Music and performance venue planned for downtown

By Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe

Imagine a place in downtown Amherst where you can hear a jazz band play on a stage with first-class sound and lighting, while patrons sit at tables enjoying beverages prepared by skillful bartenders.

This place might also be the site of a poetry slam for college students. It might attract nationally known musical artists, attracting people from all over western Massachusetts. It could host a science night that brings together families and faculty from local colleges and universities. How about a place where you could hear TED talks? Or high school ensembles sharing their talents? Or see the work of local artists?

The 4,060-square-foot venue – on the upper level of the former High Horse at 44 North Pleasant Street – will be called The Drake in honor of the former hotel and bar at 85 Amity St. that was converted to apartments in 1985. Its memory has been kept alive by the graffiti on the back of the Amherst Center’s brick facade reading “Save the Drake; For Willy! For Humanity!” (Willie Whitfield was the Drake’s bartender.)

As Gabrielle Gould, director of Amherst’s Business Improvement District (BID), showed us around the site and described plans for the Drake, our view of piles of old insulation, layers of concrete dust, electrical conduits sticking up from the floor, random junk and disgusting old carpeting was replaced by her vision of an attractive venue alive with music and chatter.

“I want to flood the downtown with arts and culture and make it destination-worthy,” she told us. “No town can thrive unless its downtown thrives.” Gould envisions several layouts that could accommodate up to 200 people for music and dancing or 185 people for jazz or chamber music concerts. It will have a lounge area in the back where friends can chat without shouting over the music, she said. “You could meet the love of your life on the dance floor and then go sit there with martinis.”

The Drake will have a bar, perhaps with different cocktail menus depending on the type of show and audience, but will not be open when there’s no programming. Renowned Lincoln Allen, formerly of the Alvah Stone, will be the bar manager. The Drake will not offer food, as the goal is to attract people to downtown Amherst who then patronize existing restaurants. Gould has talked to restaurant owners about a cooperative system of charging customers.

The plan is starting to take shape. The Downtown Amherst Foundation, a non-profit entity established by the BID, recently received a $175,000 state grant. That pilot grant enabled the project to negotiate and pay for a three- year lease from landlord Barry Roberts, to hire Kuhn-Riddle Architects to draft the layout and design, and to contract with Tiger Web for web design and ticketing system.

Gould is working with Laudable Productions to book artists. The BID itself has donated funds toward the lighting and sound systems developed by Klondike Sound. Roberts and the Foundation are working with W.S. Pickering & Son on a new HVAC system.

Finally, Ludlow-based sculptor Kamil Peters, designer of the High Horse logo and the cow sculpture on North Pleasant Street, will create artwork.

According to Gould, the timing is right for this venture. Downtown Amherst could benefit from the economic boost that such an attractive venue could provide, and many artists are unhappy with the performance spaces of similar size in Northampton.

And the project is more than a pipedream. Landlord Roberts supports it, and Rep. James McGovern said on a recent tour of the site that this is exactly that kind of project that the federal recovery money should be used for. The Downtown Amherst Foundation has set up a Patronicity site that had raised more than $32,000 and has received a $10,000 matching grant from the Mill District. The foundation is also applying to the Town of Amherst for $300,000 from the millions of dollars we’re receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act.

But where would all these people coming from out of town for the musical shows, not to mention to the Amherst Cinema, park their cars? Gould supports the construction of a parking garage behind the CVS. (A zoning change that would enable this is due to come before the Town Council soon.) It will be a great day when we need to build a garage because we have so many visitors, she said. But the Drake will not wait.

What the Drake hopes to supply – an inviting, family-friendly music and performance venue – has topped every wish list on every survey of what Amherst needs for the past 10 years, Gould said. Depending on how rapidly funds are raised, the Drake could open sometime this winter.


We can’t wait!


