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Amherst councilors support rezoning for downtown parking garage

  • A view of Main Street in downtown Amherst in March 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Monday, June 07, 2021

AMHERST— The Town Council is setting the foundation for a privately developed parking garage, or one constructed in partnership with the town, at a downtown surface lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets.

Councilors voted 11-2 last week in favor of recommending rezoning the town-owned portion of the CVS Pharmacy parking lot, where 70 spaces are located, after receiving a written appeal to take the action from District 4 Councilor Evan Ross and District 3 Councilors George Ryan and Dorothy Pam.

“The high-profile nature of a parking structure can alleviate Amherst’s parking perception problem, take pressure off other parking areas that often reach capacity at peak hours, and take pressure off downtown-adjacent residential streets,” the councilors wrote.

District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz and District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont voted against the measure.

Under the proposal, the 0.68-acre “Parcel 14A-33,” as it is known on the assessors’ maps, would be rezoned from general residence to general business. The current lot is considered to be nonconforming with town zoning because general residence doesn’t allow a “commercial or public parking lot,” or a parking garage.

The connected lot that CVS owns, with several free parking spaces for customers, would not be part of the rezoning.

Ross said the idea is to get a garage without investment from the town.

“The town would provide the land for a developer, but the developer would be putting up the money to build and operate the garage itself,” Ross said.

The vote requires that the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee hold hearings by July 28, and then submit written recommendations within 21 days of the hearings.

The Amherst Business Improvement District, which partnered with the town to unveil a Destination Amherst plan that included the possibility of a new downtown parking garage in early 2020, supports the rezoning.

BID Executive Director Gabrielle Gould said should rezoning be approved, and then a request for proposals seeking a public-private partnership, sometimes called a P3, begins, the hope would be to have a long-term lease restricted to only the development of a public parking garage.

“If the Town Council does this, the BID intends to submit a proposal of their own to develop a garage in a P3 with the town, funded and operated by the BID with local stakeholder support,” Gould said.

Gould said other private entities might also apply and that will resume a long-overdue conversation that will address the concerns over downtown parking, development, commerce and the rebuilding of Amherst post-pandemic.

The only parking structure in Amherst is the 188-space Boltwood parking garage, opened in 2002 at a cost $5 million.

Numerous parking studies have been completed over the years, with concerns that mixed-use buildings constructed in the municipal parking district, and not required to provide on-site parking for tenants, are creating a demand for parking. Boltwood Place, Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant have all been opened in recent years, and two new buildings with both apartments and ground-level retail space are under construction or in the permitting phase at 26 Spring St. and 11 East Pleasant St.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she understands a concern with the rezoning is that the property could be used for more purposes. But with the town retaining control of the land, Brewer said she can’t imagine a circumstance in which a tenants-only parking garage would be built.

Pam said abutters will play a role in the process of what is developed. North Prospect Street residents have previously expressed concern about more traffic on the residential street from a garage. DuMont said she worries that there are expenses the town might have to bear even if town money is not used to build a garage.