Fueled in part by a very active discussion on social media, the New Paltz Village Planning Board meeting on March 1 was before a room packed with people interested in learning more about Zero Place, the energy-efficient, four-story, mixed-use building proposed for the corner of North Chestnut and Mulberry Streets, where STS Tires once stood. Developer David Shepler and his team of consultants had already met twice before with the board, but this time they were presenting a formal application for the project. It’s the first submission in the new NBR (neighborhood business residential) district, and it’s expected to be a test of how well that portion of the zoning code was written.
Zero Place, as detailed in two prior articles in the New Paltz Times, is a proposed four-story building which will have retail and businesses uses on the first floor, with 48 one- and two-bedroom apartments above. It would utilize the former park-and-ride lot next door, as well as new parking spots alongside North Chestnut and Mulberry streets, for the residents and customers coming to the building. It is also intended to encourage pedestrian and bicycle traffic as the new zoning code was intended to do. Plans call for going beyond what’s in the code by actively engaging the rail trail which runs just behind the building. Solar panels on the roof and the south-facing canopies would be used to achieve the goal of completely offsetting the energy use of everyone inside. A rooftop recreation area would also be available to residents. The retail component would be a mix of local businesses, similar to the assortment found at Water Street Market.
“I live fairly close to this,” said Shepler, who was the first resident of the Green Acres net-zero development behind My Market. “I’m excited to break into the NBR.” A technologist who helped prepare IBM’s Watson computer for its successful appearance on the quiz show Jeopardy!, Shepler said that his goal for this project is to make net-zero living affordable for more people than those with the money to buy homes in his neighborhood. That requires a higher density of people to make it economically feasible. “We need some ability to scale for the economics to work out,” he said. In stark contrast to some other developers who have appeared before this board, Shepler readily embraced the requirement of ensuring that at least ten percent of the units qualify as affordable under village law. All energy usage would be included in the rent, he said.
The fact that the building will be adjacent to the rail trail is a “tremendous benefit,” according to Shepler, and the board of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail has already indicated support for the project. Because the construction will entail working on culverts and land alongside it, all parties in the complex web of organizations supporting the trail will have the opportunity to weigh in. While the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association manages the trail itself, its use is governed by a conservation easement held by the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, and the property actually belongs to the village.
Neighbor Greg Cannon pointed out that Zero Place would be taller than any building off campus, even the new Hampton Inn, and said that he disagreed with the idea that the tallest building in the community should be half a mile away from Main Street. “I don’t think we’re big enough for a second downtown,” he added. In response to that, Shepler said that he hoped it would be the beginning of what would eventually be a walkable space from the center of the village to its edge.
“There was never an intention to create a second Main Street,” agreed Planning Board chairman Michael Zierler, who also lives in the nearby historic district. Instead, he explained, the rezoning was designed to replace the often-unattractive highway business zoning with a set of rules that would take advantage of existing bus routes and the rail trail to encourage a more walkable community.
Former mayor Tom Nyquist, whose property abuts the project site, reacted in a way that was typical of many of those in attendance. “I didn’t pay too much attention when the rezoning took place,” he admitted, but he nevertheless was surprised that it allows for buildings up to 50 feet tall adjacent to the H zone, where they can only rise 30 feet. “It’s a tremendous step upward,” he said. “I don’t want to look at the wall of China across from me.” He said that a less imposing structure, perhaps just three stories tall, would make him feel more comfortable.
The NBR zoning was “done very much in the public,” said board member Rich Steffens, and “all these issues were considered.”
Neighbor Brad Barclay use the word “shock” to describe his reaction to the proposed four-story building, which will be adjacent to the village’s historic district. “We need permission to change the color of our house,” he said.
Concerns were also raised by Marietta Schneider, who chairs the board of Historic Huguenot Street. She said that the proposal is one that is “testing the limits of what’s allowed,” and that she and her fellow board members were “caught unaware” by the project. She speculated that Zero Place would be visible anywhere in the historic district, and that increased traffic generated by the structure could harm the integrity of the foundations of the stone houses which are a national landmark.
There was some level of confusion regarding the use of the word “historic” in discussions. Shepler maintained that the structure would not be visible from Historic Huguenot Street, but the area of the village zoned “historic” runs right up the side of the rail trail across from the proposed Zero Place, where it would be difficult to miss. To that end, board members pressed for some illustrations that would clearly show how much of the building would be visible from various viewpoints.
Cara Lee told the board that she was trying to visualize the build-out of the NBR corridor, and it troubled her. “There could be four corners of Mulberry with buildings this large,” she said.
Zierler agreed that, since nothing has yet been built under this new zoning, that it’s difficult to imagine what this “blank slate” might look like after 20 years.
Schneider was also concerned about the noise impacts of residents on the roof, which use is specifically contemplated in the code. Exactly what will end up on that rooftop is still very much in flux, however. While there are certain exempt structures — such as elevator shafts — which can exceed the 50-foot height limit, there’s also a 10% area limit on how much can be higher. Architect David Toder tried to argue that the roof area should include the canopies along the sides for such a calculation, but it was clear that board members were not receptive to the suggestion.
“I prefer you consider the top of the building only,” said Zierler.
Other questions don’t have clear answers because of vagaries arising out of many layers of law. A generator which will be installed is considered a structure, for example, and thus can’t be placed in the rear-yard setback area. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear that the transformer which Central Hudson will be putting in is subject to the same restriction.
Among the other issues to be clarified as the project moves forward are details regarding runoff (which engineer Barry Medenbach anticipates will be less than what’s there now), the exact traffic impact (Zierler wasn’t convinced that it would be “none,” as indicated on the plans), and what the landscaping will look like. Because the parking will be alongside, the hope of completely obscuring the cars is not feasible, but Zierler encouraged Shepler to ask his landscape architect “to be imaginative.”
Zierler also addressed comments that an isolated stretch of sidewalk serves no purpose. “A complete sidewalk is a village problem,” he said, adding that he is personally committed to seeing the sidewalk extended far enough to cross tributary 13, just north of this property.