Opinion: Four views on the Zero Place project in New Paltz

Rendering of Zero Place from the corner of Mulberry Street and Route 32 North. (David Shepler)

Rendering of Zero Place from the corner of Mulberry Street and Route 32 North. (David Shepler)

Responsive to our neighbors

Jo Margaret Mano in her letter to New Paltz Times on October 5 questions the zero-energy commitment of Zero Place, calling it “’zero energy’ magic” and “greenwashing.” I appreciate the opportunity to respond to highlight what is truly extraordinary about our project.

As the U.S. Green Buildings Council points out, buildings are the largest source of CO2 emissions, exceeding both transport and industry. In the Northeast, we continue to rely on natural gas and fuel oil to heat the vast majority of our buildings. We know there is a better way, and the Zero-Place team is committed to bringing a host of technologies together to give New Paltz its first net-zero-energy structure at this scale.

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Zero Place will build upon the legacy begun by Anthony Aebi when he built the very first zero-energy development in the country right here in New Paltz! Amazingly, few people realize that New Paltz, thanks to Mr. Aebi’s leadership, has become a beacon for sustainable development everywhere. Zero Place will continue that legacy and add to the few but growing number of zero-energy projects in the U.S. (and world), providing all the energy needs for its 48 residential units.

So what does “net-zero-energy” (NZE) mean? The term has become a surrogate for achieving among the highest levels of energy efficiency and performance. It means that a building produces more energy (typically through on-site renewable energy sources) than it consumes over the course of a year. It requires that the building invest in creating an extremely efficient envelope (insulation and windows) and heating/cooling solution as well as a means to generate its own energy.

How will Zero Place achieve “zero energy”? Our goal is to achieve zero energy for all the residential units. (The first-floor retail space, without knowing the future uses and tenants, is too unpredictable in its energy needs to include at this time.) To do so, we are making significant investments well beyond energy code with a tightly-constructed, super-efficient enclosure, 192 kW of solar PV and additional solar thermal for hot water, geothermal heating and cooling, and more.

This building is so far beyond what the energy code requires and what is typically built that we expect it to set award-winning levels of energy performance with recognition from Nyserda, the U.S. Dept of Energy, LEED and other similar organizations.

We will be looking for residents who share our commitment to efficient living. If you’d like to meet many others like myself who find this compelling, take a trip to Green Acres (behind the community center and My Market up Bonticou View and right on Cooper Street). You will find the 15-home NZE development full of families who, like mine, believe that we owe future generations better building practices and lower carbon options. Zero Place will meet this obligation and set the bar for responsible, sustainable development.

But don’t rely solely on my word. We have hired one of the leading building performance and energy-rating experts in the region to help evaluate the energy efficiency features of our project. The energy rater’s report confirms that Zero Place should exceed its zero-energy goals for all the residential units. We’ve posted the report online at www.zeroplace.com.

We are deeply proud of the commitments we are making to create a building of the future — one that recognizes the challenges our world faces. We chose to make New Paltz its home because of the forward-thinking zoning of the village along Route 32N (called “NBR”). Our village board, in creating the NBR [zone], recognized that increasing the density along State Route 32N and allowing buildings up to four stories would reduce the sprawl pressures on our farmlands and allow New Paltz to accommodate inevitable growth in a smart way. We have accepted the village’s invitation to invest in our community and have doubled down by offering a building that is truly superior in its energy and sustainability commitments.

Although it’s impossible to give everyone everything they would like, we are committed to being responsive to our neighbors. After all, every member of the Zero Place team is also a member of this community.

David Shepler
Founder, managing member of Zero Place
New Paltz

 

Don’t rubber-stamp Zero Place

I noted Robert Leitner’s letter to the editor in the October 6 New Paltz Times, published in the Civil Discourse column, following Jo Margaret Mano’s letter relating to Zero Place. Mr. Leitner is a friend to the builder, David Shepler, and it is admirable that he took the time to write a letter of support. That’s what friends do for each other.

The conflict here is that Mr. Leitner is a resident of a different town, Gardiner, and not New Paltz. He has no standing in this issue, and, certainly, “no skin in the game.” He will not be affected, in any way, by this oversized, poorly designed, and ill-conceived building, which will be squeezed into a lot that is obviously inadequate.

