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.