The public hearing for Zero Place, long anticipated by supporters and detractors alike, was at last kicked off at the January 16 meeting of the New Paltz Village Planning Board. 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. It would include 46 apartments over a floor of retail space; the entire structure is intended to be net-zero in regard to energy usage, hence the name. The project also includes a public bathrooms and a roof deck intended for residents and their guests. It’s that deck which remains the area of greatest concern for neighbors, although storm water runoff issues also got some play in the formal testimony. No one appeared to offer praise for any of the project’s features.
The official notice of the hearing was not published in the local paper of record, New Paltz Times, and board chairman Michael Zierler lamented that thus the hearing would not be able to be closed regardless of the thoroughness of the testimony received. Only half a dozen people provided such comment, and it’s possible that in addition to the noticing snafu that winter weather played a part, as well as commenting fatigue setting in. Public comment was introduced to the board agenda in 2015, and those passionate about this project have used that part of the meeting to express their views ever since. Indeed, Zierler opened the hearing by acknowledging that, while those comments have been used to shape the project over time, only testimony during the public hearing would be entered into the record. The chairman also stressed that comments which are simply generalized praise or criticism must be ignored by board members; testimony must be specific to be weighed in the final decision.
One general theme which emerged was a sense that there were too many unanswered questions to make a clear determination. Cara Lee noted that open issues include the runoff plan, how the roof deck will be managed, the landscaping and access to the rail trail, hours of operation for the public toilets, the specifics of any easements agreed upon with village trustees and numerous issues around parking. Zierler later advised that some of that information had been received by board members, although clerical staff had not yet posted such on the village’s web page.
Brad Barclay, another neighbor, stressed safety concerns he sees in having handicapped parking spots along Mulberry Street, and noted that many details of the plan need to be clarified, such as applicant David Shepler’s intention to remove access to the existing rail trail bridge. He also suggested bump-outs on Mulberry as a traffic-calming measure, and requested that the many conditions of the special use permit be tabulated for easier review by members of the public.
Former mayor Tom Nyquist, who signed the conservation easement creating the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, questioned whether landscaping plans which impact it are even permissible pursuant to that document. Board attorney Rick Golden said that the best way to check on that is with a proposal in hand that he can check against the tenets of the easement. The intent of landscaping on that property would be to create buffering for neighbors most likely to be impacted by light from the windows of the four-story structure.
The board’s landscaping consultant also proposed a way to reconfigure the parking lot to further reduce pavement, and commensurately runoff; developers indicated that a review of that recommendation indicated it might also provide an additional parking space if done properly.
The roof deck continues to vex neighbors, who say that any noise made nearly 50 feet in the air is going to travel a long way, and that the village’s noise ordinance is largely unenforceable and should not be relied on to prevent issues from arising. Moreover, there are concerns that a space which can accommodate 49 people will become a site for parties, not only redoubling the noise issues but adding in others. Neighbor Anne Quinn painted a picture of people, judgment impaired by one drug or another, tossing bottles and litter over the edge. She warned that, while attention to those issues is high right now, over time and through ownership changes which the future might bring, that attention would likely wane.
Nyquist, as he has in the past, argued that no roof deck should be allowed anywhere unless and until there is a village law laying out the rules for such spaces, which should include how and when they are inspected, when they may be open for use, and rules regarding such things as unaccompanied minors, the use of alcohol and other drugs and a dress code of sorts.
After the hearing, Zierler unveiled his own ideas for the deck, which would restrict hours from 7 a.m. until dusk and forbid the use of any mind-altering drugs, including alcohol. Music would also be disallowed under his proposal. Board member Rich Steffens, a developer and musician both, opposed such limitations, arguing that it would be akin to regulating behavior on the backyard deck of a single-family home. His colleague Denis McGee, himself a landlord, didn’t buy that argument as there is a much higher concentration of people likely.
While Shepler pointed out that reviewing the status of the roof deck after a year is already agreed to, Zierler said, “I’d prefer not to wait a year” to impose such controls. The chairman noted that the alcohol prohibition, in particular, would likely go a long way to addressing the many other concerns raised.
Despite this project not being large enough to require one, workers building this project will effectively be following a storm water pollution prevention plan, or SWPPP, to control runoff and sediment during construction.
The zoning as written by the late Maurice Weitman, who chaired the planning board at the time, was intended to allow the greatest possible flexibility by requiring special-use permits not only for the overall project, but each retail use as well. Weitman’s thinking was that zoning codes quickly ossify, and thus stifle innovation; using the mechanism of special-use permits was his way of allowing planning board members to consider new ideas. However, criticism of that philosophy has been that it provides neighbors very little idea what the potential impacts of a given project might be, and it’s expected that the Weitman approach will be scrapped when the code for the neighborhood-business-residential district is revised.
To that end, Shepler has proposed a methodology for sidestepping that provision of the code, which will still be in effect for this project. He wants to create a matrix which will be used to calculated required parking for all uses which might be approved, and allow building inspectors to use it in making determinations about specific retail uses. Golden called the approach “unusual,” but voiced support for it in concept. The details would have to be worked out, and code enforcement officer Bryant Arms would have to agree that it’s a useful tool.
Board members will again take testimony about Zero Place on February 6.