CVS option for a parking garage should not be ruled out

By Nick Grabbe

Opponents of a parking garage on Town-owned land behind the CVS store talk as if they believe that the Town Council is about to decide to put one there. In fact, a “yes” vote on the proposed “overlay” zoning would be merely the first step in the decision-making process.

They say they don’t think a decision should be rushed. In fact, this zoning change was first brought up last spring, and speculation about using this town-owned site for a parking garage has been going on for several decades.

Residents of North Prospect Street say a parking garage would be incompatible with their historic district. But plantings can minimize the visual impact. And the current vista of a crumbling parking lot doesn’t exactly say “historic district,” does it?

These residents like the convenience of living on the edge of a commercial district but are outraged at the prospect of something designed to improve the commercial district. They are not the ones who need a parking garage, because they can easily walk downtown. And people who say they want businesses downtown that sell everyday items should not oppose things that make it easier to attract enough customers to come here to support those businesses.

So they don’t want to have a parking garage built across from their homes? Of course they don’t! No one wants to see development outside their front doors. Their voices have been heard, and they’ll be heard again, but now the Town Council must make a decision next Monday based on what’s in the best interests of all the residents of Amherst. “Our job is to take the community-wide view,” said Council President Lynn Griesemer.

I don’t know whether Town-ow ed land just north of the CVS lot is the best site for a second parking garage, but I don’t think it should be ruled out. And I’m willing to consider the opinion that we don’t need another garage at all. But all a two-thirds vote on the Town Council for “overlay” zoning would do is make a garage there possible.

I know a former town official who has studied the parking issue for many years, and he thinks the Town-owned land just north of the CVS lot is the most centrally located of the possible garage sites and is the most useful in terms of revitalizing adjacent properties. It could be the most accessible with some traffic modifications, it would provide the biggest net gain of spaces, and it is the most easily, affordably and efficiently developed, he says. And this may be the only site where a private developer would be willing to finance the construction and operation of a garage.

There are, of course, serious questions that need to be answered about the CVS site. Would access from North Pleasant Street cause traffic backups? How would egress onto narrow North Prospect Street work? How would it be financed and run? How big would it be? How would public safety be assured inside the garage?

And what are the advantages and disadvantages of having a garage there as opposed to other possible sites, such as just west of the Amherst Cinema? Is adding tiers to the Boltwood Walk garage structurally impossible? And will the Jones Library’s renovation and expansion project, combined with the Drake music and entertainment venue at the former High Horse site, dramatically increase the demand for parking?

Some opponents of the zoning article want to close off consideration of a parking garage at the CVS site before the debate over siting has begun. Some of them maintain that the decision should be delayed until the new Town Council is seated. Councilor Darcy Dumont invoked her right to delay a vote without saying why a delay was needed.

Some garage opponents have used overheated rhetoric, comparing the Town Council to “Mayor Daley’s Chicago” and referring to a parking garage as an “invasive species.” Dorothy Pam has acted more like a community organizer than a Town Councilor by whipping up the neighborhood and calling votes on zoning articles that have been around for months a “coup” and an “emergency.”

Among the opponents addressing the Town Council, only Meg Gage made the more reasoned argument that a “yes” vote on the CVS zoning article might create “momentum” toward siting a garage there.

The average Amherst homeowner has seen a $400 increase in property taxes this year. A major reason is that commercial property has not increased in value as much as residential property has. If we don’t want tax increases of this magnitude to continue, we should pay attention to the well-being of business owners. Chamber of Commerce Director Claudia Pazmany said that every day she gets complaints about inability to find parking spaces in downtown Amherst.

This zoning change the Council is about to vote on is just the start of the process. A developer would have to make a concrete proposal for a parking garage and be willing to finance it and abide by the conditions of the zoning bylaw. The developer would have to address the concerns of the North Prospect residents, as well as those of CVS’s landlord, St. Brigid’s and the Jones Library.

I remember the fierce debates over the Boltwood Walk garage in the 1990s, including multiple Town Meeting votes, referendums and court challenges. The debate over a second garage could be just as contentious. Let’s let it begin.

