Report Of The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, August 21, 2023. Part 1
- No plans for another parking garage at this time.
- Human Rights Commission submits its annual report.
- Plans for a Charter Review Commission to GOL for review.
- This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen and Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, and Ellisha Walker (at large). Lopes, Pam, Walker, and Miller participated remotely.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Sean Mangano (Finance Director), and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
The inclusion of a structural report on the Boltwood Parking garage triggered public comment and an extensive discussion among the councilors. The report was prepared by Desman Design Management, the original designers of the garage, and stated that it would be possible to add one or two floors to the 20-year-old garage to gain up to 235 additional spaces to the existing 180 spots; but the increase in size would impact the access of large trucks to the lot, and there would be only five to eight feet between the lot and the surrounding businesses.
Initially, there was suspicion on the part of councilors and the public as to why this topic was placed on the agenda with relatively short notice. Senior Planner Nate Malloy said that the study was undertaken as a result of questions raised during meetings of the previous council when former councilors Evan Ross and George Ryan proposed a parking garage on North Prospect Street behind CVS. At that time, there was intense public criticism of the proposal. Residents cited the recent study of parking in town, which concluded that the perceived lack of parking in town was counterfactual, and should be addressed through such measures as better signage, striping, and lighting, and better use of current ground lots. The lot was ultimately rezoned to permit a parking garage (see also here), but no decisions were made on whether a garage would be constructed there or at any other location. Members of the public and some councilors thought that there might be more appropriate places for a parking garage than on a small one-way street in an historic neighborhood, and money was allocated to see if adding to the Boltwood garage was a possibility. This report is the result of that study. Griesemer made a public commitment to studying other potential places for parking lots.
In public comment, Rani Parker asked why the report was included on the agenda at the last minute, leaving little time for it to be reviewed. Susanna Muspratt wondered why it took three months for the report to be made public, and why it was presented in a meeting when many residents are out of town. Jay Silverstein estimated that over 400 apartments have been constructed in recent years, with fewer than 40 parking spaces being added. He asked, “Is the council’s goal to make Amherst just for students?” James Muspratt, Ira Bryck , and Ken Rosenthal doubted the need for more downtown parking if there was better use of existing spots. Rosenthal said several residents have been keeping track of the town lot behind CVS, and there are never fewer than 11 available spaces, even at the busiest times.
The date on the report is May 1, 2023, but Town Manager Paul Bockelman indicated that he received the first draft on that date, but the final version was not completed until July 21. Council President Lynn Griesemer explained that the garage was initially planned to have three levels, but that option was defeated by Town Meeting. She also noted that The intention of the Municipal Parking District, which allows developers to build residential units in the downtown without supplying any parking, had been passed by Town Meeting as a means to encourage residential units downtown. In any case, she said, “Until we have done all that was recommended [in the 2019 Nelson-Nygaard Parking study] I am not ready to jump into building another garage.” She also pointed out that she avoids parking garages whenever she can for safety reasons.
Malloy pointed out that a visual survey of the Boltwood garage showed it to be in relatively good shape, but Desman recommended a maintenance plan to repair some drainage and cracks in concrete for a cost of about $100,000. Malloy noted that the Greenfield parking garage is mostly empty when he goes there, even the reserved spaces on the lower level. That garage was built using a state grant, and the parking rates are relatively inexpensive. He added that economy of scale usually means that most new parking garages must have 400 to 500 parking spaces to be profitable. Adding to the Boltwood garage would be less expensive than building a new garage with more spaces, although the cost per space would be more.
Councilor Michele Miller (District 1) asked why we are doing a site evaluation when we haven’t figured out if we need more parking. She said she was “floored at the costs” (between $7 million and $16 million) and would rather look at other places for surface parking. Cathy Schoen (District1) pointed out that the last council voted to remove the 70 surface spaces on the North Common, despite more housing being built downtown. She suggested that developers who don’t provide parking for their residents should pay into a fund that could support shuttles to parking, as is done in other towns. She also suggested finding out if some private lots, such as Amherst College lots, could be used after hours.
Ana Devlin Gauthier cited the other dire needs of the town, “I look at our roads and sidewalks, the Department of Public Works and fire station, and this is a ‘no’ — I can’t justify this.” Andy Steinberg (at large) stated that he has never been unable to find a parking space in the North Prospect Street lot. He said that many people don’t know the lot exists. But according to Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), in charrettes held in 2014, “more parking and a downtown music venue” were the two needs most cited by residents. She thought that rather than have each apartment complex provide parking for residents, a centralized site would be preferable. She also wondered if a public-private partnership for a garage is still a possibility.
Malloy stated that not much changed between the 2008 and 2019 studies of parking. Since 2019, there are more new buildings and restaurants, but the pandemic has changed shopping habits, so it may be useful to do another parking study in the next few years.
However, Griesemer said she didn’t think it was necessary to do another study or for consultants from Desman to come before the council to answer questions, since the town is “not ready to build a garage anywhere.” Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) also noted that another parking study would be premature while the North Common and Jones Library construction were taking place.
Finance Director Sean Mangano, who headed the staff parking leadership team, said the town has been placing signs to show drivers where there are parking lots, updating the town website to show their locations better, and having conversations with owners of privately owned lots about allowing parking at certain times, which were among the Nelson-Nygaard recommendations. The group also modernized the parking permit system and converted the parking enforcement officers to parking ambassadors to provide customer service to downtown visitors. He said downtown parking has been down since the pandemic. It is rebounding, but is not yet up to pre-pandemic levels.
No further discussion about a parking garage was planned at this time.
Human Rights Commission Report To The Council
Last month, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) issued its report to the council. The report detailed the activities of the HRC over the past year—the cultural events sponsored and human rights complaints heard. The group also recently revised its bylaws. Co-chairs Rani Parker and Liz Haygood said the majority of the HRC are new to the commission, having served less than a year, and there are three vacancies on the commission. Co-chair Philip Avila moved to the West Coast and the other co-chair, Ben Herrington, resigned last month. But, Parker said, even though many are new, they take human rights seriously.
The HRC works closely with the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) to organize events that celebrate the diversity present in Amherst. The next event will celebrate LatinX heritage month on Sunday, September 24 on the Town Common. The HRC also receives complaints from anyone who experiences a human rights violation and helps them reach resolution. Their intervention typically involves arranging conciliatory meetings between parties which are conducted by the DEI Director.
The HRC meetings are informal and open to the public. The group meets monthly on a Thursday. Forms to file human rights complaints are available on the website www.amherstma.gov/HRC.
Bockelman said he hopes to appoint new members to the HRC shortly. He said the proposed new bylaws are being reviewed by the town attorney.
Griesemer praised the group, saying the many events it sponsored over the past year were “truly magnificent.”
Charter Review Commission Charge To GOL
The town charter Section 9.6 specifies that it must be reviewed in every year ending in 4, hence in 2024. The charter specifies that the review must be conducted by a committee of nine residents, none of whom are sitting councilors. The committee cannot change the type of government, the number of councilors, or the length of their term. Those changes would require a new charter. To establish the review commission, Griesemer submitted a draft of the proposed charge to be reviewed by the Governance, Organization, and Legislation (GOL) Committee.
Miller, who has decided not to run for re-election, asked if councilors not running for another term, can apply. Hanneke, who helped write the charter as a member of the original charter commission, clarified that the review commission only needs to be established in 2024; it does not need to complete its work in 2024. If the commission was appointed by the next council, current councilors who did not run in November would be eligible.
GOL will bring the proposed charge back to the entire council by October 2.