Amherst Town Council OKs zoning for downtown parking garage

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

Staff Writer
Published: 12/21/2021 8:16:25 PM

AMHERST — Planning for a second parking garage in downtown Amherst that could be built on an existing municipal lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect streets can proceed following Town Council’s approval of a much-debated overlay district.

In a 9-4 vote Monday, clearing the necessary two-thirds majority to adopt a zoning change, councilors created the parking facility overlay for the 0.68-acre site, bordered by the parish center at St. Brigid’s Church to the north and the CVS Pharmacy parking lot, and the Jones Library, to the south.

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross, who helped lead the rezoning work, said the approval sets the stage for improving on the “hodgepodge” of Amherst’s surface lots and reflects his optimism for a dynamic and vibrant commercial center.

“This zoning measure is a first step toward creating centralized destination parking in the heart of our downtown, to support our local businesses, to support downtown events, and to allow our downtown to grow and thrive,” Ross said.

The zoning change, supported by the business community as part of a Destination Amherst initiative, was one of two passed at the final meeting of the inaugural council. The other zoning amendment, adopted by a 12-1 vote, with only District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont opposing, will require developers of mixed-use buildings to reserve at least 30% of the ground level for non-residential purposes.

For the parking facility overlay district, District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she was “proudly” voting against the measure as her constituents, including those who live on North Prospect Street, have strongly objected to having a parking garage near a residential neighborhood.

She was joined in opposition by District 1 Councilors Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz, and DuMont.

Schoen said the town needs more time to plan and understand the consequences of the overlay district. “There is no need to rush,” Schoen said.

There needs to be a better job of establishing the need for more parking, and to study alternative sites, DuMont said.

If the vote had been pushed off, there was a possibility that it would not have reached the necessary two-thirds threshold. Both Ross and District 3 George Ryan, who also led the rezoning push, lost their reelection bids in November.

Incoming District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney used public comment to advocate for a pause on rezoning, and any discussion of a parking garage, until the best site is determined.

Several others who objected to the rezoning also spoke, including Winnifred Manning of Fearing Street. Manning said a no vote would show care for all residential districts. But John Sheldon of Sunset Avenue called on the council to pass the zoning, citing the need for aggressive action and a request for proposal for a parking garage so that a project can move quickly.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said her affirmative vote doesn’t mean that a parking garage on the site is imminent. “I’m not clear this is the best location,” Griesemer said.

Swartz disputed that, however, describing a garage as a fait de accompli. “If we do this now, we’re voting to do it,” Swartz said.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer, who voted in favor of the zoning, said it was “patently ridiculous” that supporters of a garage were being accused of being in the pockets of developers.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said more studies will be needed and he hopes the Amherst Business Improvement District will support those. Before any project gets underway, Steinberg said the town could explore making the existing parking more prominent, including possibly making the one-way North Prospect into a two-way street so visitors could access the lot from Amity Street.

Though also controversial, the near-unanimous vote on mixed-use buildings came after Schoen made an amendment, defeated by a majority of councilors, to increase the required commercial space on the first floor to 35%. Schoen said she wants to get this as high as possible.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said in a perfect world she would agree with that idea, but that going above 30% puts Amherst at risk of significant vacancies. “We have to deal with reality, though,” Hanneke said.

Ross said he hesitantly supported 30% but cautioned that any requirement might be too much.

Though she voted in favor, Pam commented that she found it odd that a supermajority of councilors wants a second parking garage but not to advocate for increasing commercial space in developments.

“I see tremendous contradiction in what’s going on,” Pam said.

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