When the new Town Council is seated, it will address several downtown parking questions, from the enforcement time on meters to a possible second garage.
But one parking issue the Select Board hopes to resolve soon is how many spaces will be lost when the area extending from the parking lot in front of Town Hall to Spring Street is turned into a more attractive space. The board may make a recommendation on the North Common project next Monday night, and hope that the Town Council ratifies it.
The plans have gone through numerous public forums over the past five years, the latest ones in May and August.
“Hopefully, that will enable the Town Council to see it’s been through a good process and they can endorse it, thus providing an early positive thing the Town Council can make happen,” said Select Board member Alisa Brewer, who is an at-large candidate for the council.
Board members opposed a plan that would have eliminated all the parking spaces in the area. This “final concept plan” would involve a much smaller reduction in the number of spaces. A revised plan is expected to be on amherstma.gov Friday or Monday, Brewer said. Here’s a link to the page on the Town Hall web site describing the project.
The existing parking lot needs renovation, and the area between it and Spring Street hasn’t gotten any attention since the 1960s.
Leaving the decision to the Town Council would disrupt the schedule for starting construction after the commencements in May and, if all goes well, finishing by next fall. If the Select Board recommends the plan, with minor revisions, on Monday, consultants can begin planning for grading, drainage, paving and lighting.
The board will have a more complete discussion of the plan and get a cost estimate Monday. There is $550,000 in Community Preservation Act money earmarked for the project, and Town Meeting authorized borrowing $400,000, to be repaid by the Transportation Fund (which is fed by parking meter and garage fees).
At last Monday’s board meeting, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he hopes that at next Monday’s meeting the board will decide if “we’re moving in the right direction or not.” If it does, the project can move forward with an “aggressive time line,” he said.
Select Board member Andy Steinberg asked if events on the main part of the Town Common would be affected during the construction. Bockelman responded that the work won’t extend south of Spring Street, and the farmers market can either stay there or move to another site.
Board member Connie Kruger noted that Amherst College allows free parking in its lot on the corner of Spring and Churchill Streets on weekends. Effective management of downtown parking “could take the pressure off” the area in front of Town Hall, she said.
A different but related downtown parking issue will confront the Town Council.
Ever since the enforcement hours for on-street meters, parking lots and the garage expanded from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., there has been grumbling from downtown business owners and motorists. A petition asking the Select Board to reverse the policy of expanded enforcement hours was signed by over 1,000 people.
“This change has been detrimental to business in downtown Amherst, and many visitors and customers have stated their disappointment,” the petition reads.
Parking is the number-one complaint heard by patrons of the Amherst Cinema, which attracts 2,300 people a week to downtown from a 25-mile radius, wrote Executive Director Carol Johnson to the Select Board
“We worry about the future and the fact that there seem to be no current plans to expand parking, or to otherwise address the stresses on parking that we are already experiencing, and that we expect will only grow,” she wrote.
Douglas Slaughter, who chairs the Select Board, said a decision on parking enforcement hours will have to wait for the Town Council, which will be elected on Nov. 6. Meanwhile, he’s referring the petition to the Downtown Parking Working Group.
And all this will be before the council grapples with the controversial question of a possible second parking garage, including its siting and financing. The existing garage at Boltwood Walk was the focus of a bitter political battle during the 1990s.
There will be a forum for all Town Council candidates next Tuesday in the Regional Middle School auditorium, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Candidates for seats in Districts 1-3 are scheduled to speak from 6 to 7:15 p.m., at-large candidates from 7:22 to 8, and District 4 and 5 candidates from 8:08 to 9. There will not be audience questions during the forum, but residents can ask the candidates their views on downtown parking in the lobby while they are awaiting their part of the forum.