Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Amherst fourth district councilors hold meeting on proposed investments for downtown Amherst

Projects include a new playground, a band shell, renovations to the north common and a parking facility
Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Amherst District Four councilors Evan Ross and Stephen Schreiber held a district meeting Thursday to discuss several proposed investment projects in downtown Amherst.

The projects discussed included a new playground in Kendrick Park, an outdoor performing arts venue, renovations to the North Commons and a new parking facility.

According to Schreiber, the proposals have been brought forth by “groups other than the town” but requires the participation of the town in approval and funding.

“The purpose of these projects broadly was sort of investments in downtown to make downtown stronger, more vibrant, more dynamic and to improve some of our downtown infrastructure,” Ross added.

The first downtown investment discussed was the addition of a playground in Kendrick Park. The playground is planned to be centered in the park, with several “playground areas” connected by walkways with several benches.

Ross said the council thought the addition of the playground was necessary as the town hopes to “build downtown as a place where we want people to visit, families to live.”

This project is currently underway, as the town received a $400,000 Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grant in September. According to Ross, the grant provided about half of the funding needed for the playground, with the other half coming from Community Preservation Act funding being allocated by the Town Council.

The playground is still being designed, and construction is expected to begin in the fall with it opening in the spring of next year.

The councilors then presented the proposal of a “permanent performing arts shell” in the common. The idea of the shell was first brought forth by the town’s Business Improvement District when Amherst had a town meeting form of government. However, when Amherst voters decided to change the town’s system of government to a town council, the BID decided to hold off on the proposal until the new government was instituted.

According to Ross, the initial idea of the shell was just to serve as a place for bands to perform, however, the BID’s executive director Gabrielle Gould wanted to expand the shell’s uses due to her background in performing arts.

“[Gould] envisions it not just as a band shell, not just for music,” Ross said, “but for a place to bring in dance troupes, and Shakespeare performances, and to be really more of a performing arts venue for people to come and sit outside and watch this.”

In terms of funding, the Amherst Foundation, a nonprofit organization, will focus on raising the money for the project, as well as issuing the request for proposal, having the shell built and raising money for a two-year maintenance fund.

Ross and Schreiber also discussed a proposal for renovations to the town’s North Commons. Schreiber said the North Commons has undergone “a lot of use,” specifically in how cars have been parked in the commons.

“Something has to happen or that beloved part of our common will deteriorate,” said Schreiber.

The newly proposed design for the north common features a space that will be multi-purpose in that it will be used as a parking lot to take parking off the commons but can also be used as a plaza.

The renovations are being funded through CPA funds and transportation enterprise funds. However, the Town Council may need to allocate some money for the project as well as authorize the use of the land.

Much of the debate around alterations to the north common has centered around parking, where some groups want to keep parking and others want it removed.

“This is sort of the middle ground approach of keeping some of the parking but also sort of having a plaza,” Ross said. He noted that he would prefer to remove all parking and keep the space as “an open space, green space common and remove all parking from it.”

Additional parking has also been proposed through a new parking structure on North Prospect Street, which plans to add around 172 spaces. The new projects in Amherst are expected to cause a 12 percent increase in parking demand, which the new facility aims to mitigate.

Ross explained that after reading a report from the Downtown Parking Working Group, he claimed there is a “parking perception problem, that it can be very difficult to find parking, but it is rare that all parking in town is completely used.

“It’s just a lot of people don’t know necessarily where to go, and our parking is very distributed throughout town. There isn’t a lot of great signage.”

The idea of the facility would be to help centralize parking to alleviate the perception problem.

The facility is being proposed and, if approved, will be created through a “public-private partnership, where the town would allow a private company to use that lot, which is town land, and the company would finance, build and operate the garage,” Ross said.

When asked about what kind of parking the facility will provide, Schreiber said it will likely need to accommodate long-term parkers while also having enough spaces for drivers using the lot for a short period of time. He said that he hasn’t heard yet officially on what type of parking the space will aim to hold.

Schreiber also said visitors of Amherst Cinema will be “an obvious target” for the facility.

The parking facility, along with the band shell and renovations to the north common are yet to move forward, with the playground in Kendrick Park being the only one that has been approved and is set for construction.

“They are all in their very early stages, and so this was always designed to be a first look to get some feedback both from the council, and now were seeking feedback from the community,” Ross said.

Sarah Marshall, a resident of Amherst’s fourth district, came to the meeting because she was “very interested in a lot of the current work the council is dealing with and that is upcoming, such as these capital projects and the improvements that may be made downtown.”

Marshall also serves as one of the commissioners on the Leisure Services and Supplemental Education department. The LSSE is Amherst’s “parks and rec essentially,” according to Marshall, who helped work on the design for the updated north common.

“It was really out of that working group’s discussions that the idea of reducing or eliminating parking there came up,” she added. “So, that’s prompted a lot of discussion in general about parking in the town, and I’m really excited to think there might be a parking garage, that would be a great improvement.”

Overall, Marshall said “the devil will be in the details” but was overall “very positive” about the proposals discussed.

“I think it’s great that some of these projects may be able to move forward without any funding from the town because the town really needs to concentrate on the four large capital projects,” Marshall said. “It’s great there are other groups that can help move some of those forward.”

Will Mallas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @willmallas.

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