pam and Schreiber dissenting, to recommend approval of this amendment by the full council The text of article 3 amendment can be read here.

Discussion
Bahl-Milne emphasized the difficulty that recently built mixed-use buildings have apparently had in renting their commercial space. She noted that the town needs housing and the town needs businesses and that “creating all that vacant space doesn’t help”. She also challenged the idea that mixed-use residential buildings have displaced various retail businesses downtown, suggesting that the Carriage Shops, which were demolished to make way for One East Pleasant Street, were “failing businesses” anyway.

Pam said that the mixed-use buildings downtown “are turning downtown into a desert…. We talk about how we want an active, interesting downtown where people go to mix, mingle, and get some of the things they need—items and experiences and…community, and I don’t see what this is proposing is getting us anywhere.” 

ZBA Vacancies
The CRC briefly considered two current vacancies on the ZBA. They had previously deemed the size of the candidate pool to be inadequate (with only one applicant for the two vacancies). Ross reported that there was now one additional applicant (leaving two applicants for two vacancies) and asked if the committee wants to move on this or forward it to the next CRC in January. The committee acknowledged that the ZBA is anxious to fill these positions as they have a lot of work in front of them, but decided it would be beneficial to have a larger candidate pool and that they could use the time until the next CRC is formed to grow the pool. 

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3 thoughts on “CRC To Town Council: Quick, Clear The Path For A Parking Garage

  1. Considering that Amherst is an academic town, it has always struck me as odd that it is magical thinking that is used to push projects that certain factions feel are essential to the town’s very existence. I was always of the opinion that if a project was truly beneficial to the town, proponents should be required to — and would easily be able to — present objective and analytical evidence as to why said project was of benefit. Instead, here we see the dismissal of not only concerns of those who experience the daily reality of the location in question, but as well the dismissal of analyses that have the unfortunate flaw of contradicting the proponents’ vision of “reality.”

  2. Charter supporters argued that the ability to vote councillors out of office was one of its principal democratic features. This lame-duck effort to push through zoning changes in the next few weeks is hypocritical at best. If it were merely funny, we might compare it with night three of the “Royal Nonesuch” in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but the serious-minded among us might ask Cui bono?

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