Near to public hearing, Boards’ thinking on Chappaqua Crossing is all over the map

The public hearing on zoning to permit grocery and retail opens Tuesday, June 22 at 7:45 p.m.
June 20, 2014
by Christine Yeres

The public hearing on the proposed rezoning of Chappaqua Crossing to permit a grocery and retail opens officially on Tuesday, June 24 at town hall, 7:45 p.m.  Incorporated at the beginning of the draft zoning text is the change proposed to the Town Development Plan to make it match the change in zoning.  It reads:

Section 1. The Town Development Plan of the Town of New Castle dated November 1989 is amended to recognize, as originally anticipated in 1989, that the commercial real estate market is not supporting large scale office and research facilities and that to retain those existing facilities as part of a viable community and real estate tax base, those existing facilities may need to be adaptively reused and/or augmented by retail uses which support the continuing office and research uses and/or meet community needs.

The existing TDP didn’t exactly “originally anticipate” that retail might be needed.  But that’s the change proposed, since the Town Development Plan cannot disagree with town zoning code.

In the June 10 rehearsal for the public hearing (since it was not properly noticed in time, it was rescheduled for June 24) residents pointedly brought up to Town Board members broken campaign promises, the intent to file a lawsuit, unresolved traffic issues, the growth of the proposal since originally proposed, disbelief in the Board’s belief that its “hands are tied,” and questioned whether there should be retail at Chappaqua Crossing at all.  And although Supervisor Greenstein seems determined to approve the project as proposed, most of these questions are exactly the questions that Town Board and Planning Board members are asking themselves as well.

On May 20, when the Town and Planning Boards met for a Chappaqua Crossing traffic tutorial from the town’s traffic consultant Michael Galante [his May 2013 report begins on p. 13 of this pdf], members from each board were left with unanswered questions and resolved to have Summit Greenfield’s traffic consultant, John Collins, appear before them for the June 10 hearing.  Collins did appear and defended his traffic findings that had been based on 2008 studies: the grocery-retail plan most recently proposed will draw slightly less traffic than the one studied in 2013.  He did not, however, bring the developer’s computer program showing animated traffic flow on the roadways he studied.  He is expected to bring it on June 24.

[See Boards + residents struggle to understand Chappaqua Crossing traffic problems + mitigations, NCNOW.org, 5/30/14.]

Since Summit Greenfield submitted its new Preliminary Development Concept Plan showing all 120,000 square feet of retail in new construction rather than as reuse of existing office space and asking that the town’s limit of small stores to a total of four be eliminated, the members of the Town Board, Planning Board and residents have been scratching their heads trying to decide whether the new plan is, indeed, what the previous Town Board studied in its environmental review that ended in “Findings” last fall.

In November 2013, the outgoing Town Board considered Summit Greenfield’s changes significant enough to put the brakes on the legislative changes to the zoning and Town Master Plan.  Then three new Town Board members were elected, and new Supervisor Greenstein began talking with Summit Greenfield to find a “win-win” for the town and the developer.  (Greenstein’s idea to move town hall to the cupola building—whether in a trade, purchase or lease—is not part of the application the Town Board is considering for the grocery-retail rezoning and it has not been studied in connection with it.)

At this point in the environmental review process, the town’s Boards are permitted to question only the incremental difference in environmental impacts between the previous and latest plans, not reach back in time and open up issues dealt with in the previous completed environmental review.

On June 10 Summit Greenfield’s attorney, John Marwell, reminded the Town Board as much.  Addressing what seems to be the biggest source of questions from Board members and the public—traffic—Marwell referred to a letter he had sent Board members the day before in which he quoted from the “Findings” that wrapped up the previous Board’s environmental review in 2013:

“The Town Board believes that the economic benefits to the Town of allowing increased commercial use at the Project site—the only remaining major commercial site in the Town outside the hamlet areas—outweighs the negative impacts caused by increased traffic.”

Supervisor Greenstein has been describing the current Town Board as having had its “hands tied” by the previous Board’s Findings. “Findings,” however, speak only to environmental impacts of the proposal as measured during the review process. The proposal for 120,000 square feet of retail was described by the previous Town Board as “an outer envelope” or limit.  The review has examined the environmental impacts of retail space at Chappaqua Crossing up-to-as-much-as 120,000 square feet. The information—those measurements—are in; it’s up to the Town Board to decide whether to approve the project that’s proposed, some version of it, or none at all.

The Town Board has the authority to approve, alter or decline the project

Residents in the surrounding neighborhoods have pressed Town Board members and its lawyers to admit—or realize—that the Town Board has the authority to deny the zoning change.  They say that a review of the grocery idea floated two years ago is all Summit Greenfield is entitled to according to the settlement between the town and developer that pushed the “pause” button on Summit Green’s suits against the town.  No approval was promised.

In the June 10 meeting, Rita Tobin tried to drive home this point to Board members.  “The Board has tremendous discretion when making decisions that are going to have such a huge impact on the town as this one will.  I’m not anti-development—just anti-bad-development. This is not the project [to approve].” Summit Greenield’s lawyers “are telling you your discretion at this point is very limited.  It is not limited; it’s extremely broad.”

“Proposal creep”

Members of each board are still asking, “How did we go from ‘local grocery with some ancillary retail’ to ‘an anchor grocery of 40,000 square feet with twice as much—80,000 square feet—additional retail’?”  And in fact, although percentages of floor coverage and minimum and maximum stores sizes are mentioned in the zoning legislation, the “120,000 square feet” is not.

