Deciphering downtown parking

By Nick Grabbe

Visitors to Amherst often drive up and down North Pleasant and Main Streets looking for a parking space, not knowing that less expensive spaces are often available on Spring Street.

Residents going out to a restaurant can get frustrated looking for a parking space, not knowing that the blue-sign spaces on the periphery, reserved for those with permits, become available to anyone after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

And many business owners want to see a garage built behind CVS, in spite of the fierce battles over the Boltwood Walk garage in the 1990s and the difficulties of design, financing and operation.

Parking rules in downtown Amherst can be hard to understand. There are five categories of public parking, with different rates per hour, time limits and enforcement hours. Many visitors don’t know what the rules are for the places they’ve parked until they look at the places to pay. Parking is also controversial, with multiple constituencies, all pushing for their own interests.

So, with downtown traffic returning to something resembling “normal” in September, I consulted several local experts to get answers to some common questions.

Q. What are the five areas with different parking rates, time limits and enforcement hours?

A. Meters on North Pleasant, Main and Amity Streets charge $1 an hour, with a two-hour limit from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The lots at Boltwood Walk, Amity Street and Main Street are similar, but with four-hour time limits. To see those areas and the three other categories, check out this map:

Q. Why the differences? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have the same rates, limits and enforcement for all public parking spaces?

A. The system provides incentives for parking in underutilized lots and spreads out parking demand by charging more for the more desirable spaces close to downtown. There is some evidence that the system has been successful in doing this. But town officials recognize that the complexity can be confusing, and are planning to recommend changes next year, or at least better ways to explain the rules.

Q. Where are the parking spaces that are often available but most people don’t know about?

A. The “Ann Whalen lot” off Kellogg Avenue, Sellen Street, the Town Hall lot and the lower level of the Boltwood Walk garage are four. You can nominate others by posting a comment below.

Q. Will there be a move to build a parking garage behind CVS?

A. The Planning Board and a Town Council subcommittee are expected to make recommendations to the full Council as early as mid-September about a zoning change that would enable a garage there — but would not cause it to be built.

Q. Are there problems in building a garage there?

A. Many. Finding private companies interested in building it and operating it. Figuring out how to avoid having cars waiting in line to enter the garage backing up onto the sidewalk on North Pleasant Street. Avoiding the privately owned land directly behind CVS or acquiring it. Persuading or overruling opponents living on North Prospect Street. The Amherst garage wars in the 1990s were particularly nasty and resulted in a compromise on Boltwood Walk, a project with a very high cost per number of spaces gained.

Q. Why have a second garage at all?

A. Some business owners feel there’s a perception among visitors that parking is scarce, and fear that shoppers will prefer to use the Hadley stores that provide free parking. And downtown is due to lose parking spaces with the redesign of the North Common.

Q. At what times is it hardest to find a parking space?

A. A survey showed them to be 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, when UMass and the colleges are in session.

Q. Aren’t there a lot of private parking spaces downtown that are underutilized?

A. There are an estimated 1,962 private spaces. Town officials have approached landowners to see if there’s a way to incentivize sharing some of these spaces with the public.

Q. What cultural change would make it easier for everyone to find a place to park?

A. A willingness to park in a place that requires a short walk to one’s destination.

Q. What’s the purpose of the 356 parking spaces that require permits?

A. Partly to convince downtown employees to park on the periphery weekdays by charging a very low annual fee. Some still insist on parking on the street near their destination and “feeding” the meter beyond the time limit. Town officials are seeking data on whether Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant St. have stressed the permit parking system.

Q. Does money from parking fees, permits and tickets support other parts of Amherst’s government?

A. Parking is an “enterprise fund,” like the water and sewer funds, with costs paid by users and not taxes. The costs include enforcement personnel, maintenance, insurance and software.

Q. What do I do if I get a parking ticket?

A. You have to pay it within 21 days, either online, through the mail, or at the drop box outside Town Hall or on the first floor. You can also appeal it.

Q. What reasons do people give for appealing a parking ticket?

A. They say they typed their plate number wrong when paying at the kiosk, or they chose the wrong plate in their Parkmobile app. Some people say they didn’t see the signs saying they had to pay.

Q. Do the police ever immobilize cars that have outstanding parking tickets?

A. “Booting” was suspended during the pandemic but is due to resume soon. Cars with five tickets could be booted, and their owners have 24 hours to pay the tickets and a $25 removal fee, or the car is towed.

Q. What’s with the angled, back-in parking on the east side of North Pleasant Street?

A. It’s a trial designed to test back-in angled parking and help drivers become familiar with it before back-in parking is implemented on Main Street. The Town Council approved back-in angled parking on the south side of Main Street as part of the redesign of the North Common. The North Pleasant Street angled parking spaces were approved by the Council and will be removed in November. There is a proposal by the town manager and the Public Works department to add some angled spaces just west of Kendrick Park on North Pleasant Street to provide extra parking for the park.