21 thoughts on “CVS option for a parking garage should not be ruled out”

  1. I think the zoning change is the only way a private developer will even consider engaging in the expense of conceptual design for this potential project, and that seems to me to be a sound basis for the change. I believe this is a move that can save our taxpayers some expense and deliver a public good – potentially…

    I also think that the mention in one of the comments above about partnering with Amherst College is spot on. With their $3.7 billion endowment and smart leadership, I would argue that the time has come for the Town to seriously engage the College in a long-term partnership that would create a plan for significant investment in the Town by the College. That can and should be accomplished by the Council and we will all be the better for it.

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    1. This is a good discussion that actually addresses different points of view! I would argue that your point doesn’t address the steps I believe need to be made first. Here is the sequence that makes more sense to me:
      1. Does Amherst need a garage? This may never be agreed upon. But I’ve not heard anyone respond to my questions about how the belief we need one jibes with the parking studies that say we don’t.
      2. If so, where is the best location? I know of no comprehensive studies on that question. I believe Nate Malloy said the Planning Dept. was not asked that question.
      3. When that best site is selected, what zoning will be needed to put a garage on it? To answer that question, there has to be at least ideas, not full-fledged designs. I believe that is already happening, but without steps 1 and 2.
      4. Rezoning if needed.
      5. Full design process.

      I also ask you this: Let’s pretend that after steps 1, 2 and 3 were completed, and it was decided that the CVS was not a good site for a garage, would it be good that it had been rezoned to allow a 52-foot-high building with 90% lot coverage and no setbacks across the street from a residential zone? I ask this because your sequence suggests that it would be a good idea without having a garage put up.

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      1. In case you are addressing me, I would say: I don’t agree that we need to answer 1-3 first, but if we did so and concluded that site was not appropriate, then we’d remove the overlay, easy peasy. It costs the town nothing to modify the zoning. I find the situation analagous to the town’s decision to offer the East St. School property to a developer for affordable housing. We will see if we like and want to accept their proposals, which they wouldn’t bother preparing if we hadn’t put some skin in the game. I will go further and say that some residents might disagree with the notion that we need more affordable housing – they might say, everyone who lives here has found something they can afford, so where is the demand? In the case of a parking garage, I am thinking about the future more than the present, and how to make it easier for *more* people to come to the center of town – to come to whatever is happening at the new performance shell, or at the expanded library, etc. I think it is shortsighted to think we are talking only about current parking demand.

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      2. Gerry –

        I imagine that you know way more about this than I, but my understanding is that the parking zoning designation means that only a parking garage could achieve the scale that you describe.

        If, after step 3, it was determined that this was not a good site, then what would prevent the Council from re-zoning for a different use?

        As I said in my original comment. I think the point of the step that the Council is taking now is to have a private developer take on some of the real risk and expense that goes into a concept development. That strikes me as prudent.

        I do know that if we want Downtown Amherst to gain more vibrancy (and be able to support the diverse retail experience so many say that they want – grocery store, mom & pop stores, clothing, etc.) then parking/lack thereof is going to continue to be a huge issue. I also think that Amherst College remains a key to the future – they are the largest landowner (2/3 of the area around the Common alone), with the deepest pockets, with a long-term time horizon and a desire for the Town to support their efforts to attract great students, staff and faculty…

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    2. This exchange is a great example of how different people look at the same information and come up with completely opposite opinions about that information!
      I totally disagree about needing a zoning change to get a developer interested. As far as I’ve been told, Barry Roberts all but has a shovel in his hands for this project. (This is not a knock on Barry. I like him and the work he does. This is a knock on process.) My understanding is that Barry is quite ready to bid on that project. Of course, without a zoning change, he would not spend the money on engineering and drafting, but he doesn’t need a zoning change to have a concept that he believes will work. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t have such a concept already.
      And Sarah, I have to chuckle when I hear “easy peasy” and zoning in the same sentence. I’m guessing that your statement means that if a garage should not be built on that lot, then we should not have that particular zoning. How about every councilor signs a public pledge to undo the rezoning in that event?! Or how about studying a better site that doesn’t even need rezoning because it’s already got the right zoning for a garage?
      As for skin in the game, how about the Town engages in a real study of every possible site downtown before rezoning one of them. Why wasn’t the Planning Dept. asked to do this? Does anyone reading this really believe the CVS site is better suited to a garage than the Pray Street parking lot? The Town owns a parking lot there, the traffic pattern would be far easier to deal with, it would be a far safer site (I’m imagining two directions of traffic, trying to turn into that narrow alley to get to the CVS garage crossing a busy sidewalk) , it would exist directly between two new apartment buildings that have no parking for residents and it would not be anywhere near a historic residential neighborhood. That doesn’t make it the best spot but it makes it a far better one. At the very least, if we can’t agree on the need for a garage, why spend so much energy and time, engender so much discord chasing such an inappropriate place with so much resident opposition. I don’t get it. And please stop saying no one has chosen that site. It’s the only site under consideration, a developer is waiting in the wings, the Council is ready to rezone. It was anointed years ago, right after the last parking study clearly showed no garage was needed.

