Public comment at New Paltz Village Planning Board meetings has been a relatively quiet affair since it was instituted in September; more often than not, no one chooses to speak at all. Not so at the May 3 meeting, when several people queued up to share their views on the Neighborhood Business Residential (NBR) zone along North Chestnut Street and the first application submitted to take advantage of the pedestrian-focused, high-density rules, Zero Place.
Zero Place, located on the corner of Route 32 North and Mulberry Street, will be a LEED-certified, mixed-use apartment building with 48 residential units (split evenly between one- and two-bedroom units). The ground floor will provide 14,450 square feet of new retail space available for local businesses, artistic pursuits and other limited uses described in the current NBR zoning. It will have approximately 80 parking spots, including 69 spots in the former Park-n-Ride and eleven on the street. Each apartment unit will have an assigned spot and the remainder will be available to the public. The bus stop next to the parking lot, racks for 46 bicycles, broad sidewalks and plaza areas, and the neighboring Wallkill Valley Rail Trail will all contribute to making Zero Place a walkable, community-oriented space — a stated aim of the new zoning.
Miriam Strouse, who lives in the metaphorical shadow of the proposed building, brought up three concerns at last week’s meeting: storm water management, rooftop activities and parking. The parking rules for this zone are flexible, and in Strouse’s view, inadequate for this site. They were written with the intention of encouraging pedestrian circulation, rather than automotive, but not everyone is convinced that human behavior will conform to those ideals. While the plans for the site should, according to engineer Barry Medenbach, actually reduce the amount of runoff because there will be more green space to absorb it than is there at present, Strouse wanted to know who would be paying to maintain those systems for the long haul. The zoning rules do clear the way for use of the roof, and Strouse is not alone in being concerned this would create noise which would carry quite far due to the building’s height, which is proposed to be the maximum allowed, 50 feet. That’s 20 feet taller than what’s possible in the neighboring historic zoning district.
On the other hand, Robert Presbie lamented the fact that there won’t be a new Stewart’s on that site at the corner of Mulberry and North Chestnut streets. That idea, floated in July, was to build a larger version of the convenience store there, directly across from the current location. Corporate representatives who appeared for a preapplication meeting learned that the NBR zoning, with its minimum two-story mixed-use buildings and requirement to put the main entrance in front and parking to the rear, didn’t fit the auto-centric model for which the stores are designed.
Presbie said that Stewart’s has the only affordable selection of food in the area, “could use more seating and parking,” and would likely offer a wider selection of items from a larger location. While he also expressed concern about the parking — pointing out that the lot would mostly be taken up by residents, leaving little space for customers of the first-floor businesses arriving in cars — he said he was “more bothered that Stewart’s was not allowed to build there.”
Annelle Presbie called into question the philosophy underlying the NBR zone entirely. “I very much like having an honest auto mechanic like Bill at Franz Auto there,” she said; businesses like body shops and mechanics would not be allowed to open up under the new rules, and can only continue because they predate the zoning change. “We need affordable groceries nearby, and a pharmacy; we don’t need little coffee shops,” she continued, also listing small medical practices as being preferable in the neighborhood. She referred to Zero Place as a “huge monstrosity” that not only won’t enhance the community but will be visible from Henry Court, and said that it “belongs nowhere in the village.” She said that the plans should be scaled back to two stories, and that board members should “deal with this with caution,” including considering the challenges of turning out from Mulberry Street and what the glare from the solar panels might do to the quality of life of the neighbors.
Not everyone who spoke was turned off by Zero Place and the NBR. Richard Webb applauded the push for smart growth by concentrating density in some areas to encourage walking and make a welcoming neighborhood for tourists, and said that taller buildings are necessary. Perry Goldschein said he was excited about the project specifically because of the ambitious energy goals built into it, and noted that “the zoning was done for a reason.”
Developer David Shepler released renderings that show how the four-story structure would appear from various viewpoints around the area.
