Guest columnist Rani Parker: Urges Amherst council to hit pause on ‘aggressive’ December schedule

  • Amherst Town Hall

Published: 11/29/2021 1:54:14 PM
Modified: 11/29/2021 1:53:42 PM

To members of the Amherst Town Council, I am writing to express my concern about rushed meetings regarding the matter of the proposed zoning change to accommodate a garage on North Prospect Street.

However, it’s not just the North Prospect Street parking lot. There appears to be an aggressive effort to push through a number of zoning changes over four meetings of the Town Council during the month of December — an important period for religious reflection and family connection for many of us.

During December we celebrate Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanza, Bodhi Day, the day of Immaculate Conception, Day of our Lady of Guadeloupe, Zarathosht Diso, and likely others represented among the residents of Amherst. This aggressive agenda forces us to choose between our religious and family obligations on the one hand, and our commitment to engagement in local policy on the other.

We have not yet been presented with any data supporting the proposed changes as beneficial to the citizens of Amherst. We have not heard anything of other experiences, such as Northampton’s garage, which remains largely empty while complaints persist about the lack of parking.

There is no urgency for any of these issues that are being voted on in a hurry. No lives are at stake. I am appealing for this aggressive schedule to be cancelled and letting the new Town Council, including those newly elected, have the opportunity to take up these issues with full and proper study and review.

Some of the small pieces do concern me. The proposed parking garage will be right next to the second oldest house in Amherst. It will abut a historic district on a small street with homes recognized on the national register of historic homes. It will take away the opportunity for mixed income housing in a prime part of downtown, or for a green space, or maybe even the library extension, which would protect the existing old trees and garden and create a green pathway.

The proponents of this agenda have been voted out of office and should be holding transition discussions with the newly elected, rather than pushing through an agenda that is not well studied or reviewed. All the changes proposed are small pieces that are not connected to a vision of Amherst, and if they do, the vision is not clear to anyone, or is simply not shared in public.

Why is all this happening? I have no idea. What do they want to achieve? Who is “they?” What is this overwhelming goal that requires bending procedures and running over the people whose interests they should be representing? Why aren’t we talking about mixed income housing? About conservation? About green spaces and a walkable downtown? Why is the accommodation of cars more important than our youth, or our housing needs or our physical environment?

I confess that after months of discussions and hearing many theories, I don’t know why. In the public meetings there has not been any discussion of any facts. There is no discussion, no debate, no information. I have watched citizens come forward and make informed comments, but consistently, there is no response.

We have a right to transparency. That means information should be made accessible to us in a format that is understandable and that enables us to participate effectively in civic processes. We expect our elected representatives to be responsive to our comments and questions — we don’t need agreement; we need factual information and rationale for decisions.

My perspective is one of a relatively new resident. I moved to Amherst in early October. Since July I have been participating in public meetings on the issue of converting an area zoned as “residential” into an “overlay zone,” which means that all zoning restrictions such as setbacks do not apply. Why? To build a four-level parking garage in a residentially zoned area. My expectation was that my elected officials at the time, one of whom was a proponent of the garage, would email me back with information about why this is needed. But he never responded. Neither did any official at any public forum.

To minorities like myself, this type of response is very familiar. We know about being made invisible. A non-response, non-engagement, not acknowledging a person in the presence of others, is an old and nasty strategy.

But this is not about me alone. In this case, residents of Amherst are being made invisible by not being listed as present while on a public Zoom call, and not being able to be seen when we speak. We are all invisible when our comments, questions and other input goes unrecognized, as though these comments were never made to begin with.

Still, we have spoken with our votes. Please use this month of December to inform and prepare the newly elected representatives so there can be a smooth transition of the functions of government. Consider changing procedures to make us visible. For those who’ve had their time, note that the voters have spoken. Please respect that.

Mr. Evan Ross issued a press release where he expressed his confidence in the newly elected members. That spirit is what we expect, and I hope he and others will use this transition period to orient and assist new electees to do their work with whatever information and perspective they have to offer. That is the purpose of transition.

Please let us celebrate our holidays with families and without distraction by matters that can wait. As for the Amherst of the next few years — we will not be defined as a “destination parking structure.” Amherst is already a destination historic town, listed in travel books for its history, natural beauty and academic institutions. That’s the Amherst I’m happy to support and help make even better.

Rani Parker lives in Amherst.

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