Not the ticket: Amherst businesses unhappy with proposed parking changes

  • Parking meters on South Pleasant Street in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2017

AMHERST — Members of the business community are raising concerns about a potential increase in the cost to park in most of downtown and an extension of the enforcement times at meters, changes the Select Board may implement later this month.

Amherst Business Improvement District Executive Director Sarah la Cour said she has heard complaints about the changes that could be voted on by the Select Board July 17.

“In general, there were a few things they were skeptical of,” la Cour said of the feedback she has received on using what is known as “demand-based pricing” to encourage turnover of parking spaces and provide more options for where people can park.

“It wasn’t clearly laid out how it would benefit the demand-based pricing philosophy,” la Cour said.

The strategy is to make things consistent and easier for customers and to maximize available parking. Increasing the price for premium parking spots, adding hours of meter enforcement and adjusting the winter parking ban are part of this strategy.

One of the main downtown attractions is the Amherst Cinema, whose executive director, Carol Johnson, argues that the changes are a Band-Aid solution, and that business owners want to know why the idea of a second parking garage remains on the back burner.

“The box office staff says the biggest single complaint is about parking, not being able to find it, not being able to stay long enough with getting a ticket,” Johnson said.

Johnson praises Northampton for having a parking garage where the first hour is free and customers never get a ticket because they pay only when leaving the facility.

Patrons from out of town, she added, want predictability. Having all meters and lots provide four-hour time limits, except for the town lot behind the CVS Pharmacy remaining at eight hours, is a step in the right direction. But extending enforcement from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at all meters and parking lots could cause some people to avoid downtown Amherst until later at night, Johnson said.

Cathie Walz, who owns Blue Marble gift shop on North Pleasant Street, also cites the need for more parking, rather than tweaks to the current system.

“Over the Blue Marble’s 10 years in business, I hear complaints on a daily basis from my customers that they are frustrated with how little parking is normally available in town,” Walz said. “It has a direct and constant impact on my business.”

The change that la Cour said is considered most onerous is raising the fees for annual permits from $25 to $200.

“For businesses who get permits for their employees, that’s a big chunk of change,” la Cour said.

Walz said she fears that this could cause more people to compete for on-street parking.

The plan is to create a new map in which spaces closest to the heart of downtown, called the “parking core,” will have charges of $1 per hour. The locations outside of this core would remain at 50 cents an hour.

Johnson said the higher price could pose a “psychological barrier” for people accustomed to free parking at malls and shopping centers.

The working group is using a report from NelsonNygaard Consulting Associates of Boston as the basis for its recommendations. That report, written after evaluating parking when schools were in session, concluded there were sufficient spaces and saw no need for a second parking structure.

The report showed nearly 3,400 parking spaces downtown, with more than half either in private lots or parking spaces by permit, which are generally off-limits until the evening.

A second parking garage has been an idea floated by the business community as several “in-fill” mixed-use projects, some with limited parking, are developed downtown, including the under-construction One East Pleasant.

Accompanying this could be a change to the winter parking rules in effect between Dec. 1 and April 1. Currently, there is no overnight parking on any street, with a few exceptions. The new rule would be modeled after cities such as Northampton, where on-street parking during the cold-weather months would be allowed at all times, including overnights, except when there is a snow emergency.

The hope is to have the new rules in place by September, when the new school year begins, and following the installation of new machines in the parking lots and parking garage that will process credit card transactions more quickly and be easier for people to use.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.