“We pursued these renderings and the full viewshed analysis to give the village Planning Board and the community a sense of how Zero Place would appear on the old STS lot and from where on adjacent properties the building would be visible,” Shepler said following last week’s meeting. “Despite fears to the contrary, Zero Place will not be visible from anywhere on Huguenot Street, except for two locations far from the historical homes, and even there heavily obscured by foliage. To us, the site is an ideal location for Zero Place. The Rail Trail and heavily wooded areas to the west shield it from Huguenot Street, while the openness of the lot towards Route 32 North allows us to create a new streetscape with street benches, bike racks, trees and distinctive retail fronts on the first floor. Importantly, Zero Place helps the village realize the density and mixed-use goals of the new NBR zone.”
A full visual analysis, including renderings set in real photos of the site, is available at www.zeroplace.com/visuals. Shepler is asking residents to provide him with feedback/suggestions regarding building aesthetics via the contact form on the website. “I’m also happy to meet with anyone in the community on the same,” he said.
New proposal misses the mark
While neighbors of the new NBR zone are only now digesting what could result from the new rules — Annelle Presbie reminded board members at last week’s meeting that “not everyone can make it” to meetings when these law changes are being deliberated — the requirements are also challenging to would-be developers. Radi Serdah has purchased 85 North Chestnut Street, site of the former Napa store, in the hopes that he can turn it into a used-car dealership. While that’s an allowed use in the zone, Serdah learned that he’d have to invest in considerably more than sprucing up the lot if he was to obtain approval.
What Serdah wants to do is sell some used cars, which would involve converting part of the existing structure into a showroom and reserving space for detailing the cars, which might include a lift. He estimated 10-12 cars would be for sale in the lot at any one time. No repairs would be performed except on cars being readied for sale, and it wouldn’t be an inspection station. There are existing overhead doors from when it was a body shop, meaning that no significant changes to the structure itself; just sprucing up its appearance.
Those plans do include a use which is allowed under NBR zoning, but board members laid out other requirements that he hadn’t considered. Parking can no longer be in the front of the building, and chairman Michael Zierler explained that the “huge expanse of pavement” there now would have to be improved with sidewalks, curbs, trees and street furniture. All buildings in the new zone must be at least two stories tall and multi-use, so just having a single business in it also wouldn’t work.
In short, if Serdah doesn’t want to add a story or replace the structure entirely — something he said he’s not in the position to do — he would need a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to proceed. Moreover, the use variance he’d have to apply for can’t be granted if the hardship is self-imposed, which Zierler thought was likely the case since Serdah purchased the property after the new zoning went into effect. “It’s zoned for sales and repair,” Serdah said. “Nobody said I’d have to knock the building down.”
“Maybe this was not the building to purchase,” Zierler said. He recommended Serdah carefully review all the details of NBR zoning and sit down with one of the village’s building inspectors to get a sense of what he could legally do with that parcel.
“What can I do with the building?” Serdah asked.
Board member Rich Steffens said, “Any change would trigger the requirements of the NBR.”
Village zoning changes to be proposed
A group that’s been working on tweaking some parts of the village zoning code has found that the task has led to a much more substantive proposal than expected. Bill Murray, an alternate member of the Planning Board who has been part of the process which also includes members of the ZBA, village board and staff, likened it to a game of “whack-a-mole,” because every time they’ve identified a needed correction it’s led them to discover other changes which must be made in order for the entire code to make sense.
That’s similar to issues which were found after the NBR zoning amendments were passed; several changes had to be made later so that definitions and rules were consistent throughout. Inconsistencies in local law are not at all uncommon, either. For example, village law currently mandates recreation fees be collected both when a parcel is subdivided and when a site plan is approved, with different fee structures for each. Not only does it appear to contradict itself, it apparently was never updated when site plans were required for all plans, including single-family homes.
Murray said that the result has been a “rebuilding” of the code since January, and that the draft recommendations are now ready to be reviewed by attorneys and board members. A discussion of those changes will likely be on a future Planning Board agenda, and certainly will be a topic of discussion for the Village Board as well. No specifics were provided at this meeting, as board members hadn’t had a chance to fully review the proposal.
The next New Paltz Village Planning Board meeting will take place on Tuesday, May 17, 7 p.m., at Village Hall.