New Paltz Village hall was packed with people the evening of November 28, people eager to comment on changes proposed for the neighborhood-business-residential (NBR)district along North Chestnut Street. In the end, it seemed clear that the five trustees tasked with weighing that testimony before making any decisions each already had their minds made up before this final session of the public hearing started. In a close but predictable decision, they voted three-to-two to limit building height in the NBR zone to three stories rather than the present four. Approval of the law enacting that and other changes will occur at the next board meeting.
The hearing was characterized by taking umbrage by those elected officials and others in attendance. Trustees Dennis Young and Don Kerr said that they were both “offended” at characterizations of the committee which forwarded recommendations to change this mixed-use zoning; some residents testified that they felt members of the committee were biased against the increased density which is a cornerstone of the zone. Deputy mayor KT Tobin said she “could” say she was offended by Kerr effectively telling Planning Board members to stay in their lane, as their comments did not reflect his own conclusions on the matter. Opponents of the NBR were framed as being inattentive when the law was first passed, and supporters as driven by profit rather than people.
While none of the trustees changed their publicly-stated positions on account of the additional testimony, which lasted well over an hour, they did seem concerned about what constitutes a gauge of public opinion. Kerr continually cited the 73 people who attended a workshop on NBR changes and largely preferred three stories, and did not appear to give similar weight to those who showed up at this meeting to advocate for four instead. Tobin, whose work at the Benjamin Center deals with statistics and public engagement, cautioned against using that workshop sign-in sheet as representative of what village residents as a whole might prefer.
“We already have a downtown New Paltz,” said former mayor Tom Nyquist, expressing a view which is common among those seeking to scale back the current rules. Others, like Zero Place architect David Toder, see the blighted North Chestnut corridor as precisely where a vision of 21st-century development should be unfurled.
Curiously, Toder and Nyquist both expressed a desire to hold off voting on the law until the impacts of Zero Place could be seen firsthand. Where they disagree is on what they expect those impacts will prove to be.
Regardless of when that final vote comes, the uncertainty may mean missed opportunity. Toder observed that many lots in the NBR couldn’t support four stories regardless of the law, which would in effect ensure the varied streetscape others have called for in their remarks. One lot which could have such a tall building is kitty-corner from Zero Place, and presently home to a dilapidated filling station and convenience store. The architect testified he’d been hired to analyze that lot for a project, but the uncertainty over the law resulted in that developer pulling out. Now a Stewart’s is being proposed, and pursuant with that corporate model company officials will be seeking a variance to build just one story there.
Planning Board chair Eve Walter believes modern and historic aesthetics can exist side by side, likening it to some cities in Europe, but not everyone agrees this is possible. Some neighbors fear Historic Huguenot Street would be eclipsed by large, hulking buildings. Much of the testimony was either imagining a more vibrant community in decades to come, or one ruined by a lack of foresight. Which outcome is tied to which height limit depends on who’s being asked.
Former mayor Jason West put a positive spin on the proceedings, saying that it would result in a “win either way,” saying, “three stories is better, but four is preferred, at least on the northern end” of the zone, beyond the Mill Brook crossing.
Another major theme was that of infrastructure. Four-story buildings cannot be supported with existing water and sewer systems, trustees were told, but others argued that if the law remains as is, the infrastructure would follow the demand.
Posturing aside, Tobin did laud the largely civil way in which this debate has been conducted in public. On the other hand, she lamented that the new height restriction will make it impossible to realize the vision of the NBR at all.
A vote to pass the changes will take place on December. 12.