New Amherst parking garage questioned

  • Parking meters on South Pleasant Street in Amherst.

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 07, 2016

AMHERST — An analysis of downtown Amherst parking by a Boston consultant indicates that sufficient space is usually available for residents, workers and visitors to park their vehicles.

But like a study completed in 2008 by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, data collected by Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates show that at certain times of day — including when people are eating lunch and dinner at numerous restaurants — a parking spot may be hard to find.

The information, though, appears to point against the need for a second parking garage, even though a study exploring that has been endorsed by the Amherst Business Improvement District and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce as well as by a Downtown Parking Report released last summer.

“The higher priorities are different management and pricing strategies for the existing parking,” said Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy, who attended a presentation by the consultants June 28.

While the Downtown Parking Working Group has not yet made decisions on actions it might pursue, Malloy said the consultants did not find a pressing need for a new parking garage.

But Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst BID, said a parking garage should remain on the table and that the report does not indicate the demand is insufficient for a second parking garage.

“We want it to be studied, to be part of the equation,” la Cour said.

Nelson\Nygaard found that there are nearly 3,400 parking spaces downtown, but more than half are either in private lots or are parking spaces by permit which are generally off-limits until the evening.

Select Board member Constance Kruger, who serves on the Downtown Parking Working Group, said without enough demand it is hard to make the case for pursuing a parking garage, observing that structured parking can be “very expensive” — costing between $25,000 and $35,000 per space.

The 188-space Boltwood parking garage, opened in 2002, cost $5 million, but state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst was able to secure a $3 million grant in the 1990s to cover more than half the expense.

“In general, the data they collected points to better managing what we have,” Kruger said. “Even projecting forward for more downtown residents and commercial space, we’re not at a place where we need more structured parking.”

Nelson\Nygaard did a count every two hours on all public and private spaces downtown, both on a Thursday in spring when classes were still in session at the University of Massachusetts, and on two Saturdays, including one when an event was taking place on the Town Common. The inventory included an area bounded by the UMass campus to the north, Lincoln Avenue to the west, the Amherst College campus to the south, and Dickinson and Triangle streets to the east.

The supply is more than enough to meet the demand, Malloy said, even if many of the spots are in private lots owned by businesses or institutions such as Amherst College.

La Cour said it is problematic to say there are enough spaces if most of them are in private lots. “I think we still have a significant parking problem,” la Cour said.

At parking forums that concluded in early 2015, 84 percent of those participating indicated support for beginning the planning process for a new parking garage.

The analysis shows that if downtown Amherst added 500 residential units and additional commercial and retail space, it still would not create a parking crunch.

“At some point we’d be over, and the public supply would be pretty stretched,” Malloy said.

Meanwhile, underutilized spaces identified by the consultants are in the town’s portion of the CVS Pharmacy parking lot, between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets, and the lower level of the Boltwood parking garage.

La Cour said in both cases there is a need for better signs to direct people to the spots.

Another issue is that many prime spaces are occupied for long periods because people find them inexpensive, and feed the meters throughout the day. “The value of parking is more than we charge,” Malloy said.

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