The process undertaken to mitigate issues with the Zero Place project makes some neighbors uneasy. The so-called “expanded part three” is intended to address them all without the expense and formality of an environmental impact statement, without foreclosing an EIS as a possibility. As that process unfolds, a scope of what must be further studied on the applicant’s dime is likely to be finalized by year’s end. Comments on the draft will be accepted until December 2.
The Zero Place proposal is for a mixed-use building to be constructed on the empty lot at the corner of Mulberry and North Chestnut streets in New Paltz. It would include 48 apartments over a floor of retail space; the entire structure is intended to be net-zero in regard to energy usage, hence the name.
A draft scope, itself drafted by New Paltz Village Planning board attorney Richard Golden based upon members’ comments, was released prior to the November 15 meeting. Cara Lee, one resident who spoke about that draft, said she was making an effort to familiarize herself with this “unusual, hybrid process” of environmental review. While she said she would have additional comments after further review, what she noticed first was the combination of two categories usually distinct in an EIS: community character and consistency with community plans. “Don’t gloss over” their distinct importance, she urged board members. She suggested considering Huguenot Street as one might regard a linear park, rife with community-wide events and ample attractions. In many ways, Lee felt that parking for the project was not adequately addressed, and she fears overflow into the neighborhood as a result.
Others also voiced similar concerns. The applicant’s own data indicate that there will be a greater need for parking at peak times than will be provided for, they noted. That might work if and when New Paltz is a heavily bicycled community, but that time is not now. The combination of planning and character concerns into one section might minimize the weight given to either area. It appeared that board members had been listening, because they later carefully questioned Golden about the particulars.
Golden explained that as this is a more fluid process, he combined the sections to avoid redundancy. That would not always be the case, but the comments he’d heard suggested considerable overlap in the concerns aired for each. The end result of this process, he explained, is to get all the information into a single document, which could be used to decide if an EIS could be avoided, or not. It seems to be a double-edged sword for the applicant, however: there are no strict rules that drive the cost of an EIS, but neither are there many specifics about how and what information should be gathered.
“It’s very broad wording,” Golden said, talking at one point about further visual analysis. “The level of analysis is up to the applicant,” but so too is the burden of proof that all issues have been resolved or sufficiently mitigated.
Parking for this plan represents the vision of fewer cars on the road, in a community where that has not yet come to pass. Unphased, planning board chairman Michael Zierler suggested that if other ways to reduce parking demand are not sufficient, the applicant should be prepared to alter the size and scale of the building.
Closely tied to parking are the traffic impacts. Zierler said that he’s looking at several traffic consultants who use a more holistic approach, including bicycle and pedestrian flows in the analysis. He hopes to select one to weigh in on this project shortly, and then will lobby village trustees to retain that same consultant to do a broad review of the entire Neighborhood Business Residential (NBR) zone.
Zierler was open to the idea of dividing specific concerns among those two categories, character and consistency with plans. Drilling down more into the scope itself, he said that most concerns arise from “the size, scale and intensity at this location. That’s what needs to be addressed in specific ways.”
Other than working out the specifics for the next draft, there was a discussion on how this environmental review fits into the broader planning process. Environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review act, or SEQR, is mandated specifically to make sure it occurs, Golden explained, and is focused on areas where more study is needed to make an informed decision. Site plan review, on the other hand, is for those questions board members feel confident they can answer with the information already on hand. “Some things are more efficient to address during site plan review,” he said. For example, “If you decide on no Mulberry Street parking, you don’t need to study that under SEQR to decide that.”
Plans for Zero Place originally included several head-in parking spots along Mulberry Street; after that idea met with resistance, it was scaled back to two parallel, handicapped spots instead. Even that compromise hasn’t entirely warmed board members to the prospect.
One area that is not rising to the level of “significant impact” for board members is the proposed roof deck. While it doesn’t hit the often quite high thresholds listed in SEQR, board members are well within their rights to restrict or disallow that deck during site plan review, if they so choose.
Applicant David Shepler expressed some frustration that the “vision described in this zoning” — of taller, mixed-use buildings that would encourage more non-motorized traffic — was impeded by the “chains holding us to what it is now.” Board members have wrestled with the fact that this building, while it would be much taller than anything else in sight of it, is exactly what’s intended for NBR zoning, and yet represents a big change that must be considered under SEQR.
Environmental review is “always done in the context of what’s allowed under zoning,” Golden said. Setting aside concerns that NBR zoning is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan — because he believes it is consistent — the attorney said that the impacts of each individual project must always be carefully evaluated. Further, he said that no decisions are made through the SEQR process; those come later.