With no applications on the agenda, the New Paltz Village Planning Board discussed the idea of creating design standards for buildings at its November 4 workshop meeting. It was a rare opportunity for the board to focus on planning for the future, rather than reacting to the proposals of a developer. The underlying concept — ensuring that the village is a visually cohesive community — was mostly well-received by board members, but that support could ultimately hinge on how specific and detailed those standards might be.
Downtown New Paltz is an architectural free-for-all, as there is no incentive for an architect to be mindful of how a design might complement existing structures. It’s a point that was made by the would-be developers of the Crossroads project up by the Thruway some years ago. Town Planning Board members urged them to consider architecture that fit in with the village, but the applicants weren’t sure which of the many existing styles to draw upon. While the Village of New Paltz has its own government, taxes and infrastructure, there’s nothing in the architecture that clearly delineates it, as one might see driving through Rhinebeck in northern Dutchess County. Too much regulation, however, could lead to a “Disney village” feel, together with any number of pedantic rules about the color of shingles and width of windows.
The discussion occurred at the suggestion of village trustee Sally Rhoads, according to Planning Board chairman Maurice Weitman, who said Rhoads pitched the idea of forming a committee to look into the idea. “I’m not sure if a separate committee is necessary,” Weitman said, “especially since the Planning Board wants to do more.” That sentiment had been earlier expressed to the Village Board in regard to the creation of a joint master plan with the village. Forming a committee would require changes in village code, which is cumbersome and not without cost. “It’s also difficult to find enough volunteers for our existing committees,” Weitman added.
To get the conversation rolling, Weitman asked planning director Bren White to provide some examples of codes from other communities. Those plans ranged from ones with an eye for particular architectural details to those that Weitman described as being “more broad-brush” in approach, with guidelines that are “pedestrian-scaled,” like putting parking behind buildings, requiring a certain number of street trees and ensuring that sidewalks cross driveways, rather than stopping at one edge and resuming at the other.
Planning Board member Rich Steffens was clear that he didn’t support including fine detail. “You can’t have a law that you can’t build anything ugly in New Paltz,” he said. He also pointed out that capturing the “flavor” of Main Street is not an easy task.
“It’s up to us as a community how rigid they become,” Weitman replied. He envisions standards that will shift some of what the board now suggests to developers into the realm of requirement. As an example, he cited the Woodland Pond development, which as originally proposed had a much larger footprint and was reduced in size through clustering through that sort of encouragement. That senior development also shocked many hikers on the Ridge with its visual impact, which was only analyzed by sending up some balloons and taking pictures of them. Design standards could include a requirement for a digital rendering of the buildings to give a better understanding of the scope, Weitman said.
The conversation wandered between agreeing with Steffens that too much detail would cause problems, to trying to pin down what the goal of design standards should be in the village. If they aren’t written to constrain the eclectic assemblage of buildings, or limit colors, would it serve a purpose? Weitman believes it would, but that the best way to get a good result is for the guidelines to come out of the master plan process, which strives to include a diverse group of stakeholders.
That didn’t keep the chairman from pointing out ideas that he liked in the example codes White had provided, such as one which forbids “trademark buildings,” built to look like a recognizable brand. Structures like that can be difficult to repurpose should the original tenant vacate. “That doesn’t rule out chain stores,” Weitman pointed out.
Trustee Tom Rocco, sitting in the audience in his capacity of liaison to the Village Board, suggested looking at the B-3 zoning for inspiration. As part of his work on the master plan before he was elected to the Village Board, Rocco discovered the unfinished work on the business district along 32 north and advised that its design elements could serve as a model for the entire village.
No decisions about design were made at the meeting, but members are likely to take the topic up again — the next time there aren’t any applications on the agenda to be looked at.