Many people drive into downtown Amherst and look for a place to park. But few of them understand all the complexities of the town’s parking policies. I will try to briefly explain them here, while posing some questions that the Town Council will be seeking answers to.
A parking consultant will be gathering data this spring and making a report to the Council. This report will help the Council determine if there is enough supply of parking spaces to meet the demand, and whether the system needs tweaking.
Is the current system of parking fees, time limits and enforcement hours too complicated?
Some downtown lots charge $1 an hour with a limit of four hours (with enforcement from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.), while others charge 50 cents with a limit of eight hours (with enforcement ending at 6 p.m.). On-street meters charge $1 an hour with a limit of two hours and enforcement from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., except on the periphery of downtown, where meters charge 50 cents an hour with a four-hour limit and enforcement stops at 6 p.m.
The Select Board put these policies into effect late in 2017. The purpose of the higher fees in the most desirable parking spaces is to spread out the demand. So you are likely to pay more to park close to your destination, but if you want to pay less and walk a few blocks, you can.
There’s been pushback on the extension of enforcement hours at some lots and meters to 8 p.m. The busiest time for parking is 7 p.m. When enforcement stopped at 6 p.m., spaces filled up then with free parking and people going to restaurants or the Amherst Cinema had problems finding spaces. The purpose of charging for parking is to increase turnover (and to pay both the costs of providing parking and also bus service). You can now extend your parking time while sitting in a restaurant, by using your phone.
When the Town Council votes on improvements to the northern part of the town common, how important should the loss of the parking spaces in front of Town Hall be?
This central part of downtown will be more attractive and useful after the improvements, but the current parking lot will be displaced. The business community would like to minimize the loss of parking there, and the Council will decide between designs that eliminate all parking and ones that retain some of it. It may seek to identify places downtown where the loss of spaces can be made up, resulting in no net loss of parking.
Should the Town Council look at building a second parking structure?
Many in the business community think it’s necessary to assure visitors that they will be able to find parking. But in the 1990s, the battle over the Boltwood Walk parking garage made last spring’s charter vote seem like a mere skirmish. The Boltwood Walk facility wound up as a compromise that spent a lot of money for a relatively small increase in net spaces.
Some people in Amherst just hate parking garages. They don’t like their appearance and worry about nighttime safety in tiered structures. Some see them as supporting the fossil fuel industry. There’s a limited number of possible sites, and proximity to downtown and traffic patterns have to be considered.
And there’s the question of how to pay for a garage. They cost between $25,000 and $35,000 per space, and it’s hard to pay off that much debt even if the garage was full most of the time. A second garage would probably require a financial partner, either the state or a private entity.
Is the permit parking system working well?
People who live or work downtown can pay $25 a year for a permit that enables them to park for free at any time in designated areas outside the center of town. This fee was set low to encourage people to use the system, and the council may want to raise it. Demand for these permits exceeds the supply of spaces. The council may want to extend permit parking areas farther away from downtown. Permits for the lower level of the Boltwood garage are $1,000 a year.
Should new housing developments downtown be required to provide parking spaces for their tenants?
It’s tempting to say “Of course!” but it’s not so simple. Some say that if there are enough tenants to fill these buildings without providing parking, a requirement would be unnecessary and could make rents more expensive or scuttle entire projects. Millenials are less likely to have cars than baby boomers are, and long-term demand for parking is expected to decline.
At Kendrick Place, most of those seeking parking permits are not the residential tenants but the Mass Mutual employees on the ground floor. Tenants make extensive use of Zip cars, bicycles and buses. The newer and bigger 1 East Pleasant provides 38 parking spaces. The planned housing development on Spring Street behind the police station is not required to include parking.
Much of the information in this blog post comes from an interview with former Select Board member Connie Kruger, who is a member of the Downtown Parking Working Group.