Parking questions for Council to consider

Nick Grabbe

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.

Got all that? If not, here’s a helpful chart outlining these policies. Here’s a map showing where all the downtown parking spaces are.

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.



Comments 6

  1. I wonder about the cost of parking…in order to have coffee now at the works, it costs me 2.00. the increased cost pushes people away from downtown rather than supporting Downtown businesses. Just a thought!!!!

  2. We have what a lot of towns in New England don’t have: a movie theatre that is a destination, that is scheduling the kind of events one marks on one’s calendar in advance. That should be a springboard to all kinds of development in downtown, including retail shops. But the parking is not intuitive for prospective visitors. And there’s the rub.

  3. It might be helpful to raise general awareness that, as Nick’s article states, parking charges are intended to increase turnover. There is no right of citizenship from the age of 16 on to have the use of an 8×18-foot space of public land wherever you find it most convenient and for however long you might wish it. Fees and fines are how we try to be sure everyone gets a fair share of this scarce resource.

    Current trends predict less private car ownership in coming years, thanks to Uber, robo-taxis, etc.. So it would probably be wise not to invest hugely in expanded parking capacity.

  4. I believe Amherst’s current approach to parking accurately reflects who we are as a Town! We are over educated people who worship complexity. We are generally nasty. And we absolutely hate businesses.

  5. The so-called parking garage set in concrete the town’s attitude toward business: bring in customers but don’t let them stay. When it opened, we were invited to try parking there, but “don’t stay too long so everyone gets a chance.” That eliminates those that come from out of town for a movie and decide to stay for dinner and find out what Amherst has to offer, those that come downtown on an errand and decide to stop at the library and then are reminded of a show at a gallery, or anyone that likes to hang out at a coffee shop and then decide to see a movie. Those people that fill the sidewalks, the “walking around” traffic that stores need to keep their business running.
    For those that think parking garages are ugly, have they ever been to Northampton? Of course theirs doesn’t have dormers and cupolas and isn’t sided in red brick, but you can stay and support the businesses as long as you need to, and if you think of something else while you’re there, you aren’t penalized; you pay when you leave. It isn’t dark and scary, and the first hour is free—with constant turnover. And have you noticed how busy their sidewalks are?
    If we are going to have a downtown, think of ways to bring people to town, not how to limit their stay.

  6. I believe that parking should be part of a long-term plan. It should include signage and projected growth, not just what we have now. It should reflect regional practices that make it easier to go from, say, Northampton to Amherst, seamlessly. in Amherst, we hire the best people to give us the best advice and then we throw it out and do whatever we wanted. This makes it hard to get good people in the future and we end up with a bigger mess than when we started. Our new Council should put wisdom above knowledge, get good people to give us good advice, and then take it In my opinion.

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