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Alternative Zoning Changes

The Pelham Preservation Society has submitted the following statement to the Village of Pelham to encourage reasonably-scaled new development in Pelham's downtown:

Pelham Preservation Society Proposed Zoning Code Changes

The Pelham Preservation Society has opposed the currently proposed zoning code changes as well as proposals by prior administrations to significantly increase the allowable height of buildings in the business districts.  Our position then and now is that while we support new development that would enhance our downtown, we oppose substantial changes in height, density and allowable uses because they would have a negative effect on the character and scale of the town and harm property values and the quality of life in nearby residential areas.  At the same time, we recognize that some elements of the current zoning code pose challenges for new development that could otherwise help revitalize the downtown and ensure its preservation as a district recognized to be of such significant architectural and historical significance as to be deemed to qualify for listing as an historic district on both the state and national registers of historic places.  For this reason, we offer the attached changes to the zoning code as an alternative to the proposed floating zone amendments currently before the Pelham Board of Trustees.

Executive Summary

While the proposed floating zone amendments sought to raise the allowable height and density to encourage more high-rise multi-family housing, the attached zoning changes use these and other incentives to encourage the construction of office buildings and amends the current law to allow for attached, low-scale single-family townhouses.


Encouraging Office Buildings

During the 2013 election campaign, Mayor Volpe, Trustee Mutti and others took a position with which we agree, that office buildings “would generate more revenue, require fewer services (and no educational services) and add more foot traffic to the downtown during the day when it is most needed to support shops and restaurants.”  To accomplish this, Pelham Preservation Society suggests encouraging the construction of office buildings by increasing the allowable height under existing zoning by one story, by increasing the allowable lot coverage and, with village board approval, potentially reducing the parking requirements for offices.  Where the zoning code currently allows only for three stories at a height limit of 40 feet, the attached changes allow office buildings to have up to four stories in the Business-1 District on Wolfs Lane south of Sparks Avenue with retail or restaurant on the ground floor so as to continue the retail corridor to the Pelham Picture House.[1]  The same bonus would apply to office buildings on Lincoln Avenue, but without requiring retail or restaurant on the ground floor so as not to cause any shift of the retail area away from the center of town and onto an already congested thoroughfare.  In all cases, the additional top floor would be set back from the façade by at least six feet so as to maintain the existing sense of scale from a sidewalk perspective.  The proposed changes also increase the allowable lot coverage in these areas and in the Office-1 and Office-2 Districts.

Creating sufficient parking is perhaps the most significant obstacle to new construction.  Among the proposed zoning changes is a new section that would allow the Board of Trustees to reduce or waive the number of parking spaces required for office, retail and restaurants, including if a plan for new parking has been adopted by the village and a parking fund is established to pay for parking that would serve such new buildings.  This idea is consistent with many other municipalities throughout the country who have recognized that on-site parking for non-residential buildings is not necessarily the best approach to urban design in traditional downtown settings.  This approach is limited to non-residential buildings because it is generally believed that residential buildings are still best served by on-site parking.  The proposed amendments also slightly reduce the general parking requirements for office to the industry-standard of three parking spaces per 1000 square feet of usable office space.

Allowing Townhouses

The current zoning code allows single-family homes in the Business Districts only if they meet all of the front, side and rear yard set-backs and other requirements that apply to homes in the Residential Districts.  Townhouses offer a higher and better use in downtown by presenting a meaningful and ready opportunity for positive infill in the Business-3 District and providing an alternative residential housing type that is currently available only in a limited number of units in the village.  Townhouses are generally considered desirable by empty-nesters and young professionals and therefore less likely to attract buyers with school-age children who would require public education services.  They would also increase density of the downtown in a positive way, offer a scale more in line with adjoining residential areas, provide a visual transition from the larger scale buildings in the Business-2 District and, with full review by the Architectural Review Board, could present the potential for enhancing the aesthetics of Pelham’s downtown streetscape. 

Maintaining Other Existing Height Restrictions

Pelham Preservation Society is in favor of retaining all the other existing height limitations in the Business Districts, which were adopted after long community-wide discussions about the appropriate scale for our downtown.  Increasing the allowable heights would permit buildings of such a larger scale, size and density as to be not complementary, but inconsistent with the scale and fabric of Pelham’s downtown.  Nor has the existing height limit of 48 feet in the Business-2 District thwarted development as demonstrated by the construction of Marbury Corners – quite profitably to the developer – within this height limit.  Several members of the current board recognized this during the 2013 election campaign when they stated that:  “We pledge, unequivocally, not to change the existing zoning laws of the village ….  The construction of Marbury Corners demonstrates to us that new development does not have to mean mammoth buildings that rise six stories and cover 100% of an entire block.”

There is an anomaly in the existing code in setting a substantially higher lot area of 1600 square feet per residential dwelling for residential buildings in the Business-1 District versus 900 square feet in the Business-2 District.  This translates into requiring extraordinarily large apartments of more than 2000 square feet where the village’s interest in not over-burdening town or school services would seem to warrant smaller apartments.[2]  The proposed changes amend the code to conform both districts to 900 square feet of lot area thereby allowing for more conventional 1300-1400 square foot, two-bedroom apartments, such as predominate at Marbury Corners.

We recognize the need for, and the economic attraction of, senior housing in Pelham.  The noted changes to minimum lot area should make such housing more possible in the size that seniors generally desire.  Senior Housing as a use is currently allowed under the existing zoning code and could be built – as Marbury Corners was – within the existing height limits.

Rule of Law

The Pelham Preservation Society supports making the noted changes to the existing zoning code as a matter of law and without use of a “floating zone” concept that would be subject to the discretion of any given majority of Trustees at a particular point in time.  We feel that to leave such decisions to a simple majority vote would invite results that could be viewed – and potentially legally challenged – as arbitrary and capricious or, worse, create a perception or means for future boards of rewarding political cronies.

The proposed changes also keep in place the site plan review process whereby new construction is reviewed by the talented and dedicated members of the Planning and Architectural Review Boards.  Having such boards of volunteer public servants is an important resource, not only because of their professional training and experience, but by involving in the development process more residents of the community with a demonstrated commitment to Pelham.

[1] The proposed changes add new definitions for “Retail” and “Restaurant.”  The definitions are taken from the Zoning Code of Bronxville, which prohibits any use except retail on the ground floor of all buildings in the downtown area so as to create a continuous retail corridor that draws pedestrians across its lengths.

[2] The math for calculating the effect of lot area per dwelling unit is as follows:  a 100x100 lot has a lot area of 10,000sf.  With a required 1600sf lot area per dwelling unit, this means that there could be only 6 units on the site.  Since the site would otherwise allow for two stories of residential (assuming the ground floor is retail) with a maximum 81% lot coverage, there would be 8100sf per floor  x 2 floors or 16,200sf total space divided over only 6 units means each unit would be on average 2700sf.   Reducing the lot area per dwelling unit to 900sf would allow for 11 units, which divided over 16,200sf means each unit would be on average 1472sf.