No parking in Amherst

AMHERST — This is a town that prides itself on the elevated nature of much of its civic discourse. Amherst town meeting regularly takes stands on issues of high philosophical, not to mention international, import. Amherst was the second municipality, after Oakland, Calif., to endorse a boycott of products from Nigeria. Town meeting took an early stand against apartheid in South Africa, passed a resolution calling for an end to the US Navy’s bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, and sent a statement to China opposing its policy towards Tibet. Still, the debate that has tied this town in knots for the last 20 years has been over a relatively quotidian thing: a parking garage.

Not withstanding the alleged existence of dozens of “secret” parking spots known only to the locals, plenty of residents and far more out-of-town visitors can’t find a place to park proximate to where they want to go. Flanked on one side by Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts on the other, downtown is the closest place to park for students and employees of both. A significant number of downtown residents also park on the street, and there aren’t many spaces for the growing number of town employees. Merchants, who regularly hear complaints from their customers, have been decrying the parking shortage for years.

Amherst Quick Facts

Incorporated: 1759
Population: 35,228 (US Census 1990)
Town Meeting: Representative, with 240 elected and 15 ex officio members

Facts:

  • Permit parking, introduced in Sept. 1999, displaced 100-150 cars belonging to University of Massachusetts students and staffed parked in the downtown, according to figures compiled by the Comprehensive Downtown Parking Action Plan Coalition, a citizen group.
  • Expanded campus parking will remove another 40 to 50 cars parked downtown belonging to students and staff of Amherst College.

    With the blessing of more than a half dozen town meeting votes and a town-wide referendum, plans to erect a garage in the very heart of the downtown — literally in Daniel Webster’s backyard — are moving along. Thanks to the town’s state senator, Democrat Stanley C. Rosenberg, $3 million has been earmarked in the state budget for the project. Construction is tentatively set to begin next spring. Nonetheless, the debate over what kind of garage (if any) is acceptable grows increasingly acrimonious.

    Any number of stumbling blocks, including escalating costs, a misplaced sewer pipe, and various easement-related issues could derail the project in coming months, says anti-garage activist Mary Wentworth. “There’s been a sea change in the attitude,” she says, “not of the town but of the general public [which is] beginning to see this is a ridiculous project, that spending $400 million for a net gain of 40 spaces is absurd.”

    Still, there will be a garage, eventually, most Amherst residents seem to agree. But the inability to settle the parking-garage question has shaken public faith in the town meeting form of governance.

    “It’s eroding confidence in the ability of the town meeting and town manager system to solve the town’s problems,” says former selectman Hill Boss. At press time, a petition drive was poised to put a referendum on the 200-year-old institution of self-government on next spring’s town ballot.

    How can a parking garage cause such consternation? In part, because it represents how Amherst is changing.

    “It’s a crisis of identity in some way for Amherst,” says Elisa Campbell, a former selectwoman who chairs the town’s parking garage committee. “A significant number of people in town don’t like [internal] combustion engines,” says Campbell, a longtime environmentalist. “But to me, it’s more complicated than saying, ‘Don’t use your car.’ I really got interested in a parking garage because I want to continue to have a downtown.”

    With its urban connotations, a parking garage just “wasn’t an Amherst thing,” says Jonathan Tucker, Amherst’s senior planner. “And that as much as anything else enabled our usual suspects to galvanize more opposition than another project like it would have.”

    To the person on the street, the struggle between factions seems obsessive, even alarming — alarming enough to draw Stanley Durnakowski, a retired buildings and grounds employee at Amherst College, into the fray. A newcomer to Amherst politics, Durnakowski says he couldn’t stand it any more — rampant spending (and not only on the garage), ceaseless discussion, the lawsuits and delays.

    “I got tired of listening to things, and this is why I stepped forward,” says Durnakowski. He’s been standing in front of supermarkets since March with a sign that says, “Time for a Change: Sign this petition for a mayor for Amherst.” The referendum question is more vague, calling simply for a charter commission to examine the present system. But Durnakowski, who at press time was already close to gathering the 2,300 signatures due October 18th to qualify the measure for a vote next spring, says the desire for change is palpable.

    “The people are the ones who are frustrated,” he says. “I just stand out there with my sign. But a lot of them have a lot to say. I tell them, ‘The only way you’re going to get what you want from the town government is to vote the way you want it.’ “

    But there’s little agreement about where the problem in town government lies. Amherst town meeting is a hallowed institution, converted from open to representative in 1938. But with 240 elected members and agendas that often take a dozen nights to debate, it’s grown unwieldy, critics say. The average citizen with a job and family can’t take the time to participate. As a result, town meeting is short on young people, minorities, and business owners.

    But some say the architecture of town meeting is fine. “I think it is the only check and balance,” said Susan Lowenstein, whose late husband, architect Peter Kitchell, had been instrumental in helping to move the parking garage discussion forward. Lowenstein finds fault with a small cadre of town meeting members, garage opponents who she says have obstructed progress through nit-picky lawsuits on minor procedural issues.

    Others fault the power centralized in Amherst’s town manager. “The parking garage is one of many issues that has focused people’s attention on the fact that the Amherst Town Manager Act of 1955, the most draconian town manager act in Massachusetts, was flawed, because it concentrated too much power in the hands of a single, unelected official,” says Vince O’Connor, a longtime town meeting member known for longwinded but learned commentary on many issues. “The fault is not really with people who held office, but with the act itself and the effect on that individual.”

    Barry L. Del Castilho, the current manager, has held the post for 18 years, as did his predecessor — too long in O’Connor’s view. “They came to see the Amherst town government as embodied in them.”

    Between appointed and self-appointed players, the average person has been shut out.

    But Lowenstein says it’s the growth of town government that has frustrated opponents. “This town functioned with barely a town manager for so long. Now there’s all these layers of government. I guess they’re frustrated. Nobody listens to them.”

    Tucker, the planner, calls that nonsense. But he admits that, in the heated discussion between appointed and self-appointed players, the average person has come to feel left out of the process.

    “There are a whole bunch of people out there who are feeling disenfranchised,” Tucker says. “They’re not the professorial types…. They don’t want to spend hours in meetings with people who have brought their own soapboxes to the table.”

    Hardly anyone seems to think town meeting will be abandoned in favor of a mayor-city council form of government. Some changes seem likely, nevertheless. “I think, of the solutions out there, a smaller, leaner town meeting is likely to address the problems that people seem to be concerned about,” says Tucker.

    Whatever the outcome of Durnakowski’s referendum, the garage that was a quarter of a century in the making will likely rise from Daniel Webster’s backyard. Campbell admits that the process has been agonizing, but she notes that there are worse problems the town could have to grapple with.

    Meet the Author
    “We’re so lucky to have a town where people are having trouble finding a place to park, because they want to be there.”

    Mary Carey is a freelance writer in Amherst.