These answers were based on information supplied by Finance Director Sean Mangano, Senior Planner Nate Malloy, and Transportation Advisory Committee Chair Tracy Zafian.

5 thoughts on “Deciphering downtown parking”

  1. Extremely helpful and practical, Nick, to see the ‘treasure map,’ and to have the five strata of parking terms explained. One question: is it true that the town is considering to do away with the Main Street lot, marked in green just uphill from Townhall? I’ve heard this is under consideration, in order to create a pedestrian community space and outdoor performance spot.

    Parking capacity would be the trade-off. Can you dispel that rumor, or fill in details if it’s a current possibility?

    Tom Porter


    1. Hi, Tom. Sarah here, as Nick is on vacation.

      It is not a rumor – the Main St. parking lot on the North Common, directly opposite Town Hall, is to be removed as part of the renovation and redesign of that Common. Here is the link to the approved design:—01-26-21-1
      Some spots will be added elsewhere, but there will be a net loss of parking. Here are the exact changes, approved by Council on May 24, 2021: “Remove the Main Street parking lot with its existing 34 spaces at $1.00 per hour, with a 4-hour limit and enforced from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. Add seven (7) angled, back in, on street parking spaces on the south side of Main Street, west of Boltwood Ave intersection to be $ 1.00 per hour with a 2-hour limit and enforced from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. Add eight (8) Parallel, on street parking spaces on the west side of Boltwood Ave between Main Street and Spring Street to be $1.00 per hour with a 4-hour limit and enforced from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. Remove two (2) parallel, on street parking spaces on the east side of Boltwood Ave between Main Street & Spring Street. Add spaces if possible on the east side of South Pleasant Street between Main Street and Spring Street to be $1.00 per hour with a 2-hour limit and enforced from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm.”


  2. Thanks for this article. One item not mentioned is the challenges of biking to town. We live near the rail trail, making it an appealing option. But with three young kids, the final connection into town along 116 is dangerous and causes us to drive more often than not. A safer and easier connector between the rail trail and downtown would really help!


  3. Some people considering coming downtown can be discouraged from doing so if they think that it will be hard to find parking. Others can be discouraged if they think they could get a parking ticket for overstaying their meter or otherwise. The parking fines typically aren’t large but most people do NOT like getting a parking ticket; this dislike can be disproportional to the ticket fine. People often remember when/where they get a parking ticket for a long time — I still remember a parking ticket I got downtown years ago while picking up take-out for dinner. I have seen other people get parking tickets downtown while getting take-out too, even one just recently. I think didn’t realize that he was supposed to pay the meter for such a quick errand. At the time I wondered if he’d be discouraged from coming downtown to get a meal in the future. It would be great to have more very short-term spaces (15 minutes or less) downtown for such errands, and also to have a short grace period — maybe even just 15 minutes — where parking is free. (At the Thornes Marketplace garage the first hour of parking is free.). Relatedly, I hope that Town will revisit the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. hours of paid parking enforcement at some of the downtown meetings and lots. Are there any other comparable-size communities in Western Mass. that charge for parking such long hours in their downtowns? I don’t believe there are. One reason that I have heard for having parking enforcement until 8 p.m. is to discourage restaurant employees from taking prime parking spots early in the evening (before 6 p.m.) and parking there until the end of their shifts. If that’s true, I’d hope that Town and business community to explore ways to address that issue directly and specifically, and other than by charging diners and visitors until 8 p.m.


  4. Thanks for this column, Nick. You mention the lower level of the Boltwood Garage is one place that people might not realize often has available parking. I wonder how much this is actually the case. Have the downtown parking studies that identified those spaces as under-utilized differentiated between the spaces that are reserved (leased) 24/7 and the ones for public use? The Nelson Nygaard study suggested that the Town should consider allowing public use of the leased spaces at off-peak times. By my estimate, there are 55 spaces on the lower level of the garage. Twenty-eight of them are the leased spaces; of the remaining 27 spaces, 4 have charging for electric vehicles. I have driven down there a few times looking for a parking space when the upper lot is full, and never found any. I hope that the Town will consider ending the leasing program for the 28 lower level spaces, and allow them to be used for public parking again. My understanding is that the leasing was started after the garage was built because the lower level spaces were underutilized. Now that the garage is over 20 years old, it would be great to see this arrangement revisited. Much has changed in downtown in the last 20 years. I have concerns that the leased spaces contribute to the public’s perception that there isn’t much available parking there. One other option for addressing this perception would be adding a smart sign near the lower level ramp showing if and how many spaces are available. Such a sign would be helpful for the main level of the garage as well. Northampton now has such signs for the parking garage behind Thornes Marketplace.


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