Over the past three years, I have attended almost every meeting of the Amherst Town Council. I have been bored, frustrated, angered, and on rare occasions impressed. However, at the December 20 meeting, the last one for the inaugural council, I experienced a new emotion—sadness.
At the December 20 meeting, the council voted 9-4 to rezone the town lot behind CVS to permit the construction of a parking garage. This vote was taken over the vociferous objections of abutters and many other Amherst residents. This vote was taken, despite the fact that its primary supporters, BID director Gabrielle Gould and Councilor Evan Ross (District 4) admitted that there was no need for more parking in town now, but that there probably would be in the future.
This vote was taken even though no construction can begin on a parking garage until the library renovation is finished (at least three years from now).
This vote was taken despite the lack of any data showing more parking was needed (and a study that said it wasn’t) and despite the lack of consideration of any of the possible alternative locations for a garage..
This vote was taken despite the fact that both councilor sponsors, Ross and George Ryan (District 3), were the only two incumbents who lost their seats in the November election, apparently largely due to their sponsorship of this unpopular project.
Chamber of Commerce Director Claudia Pazmany said that the Chamber often hears from visitors to town that they can’t find parking. Wouldn’t better signage pointing people to the often mostly empty surface lot be a better solution than a four-story parking garage in the same place, as was recommended by the last parking study? That lot is no farther from the Monkey Bar or Jones Library than the garage proposed for the same site.
Other councilors supporting the rezoning said that change is just the first step and doesn’t commit the town to undertake the construction of a garage, but rather clears a path to study it. But why not study the situation first, especially since the garage can’t be built for over three years? The parking situation downtown could be very different in three years, maybe worse, maybe better. And the sponsors have offered zero rationale for why rezoning must precede study.
I believe that the vote was taken at this meeting because the sponsors felt the motion would not receive the two-thirds vote necessary from the incoming council. It was taken despite obvious public opposition, without any due diligence and with no reason to rush it. Is there a deal already in place to lease this land to a developer or to hand it over to a developer in exchange for building a garage? Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) has said that the financing for the garage is already in place and that it won’t cost the town anything. While at the same time other councilors supporting the construction of a garage insist that there is no plan and no agreements. The whole process arouses suspicion, hence my genuine sadness at the lack of clear thinking and honesty around the matter.
There are councilors with whom I often don’t agree but I can usually see the logic in their thinking. But not here, as the rationale offered is so obviously weak. Why did they so readily agree to this proposal? Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) and outgoing councilor Alisa Brewer (at large) said no garage will be built at that spot without a thorough study of the Amity Street and Boltwood lots.. But will that be true? The sponsors, Ross and Ryan insisted that study of alternative sites was not on the table. My observation of the workings of the Planning Board shows that Planning Board members say they cannot stop development that is permitted by the zoning, which this garage will be. The only thing potentially stopping it would be that the new council must approve a lease of the land (probably at no cost to the developer) by a two-thirds vote.
Let us hope that the new council will take their responsibilities to thoroughly study and vet the project, that is, to do their due diligence, more seriously and responsibly than their predecessors.
Maura Keene is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and a staff writer at the Indy. Her four children are graduates of the Amherst schools. She has lived in Amherst since 1982.