Mr. Leitner attacks the “Friends of New Paltz” group as being just the opinions of a biased few residents of Huguenot Street. This organization is made up of highly qualified, involved, concerned and intensely loyal New Paltzonians who only want to keep New Paltz from getting a monstrosity of a building, as designed, that has no place in our village, but would fit in nicely in New Jersey, where it would not be so “in your face.” Let’s see if Mr. Leitner reacts when a builder buys a lot near his home and puts up a similar edifice.

I do hope he would consider forming a “Friends of Gardiner” group to accomplish what what we in New Paltz see as a right and an obligation. All this group is trying to do is simply fact finding about the building and site, as proposed, and holding our planning board’s feet to the fire to examine rather than simply rubber-stamp the project. The planning board is made up of residents who have volunteered their valuable time to preserve, protect and thoroughly examine all new development. It is their obligation to themselves, their neighbors and fellow residents. As New Paltz already knows, our residents are pro-active and will not sheepishly accept objectionable development.

Obtaining signatures on a letter of support or dissent is simply a matter of ringing doorbells and saying carefully chosen words to busy people, who will sign anything, just to get rid of you. It’s the people who show up, and comment, at planning and village board meetings that are the voices to be heard. I believe that all involved agree that the new NBR zone presents an opportunity to change the face of the north corridor Doing it correctly is the issue, keeping the local, visual, environmental and economic aspects under control to minimize impact and maximize enhancement. That is what “Friends of New Paltz” is about!

Michael J Schwartz
New Paltz

 

What Friends of New Paltz wants

As a resident of New Paltz who does not live on Huguenot Street and someone who has been involved with the work of Friends of New Paltz since the beginning, I feel compelled to correct a number of very well-stated but unfortunately inaccurate points made by Robert Leitner in the letter advocating for Zero Place that was published last week. I also want readers to get a better sense of who Friends of New Paltz are and our hopes for our village.

The first and most concerning insinuation is that members of Friends of New Paltz oppose all development near them and opposed the rail-trail. In fact, Jo Mano (not a Huguenot Street resident, but a respected geography professor at SUNY for the last 30 years who wrote her PhD dissertation on urban planning in southern New York State) was involved in project planning for the rail-trail and along with Tom Nyquist, who was mayor at the time that the rail-trail was constructed, planned for the rail-trail, advocated for it, and secured the funds to build it. Tom Nyquist also donated and created the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary for the enjoyment of New Paltz residents and visitors.

Although many of the Friends of New Paltz live on Huguenot Street, participants are not limited to local residents, and those supporting the group have had decades of local civic involvement and participated in environmental advocacy both professionally and as volunteers. Their work and educational experience in areas that relate to urban planning informs their perspectives and is in many cases the reason for their involvement.

Friends of New Paltz has been meeting regularly since last spring, looking at issues related not just to Zero Place but to the NBR zone; car, pedestrian and bike traffic; the expanding rail-trail network; the downtown business district; and New Paltz as a whole. During the course of their years of local civic and environmental work, participants have given significant thought and consideration to New Paltz needs for economic development, affordable housing and a clean environment. In fact it is because of their desire for a careful and considered approach to all of these concerns that they are suggesting that the planning board make a positive declaration on the Environmental Assessment Form [AEF] they are currently considering.

Meeting with Friends of New Paltz has taught me a lot about urban planning, including the answer to a question posed by Mr. Leitner about who defines “community character.” It is not, as he assumes, the prerogative of elected officials to unilaterally determine community character and write zoning. Legally, community character is shaped and defined through a process involving citizens and professional planners that culminates in a comprehensive master plan, which is then used to guide zoning and site plan evaluation.

According to the SEQR handbook that the planning board is using to evaluate the Zero Place plans, “Community character relates not only to the built and natural environments of a community, but also to how people function within, and perceive, that community…Courts have supported reliance upon a municipality’s comprehensive plan and zoning as expressions of the community’s desired future state or character.”

