Garage Survey Reveals Conflicting Visions For Downtown

Final Results of Speak Up! Should North Prospect Lot Be Rezoned To Permit Parking Garage? Survey

On December 18 we published preliminary results of the Speak Up! opinion poll asking readers how you felt about rezoning the Town’s North Prospect Street parking lot to allow a parking garage to be built there.  As reported, 81% (43 out of 53) of respondents expressed opposition to rezoning.  Nonetheless, two days later the 13 members of the Town Council voted 9-4 to support rezoning.  This tally exceeded the necessary two-thirds majority required to change a zoning bylaw by one vote.

In the past week we received 15 more responses to the survey which demonstrated a continuation of the previous trend.  A chart which combines these with previous results is shown below.

So we might wonder why would 69% of the Town Council support a parking garage zoning overlay on North Prospect St. while more than 80% of respondents to the Speak Up! survey oppose it?  Are Amherst Indy readers predominantly of one mindset, or is the Town Council out of touch with the Amherst public?

The answer, it turns out, may be a bit of both.  One way to explore this question is to compare Speak Up! survey responses with comments submitted to the Town Council’s online public comment repository.

In the four weeks leading up to the 12/20 Council vote, 103 different signers submitted comments on the garage zoning question.  Of these, 52 comments, (50.5%) indicated a sentiment that more parking is needed in downtown Amherst, while 51 comments (49.5%) expressed opposition to the zoning change.

A substantial number of messages advocating for a parking garage came from downtown business owners associated with the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID).  The BID, along with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Amherst Foundation have been active in promoting the idea of a privately-funded parking garage to enhance downtown’s ability to attract outside visitors.

A representative pro-garage comment was this one:

“Simple. We need more parking in town if we want to bring in more business. We need to make it as easy as possible for people to come into town and spend their money in our town. This is a necessity for Amherst.”

In the Speak Up! survey, three main arguments against rezoning to allow a parking garage emerged. One group of opponents included North Prospect St abutters and residents of the nearby Lincoln-Sunset Historic District fearful that a parking garage would detract from the aesthetics of the neighborhood.

A second line of reasoning questioned whether there is truly a need for a new garage downtown, pointing to a 2016 parking study recommending alternatives to increasing parking capacity. Others argued that building above the current Boltwood Parking Garage makes more sense.

Thirdly, several comments identified a flawed process in bringing the zoning change proposal to a Town Council vote, citing limited Planning Board and Planning Department involvement, and suggesting that changing zoning before a solid garage development plan is in place was premature.

A typical comment touching on these arguments was

“No, no, no! It is an unnecessary and extravagant expense. The size and scale will damage (and darken) the historic neighborhood on North Prospect Street. It will endanger drivers and pedestrians alike.  It will cause traffic issues on both North Prospect and North Pleasant Streets.  And, first and foremost, the process has been woefully flawed, perhaps bordering on illegal, but certainly carried out in a surreptitious manner in opposition to what ‘residents’ desire.”

An additional statistic that came out of the Speak Up! survey was how frequently respondents tend to visit downtown.  Two-thirds of the 53 respondents who strongly opposed the garage zoning measure described themselves as visiting Downtown Amherst once a week or more.

Time will tell if and where a downtown parking garage may be built.  In the meantime, the Amherst business community may want to be judicious in how it exerts its political influence with respect to this issue, or risk alienating some of its best customers.

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