To learn more, visit https://downtownamherstfoundation.org/thedrake and the
Patronicity site, https://www.patronicity.com/projectthe_drake__downtown_amherst_live_music_venue

Downtown businesses seek renaissance

By Nick Grabbe

We lost Judie’s, Bart’s Ice Cream and the Lone Wolf during the pandemic. Amherst Yoga, the High Horse and M&M Links are also gone. Head Games, Amherst Barbers and Lit are all in the past. Amherst Copy & Designworks has relocated to Hadley.

A series of microgrants helped keep other struggling downtown businesses afloat during the pandemic, paid for mostly with private fundraising. A.J. Hastings’ business was down 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and Amherst Books’ business was down even more.

But now things are looking up. Negotiations to bring a food store and a music and performance venue to downtown Amherst are under way. Powerhouse Nutrition has opened at the Bart’s site, Mexcalito’s taco bar has opened where Shiru and Rao’s Coffee used to be, and Garcia’s restaurant is opening soon at the former Bertucci’s location. The Spoke, La Veracruzana and Go Berry are expanding their offerings, and two new restaurants called Protocol and Hazel’s Kitchen are preparing menus. Downtown is even getting a lingerie shop on Main Street called Art of Intimates.

The post-pandemic renaissance in downtown Amherst was recently highlighted on Capitol Hill by Mike Kenneally, the Massachusetts secretary of housing and economic development. Kenneally held up Amherst as a model of a town addressing the economic challenges created by the pandemic.

To learn more about these downtown initiatives, I sat down with Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District, and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. They said that although much has been accomplished, some key decisions are coming up.

“It’s amazing what we could create here,” said Gould. “The forward momentum could proceed if politics doesn’t get in the way.”

Amherst has always taken comfort in the stability provided by the University of Massachusetts and the colleges, and when they were mostly shut down during the pandemic, we were reminded of how vital they are to the local economy. Now UMass is expanding its retail and restaurant offerings on campus, creating a new challenge for downtown businesses.

One answer is to bring more people to town. Using a $116,655 state grant, the Chamber has launched a marketing campaign to draw people from outside the area to Amherst’s hiking trails and museums as well as our campuses. A video promoting tourism on digital platforms and showing things to do here has had two million views, Pazmany said.

“The fact is, this is an incredibly beautiful place to live and visit and should be a destination for people,” said Gould. “The goal is to have people be here for more than a dropoff of students.”

The popular new playground at Kendrick Park already provides a destination for parents of young children. Plans for a live music and performance space at the former High Horse site will be detailed in a future post on this blog. Outdoor dining is due to continue next year.

Naomi Darling & Ray K Mann

Gould presented plans for a bandshell on the Town Common – to be paid for by the non-profit Downtown Amherst Foundation – to a supportive Town Council on Monday. And the project to beautify the northern part of the Town Common is proceeding.

The BID engaged a consultancy called Civic Moxie to advise on strategies for pandemic recovery. Its recommendations included investing in arts and culture, making zoning more business-friendly, and helping to navigate the permitting process at Town Hall.

But a complete renaissance “hangs in the balance,” Gould said. The election on Nov. 2 will determine whether the Jones Library expansion and renovation project can proceed and whether there will be a two-thirds majority on the Town Council for zoning changes to revitalize downtown. The Town Council will vote on a proposed zoning change would make possible a parking garage behind the CVS store. More spaces are due to be created on the eastern side of North Pleasant Street through angled parking. Gould supports all these initiatives.

There will never again be a full supermarket in downtown Amherst, but there could be enough people living downtown to support a food store, Gould said. Negotiations are ongoing with a business seeking to operate a store selling dairy, fish, meat, eggs and other food supplies at a specific location.

“Talk about a game-changer,” Gould said.

The two controversial five-story apartment buildings in the northern part of downtown have provided an increased density that promotes commerce, she said. Graduate students are stepping outside these buildings to go to Henion’s bakery, and young professors are bringing their shoes to Paul’s shoe repair store, she said.

“We could turn this into a highly-sought-after place to visit, to live, retire and raise families,” Gould said. “But it would be hard to convince business owners to come to a downtown that’s anti-development.”

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.