The New Paltz village code states that “the planning board shall require that [site plans] conform to the comprehensive master plan” as well as zoning.” As it is currently conceived, the Zero Place site plan is inconsistent with a majority of the nine stated goals of the New Paltz comprehensive master plan. For this reason alone a structured process that considers alternatives is needed.

According to the New Paltz comprehensive master plan, “The village should ensure that all new development considers the interrelationships among sites particularly with regard to traffic patterns, links between commercial sites, pedestrian and bicycle routes, sidewalks and signage, visual impacts, open space connections, links between housing, employment, and recreation.”

A positive declaration is needed to allow the planning board to consider the potential impacts of Zero Place as required by and in relation to the comprehensive master plan, and so that the multiple potential significant impacts which may occur can be studied properly in a structured fashion, with procedural and substantive rules and standards.

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MaryJo Johnson
New Paltz

 

I’m annoyingly insistent

Those of us familiar with the planning process know that there is a balance between a planning board getting the information it needs to make an informed SEQRA decision, and unduly burdening an applicant with endless studies, site-plan revisions, and costly meetings with architects, lawyers, surveyors, engineers and consultants. I’m extraordinarily familiar with this process because not only have I been through the planning process three times as an applicant (both at the town and village boards), but also because I’ve served on the town planning board for five years. In my capacity as a member of the Town of New Paltz planning board, for large projects that will significantly change the character of our town I pride myself on relentlessly and annoyingly insistent thst I have the information I need to educate myself and the board about possible unintended consequences a large application could have on our small, beautiful, quaint town.

However, for projects that do not ask for variances, that meet zoning, that focus on sustainability, and/or that otherwise seek to improve our community character or fill holes in our housing or retail needs, both our town and village planning boards need to do a much better job accessing an application with an eye toward efficiency and keeping costs, which can easily spiral into hundreds of thousands of dollars, down. We have to do our work, but sometimes our work becomes inefficient by many magnitudes — particularly when there is vocal opposition to a project.

It’s a testament to the fairmindedness of our boards that when a project becomes controversial we tend to move more cautiously. We should. I love listening to and taking notes on a good public hearing, with both sides presenting our board with useful information. I’m always heartened by how informed and passionate our community is. Public comments help me do my job on the town planning board. It truly is democracy in action.

Until, that is, it’s not. We’re required to take public opinion into account in our decisions, but sometimes a project comes up that has vehement personal opposition from neighbors that truly falls into the category of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard). In these cases, we need to listen to these neighbors and decide of their concerns are a reflection on actual problems with an application or just homeowners (very rarely renters) not wanting any development whatsoever near their houses.

Such is the case with the recent fracas over Zero Place. (I’m on the town planning board, not the village planning board, which is currently reviewing the Zero Place application.). Several Huguenot Street residents seem alarmed at the Zero Place project, which is saddening to me. I have deep ties to Huguenot Street: I own a business that is steps from it. I walk on it pretty much every day, awed that I get to pass such gorgeous and important houses so frequently. I visit friends on it, I take visitors to it, I direct endless numbers of out of town customers to it.

I love the work the Huguenot Historical Society is doing. I belong to a CSA on Huguenot Street. I go to the bird sanctuary once a week or so, to calm my racing business-owner mind. I had a memorial service for my mother at the French Church. I really do love this street.

And I know Zero Place will be a good addition to the neighborhood.

It will extend the walkability of this wonderful neighborhood not only to people who can afford to own a home on Huguenot Street, and it will transform a drab industrial corridor into a vibrant, mixed-use community, something our growing town needs. The Huguenot Street neighborhood belongs to all. Zero Place fits our zoning, isn’t asking for any variances, voluntarily downsized to accommodate neighbor’s concerns, and will bring affordable housing and true sustainability to downtown. Zero Place is completely outside the view of the historical homes and is barely visible from anywhere on Huguenot Street.

The NBR zone was created to encourage density over sprawl, and Zero Place will encourage walkability in our village. There’s no Pilot. The developer is a neighbor with true eco-cred, not a corporate cretin looking to milk money from our town. (The parking situation definitely needs a close review, however!) I trust the excellent village planning board to efficiently move the planning process along for Zero Place, a worthy project for our town.

Lagusta Yearwood
New Paltz

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