Decision looms on parking garage overlay district in downtown Amherst

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer 
Monday, December 20, 2021

AMHERST — The Town Council is expected to decide on a new parking facility overlay district for the downtown at its final meeting of 2021 next week.

The parking garage overlay district, as well as an amendment to the development rules for mixed-use buildings and the commercial space required on the ground level, will be on the agenda for the Dec. 20 meeting. The meeting is the last for the councilors who took office in fall 2018. Six new councilors will join seven holdovers following a Jan. 3 swearing-in ceremony.

Postponed initially by District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont at the council’s Dec. 6 meeting, DuMont made a motion at a meeting on Dec. 9 to further delay the zoning changes using a second provision of the town charter. That section reads, “if, when the matter is next taken up for a vote, 4 or more members object to the taking of the vote, the matter shall be further postponed for not less than an additional 5 days.”

DuMont was joined in the postponement by District 1 Councilors Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz and District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said with the items pushed back until Dec. 20, residents and others are welcome to continue providing comments and feedback on the proposals.

The idea of the overlay district is to have the town-owned parking lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets accommodate a privately developed parking garage. The site is next to the privately owned CVS lot. In a 1990 study done by the town, the town and CVS lots were recommended for a parking garage, before officials later settled on constructing a garage on the Amherst Redevelopment Authority-owned site on Boltwood Walk.

The parking garage overlay district is being supported by many in the business community, but residents, predominantly those who live on North Prospect Street, have been vocal in airing concerns.

The Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and Amherst Business Improvement District are advocating for the rezoning.

Chamber Executive Director Claudia Pazmany said that the rezoning is critical as the final element of a Destination Amherst initiative and is the “most important link to keeping people in town, to spend time, money and enjoy our vibrant downtown Amherst, building our economic footprint.”

A petition launched by the Chamber states that “a parking facility will concentrate personal vehicles in close proximately to shops, restaurants, and public services such as the town hall, community center, health center and Jones Library.”

Opponents disagree. Ira Bryck of Strong Street is among those who have written to the Town Council that the site is not the best location for a parking garage:

“Regarding the garage, it is far from proven to be the best site, will disrupt the quiet enjoyment of a historic neighborhood, go against the advice of experts who studied Amherst’s parking situation, is hard to find and even harder to enter and exit, will need removal of parking that already functions fine in a residential district, may have been picked due to individual vested interests rather than for the good of our community, and will not have the setbacks and other restrictions that might make a garage well designed.”

Both zoning changes need two-thirds majority of the Town Council to pass.

At the conclusion of the council’s Nov. 29 meeting, at which a first reading on the four zoning changes was completed, Pam expressed concern that so many meetings and lengthy conversations were being held on the zoning, and proposed a motion to not have such topics brought up during the holiday season again.

“It ruined my holiday, and I know I’m not the only one. I’m really upset about it,” Pam said.

Schoen said the council had agreed to end meetings by 10 p.m., rather than extending them until nearly midnight. “I just think what we are doing to ourselves, and what we are doing to staff, is wearing us out,” Schoen said.

Griesemer said this December will be unusual. “I would like to say never again because I don’t like it any better than you do,” Griesemer said.

But she said the long meetings were a result of councilors speaking without care for time constraints.

“I have to turn it back on you. Keep control of your time,” Griesemer said.

District 2 Councilor Pat De Angelis said the zoning changes needed to be voted on. “I’m sort of tired of people saying we don’t need to do this.” De Angelis also criticized those who have spoken against District 4 Councilor Evan Ross and District 3 Councilor George Ryan, leading proponents of the overlay district who didn’t win new terms.

“We need to respect each other and that starts with respecting ourselves, and limiting what we say to what is important, not saying the same thing six times because you want to make your point,” De Angelis said. “I’m sorry, but I needed to say that.”