This is what developers do

Planning Board member Tom Curley, an architect, answered the question for Planning Board members in a Planning Board meeting of June 3, when he described how such things work in the world of developers: “an investor-developer looks at a piece of property and figures out what he can get on the property. There’s a ‘carrying capacity’ of the land, and the number that bubbled up from that was, apparently, 120,000 square feet.”

[See PB examines issues of traffic, big-store v. small-store, and questions retail use at CC, NCNOW.org, 6/7/14]

So what are the differences in the new plan, and are they of significant environmental impact to warrant more study?

The original plan had the grocery occupying existing buildings 100 and 200, “adaptive reuse” of some of the 662,000 square feet of office space that Summit Greenfield has maintained is difficult to rent.  In the new plan, all 120,000 square feet of retail is in new building, with, according to reported offers from the developer, a “trade out” of the same amount of existing office space.  Both Boards were skeptical that the value of this trade out deal was fair from the town’s perspective.

The disappearance of Building 100 would account for 40,000 square feet eliminated; the remaining 80,000 would possibly be eliminated by closing off basement/ground floor space (which Town Board member Adam Brodsky has called “unleasable” space) in the buildings north of the cupola Building 200.

The economic effects examined?  Kind of.

On June 16, in his first meeting as a Planning Board member, Michael Allen said, “I still have a lot of big-picture questions.  Has the Town Board—or this Board—considered whether New Castle or Chappaqua can in fact support a third town center?”

“The applicant has,” said Richard Brownell, acting Chair.

“I’m sure he has,” said Allen.

“The Town Board did as well,” said Town Planner Sabrina Charney.

“And they thought that was reasonable?” asked Allen.

“Yes, at the time,” said Brownell.

“It’s called the ‘Competitive Effects Analysis,’ available on line, if you’re interested,” said Charney.

“And in that Competitive Effects Analysis,” said Allen, “I’ll find what the economic or the . . . “

“You’ll find the need,” said Charney

“You’ll find what you find,” said Curley.

“They’ve analyzed the economic impacts to the existing two town centers?” asked Allen.

“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say they’ve examined the economic impacts,” said Charney.  “They’ve determined that a third hamlet center would not, depending on what it was, would not impact the existing town hamlet centers.”

“... in any significant way,” added Brownell.

“Yes,” said Charney.

Traffic, the biggest issue

The trouble is that multiple, contradictory discussions are going on all at once.  Supervisor Rob Greenstein has toned down his vocal advocacy of the grocery-retail plan which included, for him, a swap or purchase in downtown Chappaqua, but still describes his hands as tied.  Lisa Katz seems to have taken the position that, as a new member of a board that has ultimate authority over approval or denial of Summit Greenfield’s application, she needs to be able to understand the environmental impacts of the project—especially the traffic studies—before the Town Board makes a decision.  There’s some question also of whether the new plan warrants more environmental analysis.

Meanwhile, Planning Board members are still looking over newest proposal for the site and the zoning legislation that the developer and the Town Board have proposed—the subject of a public hearing on Tuesday, June 24.  Critical of the grocery-retail proposal from the start, Planning Board members say they are still waiting for responses to questions they raised more than a year ago during the environmental review that’s now technically closed.

Redesign rollercoaster

Since to the Planning Board it looked as though both the previous and present Town Boards fully intended to approve retail at Chappaqua Crossing despite Planning Board reservations, the Planning Board sent its architect member, Tom Curley, to work to redesign Summit Greenfield’s original plan for a strip center along a single parking lot into a less objectionable, more neighborhood-y design oriented along a “main street.”  The Planning Board has said that Curley’s efforts should not be taken as an endorsement of the project.  In fact, Planning Board members are still questioning whether there should be retail development at Chappaqua Crossing at all.

But now a complication has developed from the redesign of the site along a main street.  According to Summit Greenfield, Curley’s re-working of the “strip center” plan into more of a village main street has had the effect of alienating the interest of “junior anchor” stores which are accustomed to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other stores, all facing a parking lot.

Consequently, the newest version of the grocery-retail plan shows the larger spaces divided into spaces for smaller stores. While Planning Board members were conflicted over whether large stores or small stores at Chappaqua Crossing will harm the hamlets more—Curley calls the large ones “category killers,” stores that overlap with, and overtake, multiple smaller single businesses—Greenstein, seeking perhaps to approve the retail at Chappaqua Crossing yet show that he also intends to protect the downtown merchants, has called the unlimited-number-of-smaller-stores idea a “non-starter.”

So back to the bigger-box stores, which, according to a June 16 letter from the County Planning Department, is a less desirable layout, and contrary to “a more pedestrian-friendly, village-type street with buildings close to the street and parking in the rear.” The County is critical also of the strip-center-style parking lot for the grocery, noting “the placement of the Whole Foods building behind its own large parking lot would further erode the functionality of a ‘main street’ environment and significantly discourage walking between uses on the site.”

Planning Board members are trying to produce their comments for the Town Board on the proposed zoning change before the official opening of the zoning hearing on June 24, but may have more to add subsequently, they said.  And the content of the proposed zoning changes may change further depending on what the Planning Board has to say and as a result of the public hearings.  For the full text of the zoning amendment, click HERE.

Planning Board Monday June 16, 2014 to discuss comments to Town Board on Chappaqua Crossing zoning legislation:

Town of New Castle Planning Board Meeting 6/16/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.

Town Board meeting (failed public hearing due to notice, but conducted as a hearing) Tuesday June 10, 2014 with Summit Greenfield traffic consultant John Collins:

 

Town of New Castle Board Meeting 6/10/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.

Joint Meeting Town Board and Planning Board with traffic consultant Michael Galante Tuesday May 20, 2014:

 

Town of New Castle Joint Town & Planning Board Meeting 5/20/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.

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