Town approves plan for parking garage construction

Plans for a new parking garage on the Williams campus were approved Tuesday night at a meeting of the Williamstown Planning Board.

After ensuring that the project was in accordance with the numerous state and local ordinances that regulate development, the board agreed to allow construction of the structure by a 3-0 vote.

The parking garage, which will be located northwest of the current Greylock parking lot in the rear of the Adams Memorial Theater (AMT), is the first step in the redevelopment of the Williams College campus as laid out by the Venturi, Scott Brown architectural firm in a comprehensive campus planning report unveiled last month. The garage is intended to service the future theater and dance complex to be built on the same site.

The three-level structure will run parallel to the stretch of Whitman Street that currently connects to the Greylock parking lot exit and leads out to Route 7, with two semi-circular ramps extending on the northeast corner of the building.

A two-lane road will be built to directly link the ramp to Route 7 on the western side of the building. In addition, the structure will house a set of cooling towers, which are to be located on the eastern end of the building, closest to Whitman Street.

The additional parking capacity provided by the structure – an increase of 55 spaces over the current 177 available in the Greylock lot – is considered by the college to be necessary due to the planned development of the new theater and dance facility. While plans for that project have neither been finalized nor approved by the Planning Board, the new building is expected to extend far into the current parking area, necessitating the replacement of those spaces. The demand for parking is expected to increase with the extra seating capacity of the new theater complex.

Construction of the ramp is expected to proceed quickly once final approval is given. Speeding that process is the modular nature of the project – the actual ramp will be mostly completed at the factory, resulting in the bulk of the shorter on-site construction time being used for preparatory work.

While approval of the project was unanimous, some contentious debate occurred before the final result was reached. Members of the local community and the Planning Board alike voiced a number of concerns during the two-hour meeting, with points of interest ranging from concrete issues of noise level and light pollution to more abstract concepts of the town’s responsibility to its residents.

Planning Board Chair Robin S. Malloy was vocal in her criticism of several aspects of the project, citing the impact the new garage would have upon local traffic. The focus of her concerns was the intersection of Routes 2 and 7, a pentagonal exchange widely criticized for its confusing configuration. “I think that it’s somewhat irresponsible to be adding to the load of this intersection when it’s already dangerous enough,” said Malloy.

Responses to that specific point and a host of others were provided by Donald Dubendorf of the Williamstown law firm Grinnell, Dubendorf & Smith, which represented the College at the meeting. On the issue of the intersection, Dubendorf defended the safety of the proposed project, vowing that the College would pay for a police presence at all affected intersections on the night of every single performance at the new complex.

In citing a traffic study conducted on the behalf of the College, Dubendorf claimed that the surveyors were instructed to over-estimate the expected traffic load on the surrounding streets in order to ensure the project’s safety.

“If you look, they’ve taken the peak, the most cars that are on the road, which is at 1 p.m., and projected that number onto when the theatre will be getting out, at around 10 p.m.,” said Dubendorf. “So even though there’s no way that there will ever be that many cars around at that time at night, we’re still in compliance.”

Dubendorf stressed the aspect of compliance throughout his arguments, continually noting that the College was fully within all the state and local guidelines for ambient light, sound and health issues.

While admitting that not all of the potential implications of the project were ideal, he successfully contended that the school was not responsible for conditions outside of its immediate control. “You can’t hold this project hostage to [the Route 2 and 7 intersection], when that’s a Town Planning function that we don’t have control over. It’s not within our purview,” he said.

Residents of adjoining Whitman Street were the most vocal in their criticism of the project, claiming that the additional noise and traffic afforded by the proximity of the structure would lower property values and decrease the quality of life in the neighborhood. Malloy read aloud a letter from one such disgruntled citizen, and numerous other community members were in attendance at the meeting.

However, Dubendorf chose to downplay any perceived rift between the College and the community, reiterating Williams’ commitment to maintaining good relations with all local residents.

He cited the large number of steps taken in the design process to accommodate the needs of the adjoining homeowners, including in-ceiling lighting and natural and artificial light blocks on the exterior.

“We’re in the business of being neighborly,” said Dubendorf. “The state limit for these types of buildings in terms of noise is 45 [decibels]. We’re almost sure that we’re going to be at 40 or below. . .and that’s not an insignificant change.”

Dubendorf’s partner, Mark Gold, defended the positioning of the cooling towers, an issue somewhat irksome to local residents. Gold cited the environmental advantage of a central cooling location, tying that aspect of the project to other energy-saving measures taken by the designers.

“The lights, for one, are about a fifth of what they have in [the new ramp in] North Adams,” said Gold.

While the Williamstown Planning Board has five members, two were forced to abstain from voting on this issue. Richard DeMayo was not present at the preliminary vote on the project and thus was not eligible to confirm it, and an obvious conflict of interest forced the abstention of Sarah Gardner, a professor of environmental studies and therefore employee of the College.

While the most important hurdle in the path of the project has been cleared, the Planning Board will need to be consulted again several times regarding smaller issues that relate to specific aspects of the construction.

“I fully expect to be back here soon for drainage, roads, and everything else we need,” said Dubendorf.