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    3. As often happens in these kinds of discussions. many topics pop up. I’ll switch to a more bullet form to see if it makes it easier to reply to:

      1. I used the Pray Street area as an example of looking elsewhere. I never meant to say it was ideal, although I still think it’s better. I would add the library lot (Cinema lot) to the list.

      2. Yes, I think a developer would be glad to look at that site. a) the big money in garages is long term parking, i.e., residents of the two apartment buildings, which are very near by, and let’s face it, a lot of a CVS lot would go to long term parking as well; b) there is ample parking now near those places you site Nick, so not many people would have to use a Pray street garage, c) it’s a 5 min walk from Pray street.
      3. As for future parking downtown, let me quote the 2016 parking study:

      Existing and Future Demand Patterns

      Use of downtown Amherst’s existing parking assets is as important to understand today as it is for all that Amherst hopes to accomplish in its downtown in the future. Parking availability and travel choices underpin business and land development in downtown Amherst.

      This analysis documents the ratios between the built environment, parking supply, and parking
      demand in order to determine how existing parking is used in downtown Amherst. This Amherst specific parking demand ratio allows the team to model the demand for additional development in the future. For the Town, it also establishes a baseline for potential future adjustments to parking supply and regulations.

      Key Findings
       The study area has nearly 400 more parking spaces overall than would be recommended
      by a traditional demand model that assumes every use needs its own dedicated parking.
       The shared parking demand model and actual observed data both show that the study
      area actually has a surplus of 1,200 spaces at peak demand.
       When run through the shared parking demand model, both an expected development
      scenario and a maximum development scenario show that future parking demand can be
      accommodated within existing facilities.

      4. Has anyone writing into this discussion even looked at either parking study??

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    4. I have one more thought to add to the “we need to rezone in order to study the situation” idea. Once the overlay becomes law on Jan. 3, it’s out of the council’s hands. A developer can (and likely will) submit a plan on Jan. 4. There is no going back to study the situation at that point. If the plan is in accord with the law, it moves forward.

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      1. I don’t think that is entirely correct, Gerry, because the Town owns the land. I believe it will issue an RFP that includes conditions, as it has done for the East St. School site. But I don’t know how involved Council will be – possibly, as much as it wishes. (Sarah)

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  2. I’d like to clarify that in this blog post I am NOT advocating that a parking garage be built on the Town-owned land just north of the CVS lot. I am merely asking the Town Council to take the necessary steps so that it can be considered among the options for a second garage — including the option of not building one at all. Gerry Weiss and Janet McGowan have raised some pertinent questions, to add to mine, about this Town-owned land’s suitability for a garage, and Gerry and Michael Hanke have proposed other sites. Let’s debate them all. And Janet is correct that calling the land in question “behind CVS” is misleadingly oversimplified. The parking lot directly behind CVS is not owned by the Town, and the land in question is just north of it.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification, Nick. But I would like to know why you consider it necessary to rezone a property to determine its suitability. Why can’t that be done without the rezoning? In my mind, the rezoning issue is causing an unnecessary distrust of the Council and the whole process of determining if we a) need a garage and b) where should it go. Those 2 questions should be answered first. Then it can be determined if the CVS site is best and then rezoning can be considered.

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      1. I am not speaking for Nick, and rarely comment on his posts, but thought I’d add my two cents. So often, I see people wanting the answers to every question before they will take the first step. In this case, I think many questions can only be answered by a developer – and if the answers mean that a garage would not work either for them or for the town, then a garage won’t be built. And I doubt a developer would invest the time and expense of working out a plan(s) if the town won’t make this up-front change – that’s why I support the overlay. Then the thorough investigation (on someone else’s dime) can begin. If we were proposing a garage to be built at taxpayer expense, then I would support answering all the questions people have raised before making the overlay.

