New Paltz Village Planning Board members closed the public hearing on Zero Place and effectively ended debate on the project’s proposed roof deck at their February 6 meeting, both over the objections of chairman Michael Zierler, the lone dissenter to those decisions. Board members now have 122 days to complete site plan review and finalize any conditions to the project’s special-use permit, else the developer will be entitled to obtain a building permit regardless.
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 122-day time limit was agreed to by developer David Shepler; the statutory limit is 62 days, but board members would have been less likely to open — much less close — the hearing this soon with that relatively short deadline looming. Neighbors of the project, who have occasionally styled themselves the “Friends of New Paltz” but only infrequently identified themselves as members of that group during board meetings, sought another continuation to the hearing, arguing that with many aspects of the project still up in the air, it was difficult to make comments on the final plans. Most board members, however, took the view that to hold the hearing open would result in something of a feedback loop, in which project details would be adjusted in response to concerns, which would then result in a request for more time to comment on the newest iteration.
What has been highlighted during some two years of project review are two different views of what sort of community character should be ascribed to New Paltz. On one side is the belief that the village’s rich historic resources and remaining quiet neighborhoods should be conserved, on the other a desire to embrace the sort of progress represented by a net-zero-energy building that will serve as cornerstone to a new type of zoning district that emphasizes foot traffic and neighborhood shops. The task of Planning Board members is to approve a project which sacrifices neither set of ideals.
In addition to neighbors concerned about issues such as runoff, safety of bicyclists and pedestrians and potential downsides to having a rooftop gathering place for residents and their friends, the final session of the public hearing also brought out members of a group less frequently heard at meetings: those who wish to live in the building.
“Put a little faith in us,” said Mark Portier, who owned a home in the village for 12 years and hopes to enjoy looking at the stars from the roof. He said that in his experience, the best way to manage neighbor conflicts is to get to them “by first name.”
Bill Busby, who said he and his wife hope to move closer to their grandchildren, said that the tenants would include a “lot of people carrying AARP cards,” and that he didn’t appreciate characterizations of beer bottles being lobbed onto the rail trail, as that is “pre-judging me.”
Others who spoke in support included business owner Marisa Valiente, who said that “apartment-dwellers are not animals,” and village resident and New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez, who said that he believes in the importance of increased density. Bettez also noted that when Planning Board member Rich Steffens sought to add another living space not far from Bettez’s home on Elting Avenue, his response was to support the project, rather than seek ways to limit it.
Neighbors raised several issues, but again focused mostly on restrictions to the roof deck. They are largely supportive of a set of requirements advanced by Zierler the last time this project was reviewed, which included closing it at dusk and banning all alcoholic beverages.
Another issue entirely was raised by attorney Mark Grunblatt, whose client James Spencer believes that the well on his Mulberry Street property — which he uses for gardening, the house having been hooked up to municipal water decades ago — may have been contaminated by gas tanks which were once on the property where Zero Place will be built, 83-93 North Chestnut Street. That issue is now being debated by engineers; Shepler maintains that any recent contamination can’t be coming from that property, and the Spencer’s are reviewing those findings.
It was alternate Planning Board member Eve Waltermaurer — who under village law is entitled to participate in all discussions, but not vote unless a regular member is absent — who pushed first for the hearing to be closed, and then to accept Shepler’s current roof-deck management plan without further additions.
Board attorney Rick Golden agreed that any decision made on restricting use of the roof deck would set a precedent, and explained that this means future board members have to be consistent when dealing with other similar proposals, or give clear reasons as to why they are changing course. Zierler pressed Shepler to “back off a little bit” and agree to the more restrictive limits the chairman proposed, reasoning that they could be loosened when a planned-for review of the situation is done a year later. However, the other four members found Shepler’s plan of January 23 to be adequate, and in a straw vote agreed not to debate the matter further.
There remain issues around landscaping, storm water management, access to public bathrooms and connections to the rail trail, which will require approval by village trustees because the proposal includes landscaping on village property. Board members instructed Golden to craft a resolution for approval that included the restrictions in the roof-deck management plan, with the understanding that the draft can be modified before a final vote is taken.