New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers and developer David Shepler spoke about the future of New Paltz’s village, particularly as the neighborhood-business-residential zone, or NBR, gets built out over time at a New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon on March 8 at Novella’s.
In speaking about the relatively modern planning philosophy of combating suburban sprawl, Rogers said that the community “lucked out” in that several factors led to development to be concentrated. They include the substantial land holdings of the Smiley brothers, which now are part of either Mohonk Mountain House or the Mohonk Preserve, and the Wallkill River with its associated flood plain, in which building is severely curtailed. That’s now making it easier to deliberately plan for high-density and low-density areas to foster public transportation, walkability, and open space in a “greener way of living” than is common in semi-rural areas today.
As Rogers explained the NBR zone, it’s intended to transform North Chestnut Street from Broadhead Avenue clear up to where Skateland was when he was growing up (now Gateway Industries) with buildings that are closer to the road, with people living above businesses, to foster a sense of community. Zero Place is the first project in the approval pipeline, and reactions to how the code might be applied have since resulted in a moratorium during which the zoning may be modified to address those concerns. Rogers emphasized that this is simply a result of the fact that “engaged citizens care about community character,” and that correcting unintended consequences is part and parcel with writing legislation.
The first version of the zoning, the B-3 zone, had contradictory language about whether buildings must be multi-story at all. During the process of changing that to the NBR, building height questions were clarified, but the maximum rose to 50 feet which “made people feel anxious” when Zero Place was proposed. On slopes especially, building height can be arresting because the average height of the four corners is how the maximum allowed is determined. That’s why the new building rising on Main Street looks as tall as it does from some angles; from the back, it’s higher than the allowed 35 feet in that zone.
Another quirk of the NBR code is that every retail use must be approved separately by means of a special-use permit. The late Maurice Weitman, who championed the revision, considered that a feature because it eliminated the need for a long list of allowed and disallowed uses the likes of which can quickly become out of date. The near-infinite flexibility is now seen as a bug, because it’s entirely unhelpful for anyone trying to imagine what the finished project’s impacts might be.
“It’s pretty dry stuff until a project is proposed,” he said. The balancing act, Rogers told attendees, is in preserving what makes New Paltz special without at the same time allowing it to become “No Pulse” instead. He said that the Friends of New Paltz who have rallied against the scale of Zero Place are “not in disagreement” with goals like preserving open space.
The mayor also stressed that his personal opinion about the Zero Place project is almost entirely irrelevant, because that decision is made by planning board members. “I am one-fifth of the village board, and zero-fifths of the planning board,” he said. “I don’t have any vote in terms of this project.” The challenge of getting neighbors and planning board members comfortable with the proposal rests on the shoulders of David Shepler, who Rogers said is a novice developer who has received a “crash course” in how community planning works.
Shepler agreed that he would not consider himself a developer, and said that this would be his only project. It’s personal for Shepler: he lives in a net-zero-energy home, and believes strongly that apartment-dwellers should also have that opportunity. When a property in the new NBR zone became available, he bought it against the advice of several developers he talked to, who counseled him to secure an approval before making the deal because the process can be circuitous in New Paltz.
He did so because he thought to himself, “Who could object to this? Let me tell you,” he told chamber members, “plenty of people do.” Some of the professionals he tried to hire declined because of the location, telling him they just don’t do business in the community. “I think strong zoning can get around that,” Shepler said, because a well-written code allows neighbors and developers alike to have clear expectations, which saves time and money while reducing stress and anxiety.
Shepler has faced sometimes stiff opposition which has extended the approval process beyond his wildest expectations. Nevertheless, he persisted in engaging members of the public by soliciting feedback and trying to incorporate their concerns into the newest design, going so far as to add ground-floor apartments at the behest of someone who is no longer a member of the planning board and first suggested them nearly a year ago. The height and footprint of the building have been reduced and public spaces have been added to make Zero Place into a “destination” ringed with trees, hedges, sculptures, sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and “historically-inspired lampposts.” Inside will be a total of 46 apartments and 8,200 square feet of retail space, which Shepler has no intention of renting to any chain stores. A rooftop terrace, which was an early focus of neighbors who referred to it as a “party deck,” will remain, albeit smaller and as far from nearby homes as possible.
Acknowledging that some of the issues raised have had merit, Shepler nevertheless feels that “people so quickly lose sight of what existed there,” which was a squat brick building surrounded almost entirely by asphalt. Zero Place will be considerably taller, but in his view far more attractive.
Speaking to broader issues, Shepler said that he believes the way projects are approved presents a high bar to entry, one that few who don’t represent big-box stores — singling out CVS in particular — can easily reach. That process did result in a better project, but the fact that it’s taken a year to reach this point concerns him. He is hopeful that the planned code changes will make future projects easier to swallow, but also pointed out that “people who are opposed always have more energy, and those who show up affect outcomes.”
If the revised NBR code is not radically changed, that entire stretch of North Chestnut Street may eventually develop a semi-urban neighborhood feel as one might experience in Hudson. What the code will look like should be known in about six months. As for Zero Place, for which the approval process continues unabated, Shepler said the building could be up and running in a year to year-and-a-half, if and when the project is given the green light.