Amherst council assailed as parking garage advances

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/30/2021 7:31:44 PM
Modified: 11/30/2021 7:31:12 PM

AMHERST — A series of zoning changes, including one that could offer the opportunity for a private developer to build downtown Amherst’s second parking garage, continue to move forward.

Despite numerous oral and written appeals asking the Town Council to halt the rezoning process — with one resident comparing the scheduling of numerous public meetings during the holiday season to the “shenanigans” of Chicago-style politics — councilors held the first readings on the zoning changes Monday.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said that when voters adopted the new town charter in 2018 they wanted a full-time, year-round government. The council, Griesemer said, has an obligation to put each of the zoning changes to up or down votes, and not wait until the new council is seated in January.

During the public comment period, which lasted about 90 minutes, many from the North Prospect Street neighborhood objected to a proposed overlay district for constructing a parking garage on the parking lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets, next to the private CVS Pharmacy lot.

Critics argued that the rezoning is sponsored by District 3 Councilor George Ryan and District 4 Councilor Evan Ross, whose terms will end in January after they were defeated in reelection bids. The councilors brought forward the idea of a second garage to join the Boltwood parking garage as part of a Destination Amherst plan in coordination with the Amherst Business Improvement District and Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

Griesemer said there is no evidence the community is against the parking garage.

“The argument that people have spoken requires closer examination,” Griesemer said, observing that Ross and Ryan were only a combined 50 votes away from winning second terms.

The parking facility overlay district wouldn’t change the underlying general residence zoning district to general business district but would set specific guidelines for use of the site only for a parking garage. The other zoning changes under discussion are to extend outdoor dining and other pandemic-related initiatives through 2022, to lower the threshold in mixed-use buildings to 30% commercial space, and to have specific parking requirements for all dwellings.

Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy said that with the parking rezoning, a 270-space garage could fit on the site and be similar in size to the one in downtown Greenfield.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said the rezoning is only about making it possible to use the site for a garage. Steinberg said if other sites for a garage are examined, that would be the responsibility of a future council.

Centralizing parking is a concept supported by At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, who said she also wants protections for the town and neighborhoods. Those could come through conditions in the request for proposal for the new parking garage.

District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber said a well-designed parking garage could be nicer than the deteriorating paved lot.

But District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she will never accept a parking garage built across from 19th-century homes.

“There’s no way you can make a parking structure compatible with a historic district,” Pam said, adding that she was seeing a flawed process. “It’s ruinous to the adjoining residential neighborhood.”

District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz said councilors have to listen to neighbors, and that moving to put parking near homes is a hypocritical action after councilors voted to eliminate parking in front of Town Hall as part of the restoration of North Common.

Many of those who spoke criticized the council for pursuing zoning changes after the election. Barbara Pearson of Paige Street said the intense schedule of meetings reminded her of boss-style politics in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago. “I can’t think of a good reason it’s happening,” Pearson said.

“There is no need for this,” said Rani Parker of 24 North Prospect, who asked for a community impact assessment before the rezoning happens.

Harry Peltz of 32 North Prospect called the zoning changes a “rush to judgment” and said too little research is being done. Similarly, Suzannah Muspratt of 38 North Prospect said the council was short-cutting normal procedures. and Jay Silverstein of 32 North Prospect said residents are being “hoodwinked.”

Ira Bryck of Strong Street said the council is making zoning changes without transparency and should pause until new councilors are sworn in. He was joined by Ken Rosenthal of Sunset Avenue, who said any actions should be delayed until January.

Advocates for the parking garage, including Sharon Povinelli, a North Amherst resident who co-owns A.J. Hastings, called on the councilors to act. “Businesses need destination parking,” Povinelli said.

BID Executive Director Gabrielle Gould said the rezoning is about looking toward the future and that more parking could lead to success for restaurants, performing arts venues including the future revived Drake, and an expanded Jones Library.

At Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said one of the lingering questions is whether the Boltwood parking garage, opened in September 2002 with a surface level and a basement level, could easily have additional stories of parking. There is an understanding that the garage was built in a manner that could accommodate such an expansion. Planning Director Christine Brestrup said the town would likely have to hire a structural engineer to determine the feasibility of adding floors.

Brewer also noted that the idea of building a parking garage on the Amity Street parking lot across from Jones Library, where the Amherst Academy once stood, is often mentioned. Brewer said it’s possible that deed restrictions prohibit the construction of a garage there. Both poet Emily Dickinson and Mount Holyoke College founder Mary Lyon were taught at that school.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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