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  3. I forgot to add that the parking garage overlay district would allow 0 foot side and rear setbacks, meaning the parking garage building could be built right up to the property lines of St. Brigid’s church, the CVS parking lot and Barry Robert’s property to the east. No zoning district in Amherst has a side or rear setback of less than 10 feet. Even the B-G district has 10 foot side and rear setbacks. Again, these zero setbacks greatly increase the size and mass of the parking garage.

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    1. If we need a parking garage, and I’ve still not heard a single argument that successfully refutes the last parking study, might I suggest Pray Street? The town owns a lot there and it is not in a residential district, nor abuts one, has easy in and out and is near commerce. I don’t understand this long-standing love affair with the CVS lot.

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      1. I appreciate that you’re looking for alternative sites, Gerry. But would a parking garage on Pray Street be all that helpful to visitors to the Amherst Cinema, the Jones Library, the Drake music and entertainment venue, the town common and surrounding businesses? Would a private developer be willing to put up the money to design a garage there? If not, would you favor the Town spending public money on it?

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  4. Again and again, I have heard and read misinformation about this parking garage overlay district for the town parking lot. For the town lot — not the CVS parking lot. Let me say it again and again, the CVS parking lot is not part of this overlay district proposal. The parking garage will not be “behind CVS;” it will not be on the “CVS site.”

    The town lot also is not in a commercial zoning district, it is in a residential zoning district called General Residence (R-G). R-G districts are for residences. The R-G district has a height limit of 40′, not the 52′ that would be allowed in the parking garage overlay district if it has an elevator column or solar panels. Lot coverage in R-G is limited to 40%, not the 95% in the parking garage overlay district. Building coverage in R-G is limited to 25%, not the 90% in the overlay. At full build-out, the parking garage could be a very big building and cover much more of the 70% lot coverage allowed in the B-G district, Amherst’s most dense commercial district. And again, the town lot is in a residential district zone, not a commercial zone, meant for homes.

    Mr. Grabbe also writes that: “I know a former town official who has studied the parking issue for many years, and he thinks the CVS lot is the most centrally located of the possible garage sites and is the most useful in terms of revitalizing adjacent properties.” That’s great–then the CVS parking lot should be considered for a parking garage, along with many parking lots along Amity and South Prospect Streets and other spots in downtown.

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  5. You also write that the rezoning is a step in the process. Why can’t this be studied without that step? The developer, and I understand that Barry Roberts is in talks with the Town to be that developer, can simply be told what the rezoning would allow and not allow. Don’t you see that jumping to a rezoning, at the very least, has the appearance of this being a done deal?

    I agree with your list of questions that haven’t been answered. A few more, including “why the rezoning first” question:
    Why do people continue to believe there is a parking shortage when every study commissioned by the town says otherwise, including the last one (2016, Nelson/Nygaard:https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/36980/AMHERST_Parking_Tech_Memo?bidId=) On a typical weekday (Thursday) there are more than 1,500 empty spaces throughout all hours of the day. On a typical weekend day (Saturday), there are also more than 1,500 empty spaces throughout the day. Of all ~1,000 publicly-accessible spaces (including on- and off-street), about 450 spaces are empty at the busiest time on a weekday. Of all ~400 on-street permit-parking-only spaces, about 175 are unused at the busiest times on a weekday.
    What studies are there showing that the professional studies are wrong?
    You seem to equate our taxes with the need for a garage. Given the results of parking studies, perhaps there are other reasons for our low commercial base in Amherst? Perhaps there should be a study? Perhaps the extremely high cost of rental space downtown has something to do with it?
    Who will get the proceeds from a parking garage? The town or the developer? What will be the Town’s loss of parking income from the loss of the CVS parking lot?
    Will the developer or the Town purchase the private part of the current lot? That will be required to build a garage there.
    Is it true that the Town will donate the land to the developer? If the Town, not the developer buys the private lot, will that also be donated? If the Town donates all the land and the developer gets all the income from the lot, is that a good deal for the Town?
    How many year round parking spots would there be? That’s where the real money is. Given the lack of parking for the new residential buildings downtown, wouldn’t this project end up simply providing year round parking for those new residents? How will that benefit our shopkeepers and restaurants?
    Nate Malloy, of the Planning Department said that no one asked them to study other sites. Why? Shouldn’t there be a study of the pros and cons of various sites? What about Pray Street, for one?

