The NBR, or neighborhood business residential, zoning district along North Chestnut Street in New Paltz may be getting its first application as soon as March. It’s called Zero Place, a four-story mixed-use building to be sited where STS Tires and the park & ride were once located across from Stewart’s. Village resident David Shepler came before the New Paltz Village Planning Board on January 19 for a pre-application presentation, along with his partner Anthony Aebi, who is building two developments of net-zero homes in New Paltz, Green Acres behind My Market and The Preserve at Mountain Vista off Schreiber’s Lane. Joining them were members of the consulting team, including David Toder, who is also the architect on Aebi’s local projects. Zero Place is also intended to be a net-zero building, meaning that it will produce more energy than it uses over the course of a given year.
Shepler, who describes himself as a “technologist,” rather than a real-estate developer, explained to board members that he’s long been interested in making net-zero living an option for more people. “I was frustrated with the greenwashing” that obfuscates energy efficiency in buildings, he said, until he met Aebi and thereafter became the first resident of the Green Acres development. “Most people can’t afford” the up-front costs of purchasing a net-zero home, Shepler said, despite the fact that over the long run they can cost less than considerably more expensive housing options. Homes in Green Acres start at $515,000, and even the more affordable Mountain View houses are priced at $399,000 and up. Shepler said that to bring that option to more people, he’s looking to put three floors of one- and two-bedroom apartments atop a flexible retail space, using the park & ride lot to provide parking for all of the uses. As for the name, Zero Place, Shepler explained, “We want to redefine the word ‘zero.’”
On its face, the design seems to hit many of the points key to the NBR district. Residences above retail, in buildings which are constructed near the road, are exactly what the zone’s rules call for. Reconfiguring the parking lot should increase the number of spaces available, with the possibility of including some parking on both Mulberry and North Chestnut streets also under consideration; those might include charging stations for electric cars, as well as bicycle racks. The retail level would have awnings to create space for cafes and other seasonal outdoor uses, which comports with the zone’s focus on street furnishings. The existing bridge to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail would be preserved by the parking lot, and another connection behind the building would be improved. In fact, “behind” might not be a word with much meaning, as Shepler and Aebi would like to design the side facing the rail trail to be a third front of the building, encouraging businesses that would cater to that traffic. The bus stop, constructed with the park & ride in mind, will also remain, further supporting the pedestrian focus of the NBR zone. Where other developers have hinted that they’d prefer not to have to comply with village’s affordable housing law, Zero Place already has the requisite 15% built into the preliminary sketches. If it’s built as presented, the amount of impervious surface — which cannot absorb storm water runoff — will actually be reduced from the existing conditions. Shepler also noted that the building might be able to be used as a node for the micro grid now being discussed, possibly obviating the need for a backup generator.
Nevertheless, board members had questions.
One area of focus was the building’s solar array, which covers the building’s rooftop, in keeping with Shepler’s desire to put “as much solar as possible on this thing.” On the north end those panels are shown some twelve feet above the roof, creating a shaded space where residents can gather for relaxation and social events. Planning Board member Liz Harschow found the idea “troublesome,” as the height on that end would soar to 62 feet. The code allows for buildings of up to 50 feet high, not including such features as parapets, compressors, stairwells and elevator shafts. “It’s nice if you’re living there,” Harschow said, but the extra twelve feet of height “is a whole ‘nother story,” she pointed out. That additional height, as well as the presence of a gathering space, could have noise and lighting impacts on nearby neighbors which would have to be considered. It’s an issue which would likely arise during a public hearing, should the project move forward with it in place.
It’s not yet clear if it’s even legal for a building to have three fronts and one rear. A “front” in the code usually faces the road, with a “rear” being on the opposite side; any other exterior walls are deemed “sides” to determine setbacks and other requirements. Chairman Michael Zierler noted that the desire to have three sides could have consequences, but agreed to have the Planning Board’s attorney research the question.
The street parking would also have to be looked at closely, board members noted, particularly the spots along Mulberry, which are shown on the plans as angled towards the curb. A traffic engineer may be able to demonstrate if backing out of the proposed spots would present any safety issues.
Another area the developers were encouraged to address in more depth when they submit a formal application is exactly what types of street furnishings — benches and the like — would be installed along North Chestnut Street, as such are required in the code. It’s expected that that application will be submitted in time for the second March meeting of the board.