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Amherst planners consider overlay district for downtown parking garage



Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2021

AMHERST — Rasif Rafiq often hears complaints from his customers at Bistro 63/Monkey Bar that too little parking exists close to the North Pleasant Street restaurant.

“I can’t say enough how helpful another parking lot would be in Amherst,” Rafiq told the Planning Board at a meeting last week. “I feel like the businesses in Amherst have sort of plateaued because we cannot have more people come to downtown on a regular basis year-round.”

Rafiq is one of several Amherst business leaders endorsing a so-called overlay zoning district for a town-owned parking lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets in downtown Amherst. The overlay district might be a means of getting a second parking garage, privately developed, constructed on the lot.

“It would be a parking facility overlay zone just for that property,” said Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy.

Centrally located, the site is the right size and could be leased to a developer, he said.

“This location has been studied for decades as a possible garage,” Malloy said, adding that an in-depth examination is not necessary to put an overlay district in place.

The Planning Board is continuing the discussion about the possible overlay district on Wednesday after receiving mostly favorable comments during a first look at the proposal. The Planning Board will eventually make a recommendation to the Town Council.

Planning Board member Janet McGowan said lots of questions need to be addressed, including whether a new garage is economically viable, whether other parking spaces be lost elsewhere, and whether the site the best spot.

“I just find it odd that we wouldn’t be, as a Planning Board, looking at all aspects of a proposed garage at that location,” McGowan said.

Planning Board member Maria Chao said issues with traffic and loss of spaces would be examined once a proposal is submitted, not before.

“I’m confused why so many specific questions are coming up,” Chao said. “This is more about planning for what could happen, not planning what is going to happen.”

Amherst Business Improvement Executive Director Gabrielle Gould said destination parking is needed in downtown Amherst to supplement the Boltwood parking garage.

Gould said sketches are being drafted to determine what a garage might cost the BID. “There have been plans drawn up — they are very preliminary plans, and they’re really to show us what is possible on that place,” Gould said.

Yasmin Eisenhauer, executive director of the Amherst Cinema, said she supports amending the zoning map to allow for the possibility of a garage, noting the scarcity and limited options people have for parking.

“Our moviegoing patrons are highly car reliant,” Eisenhauer said, adding that people who attend movies also dine in restaurants and shop in stores.

Amherst developer Barry Roberts, who owns an adjacent property that houses restaurants, a bank branch and offices, said the town acquired the parking lot in 1984 and has long eyed it for additional parking.

“I say that our competition is the malls, our competition is Northampton, and if we want to create a vibrant downtown and make it stronger, I think this is another cog in the wheel that needs to be added,” Roberts said.