    To proceed without these questions being studied and coherently answered looks like the ramming I spoke of above. I’d say the debate has begun and we don’t need a rezoning to have that debate.

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  6. The polarizing debate years ago over the Boltwood garage resulted in a poorly designed “compromise” structure that no one likes. The Northampton parking garage is conveniently located, reasonably priced, and easy to use, so it is theoretically possible for Amherst to build such a structure (smaller, with rooftop solar panels, and perhaps some storefront space); whether it is politically possible is another story.

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  7. In spite of what anyone says, this is a poor location for a parking structure, so what is the point of a zoning change. As a student of architecture, urban planning, and historic preservation, this location is a non-starter. It has a dangerous entrance from North Pleasant Street, and faces a historic residential street located within the Lincoln Sunset Historic District. The visual impact as well as the increased traffic would be unreasonably detrimental to that neighborhood and the town. We do have a perceived parking problem in town that may be made worse as time goes on. The addition of large student rentals in the center of town has increased the need for overnight and on-street parking. Students who can afford the rents in those buildings can afford a car and many own them, but there exist very few parking spaces available to them. Parking management is having a field day ticketing some of those students who park on the street every day. Is this a good reason to build a new parking structure? Maybe other zoning changes are in order.

    If it is determined that there is a genuine need for a new parking garage, then the town should take a serious look at the Spring Street lot (former site of Amherst High School), which it sold to Amherst College in the late 40s or early 50s. It is surrounded by a much less residential area (across from the parking lot located behind First Church), has multiple entry and exit opportunities, and is a short distance from Route 9. It is also flat. The town should partner with Amherst College to construct a garage on that lot or under it (least intrusive but more expensive). Amherst College is pretty stingy when it comes to the town, so it is the least that they could do that would have the greatest impact.

    The Boltwood Walk garage is a poor design with crowded parking spaces. Half of the spaces on the lower level are reserved, so on a busy day, forget about parking there. I would not call that lot design a success.

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    1. Those of us who survived the Boltwood Walk garage imbroglio will recall that a larger, more robust structure was originally planned and approved for that site, Michael.

      However, a small, self-appointed group thought they knew better and filed a lawsuit, costing the town $1.25 million in legal fees and reducing the size and scope of the garage. Resulting in half as many spaces, plus the deck is not strong enough to support larger delivery vehicles nor can it support an expansion.

      Until such time as we have a professional evaluation of the proposed location behind CVS, we will not know if the concerns that you brought forth are valid. To bring them forward at this point, as you have done, undermines confidence in our town planners, arguably the best in the state, and our Town Council, who are subject to penalty by law if they violate their fiduciary duty.

      Because the under MGL 40A sec 1a, Zoning definitions, zoning (including our elected officials who must implement it) must “to the full extent of the independent constitutional powers of cities and towns to protect the health, safety and general welfare of their present and future inhabitants.”

      Failure to protect *future* inhabitants would be considered a violation of their fiduciary duty. Perhaps you would like to live in a town where our elected leaders are not subject to fiduciary duty, but we voted that out when we got rid of Town Meeting.

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      1. My intent was not to undermine the confidence in our town planners, but I disagree with your assessment of their performance and that of town government when it comes to zoning regulations, planning, urban design, or architecture. I am not a planner but I am a professional designer with decades of experience. I do not wish to debate the issues in this venue risking a repeat of the dust up over the Boltwood parking garage, and more recently, the Library. By the way, thanks for illuminating the issues surrounding the planning of Boltwood as I had only known snippets of what had transpired. It sounds like it was a nightmare.

        It might be good to remember that the town commissioned and received a comprehensive parking study by the appropriate professionals that stated that we have excess parking capacity in the downtown area. Maybe it is time to revisit that study before everyone, including myself, gets too worked up over what could turn out to be nothing. I have nothing against a parking garage, but I am against constructing one in that location.

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