NEW: Nearing the decision-point on Chappaqua Crossing
Monday, November 22, 2010
by Christine Yeres
“Cutting the salami thinner”
The New Castle Town Board, with the help of its counsel and expert consultants, continues to assess the environmental impact of each part of Summit Greenfield’s proposal for development at Chappaqua Crossing, as the New York State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) law requires.
Until now, the board has been engaged in a back-and-forth with the developer, saying, in effect, to Summit Greenfield, “Do this differently. Do that differently.” Now, explained Clinton Smith, counsel to the town board, “the board is cutting the salami thinner,” preparing to say, in effect, “This is how we would like to see [the project] done.”
How close is the board to decision time?
The town board will deliver its refined version of the Final Environment Impact Statement (FEIS) to Summit Greenfield in mid-December, according to Smith. The document, crafted with the help of the board’s attorneys and expert consultants, will give a very specific picture of what the town board will permit the developer to do with the site.
According to New Castle Town Supervisor Barbara Gerrard, it is anticipated that a few weeks later, in early January, Summit Greenfield will respond to that document. The town board expects to finalize the FEIS soon after Summit Greenfield’s last response. By this time, the town board will have decided which which view to accept, in cases where there is a difference of opinion—the developer’s position or their own experts’ position. At that time, the town board will declare the FEIS complete.
After the FEIS has been declared complete, the town board will reopen the hearing on whether to allow a MFPD at Chappaqua Crossing. No sooner than ten days after the FEIS is complete, the town board will release its findings regarding the Chappaqua Crossing proposal. A typical finding would be the following, for example, regarding impact on traffic surrounding the site. “The traffic around the site currently is X amount. The traffic around the site once Chappaqua Crossing is built as proposed will be X + Y amount.”
At the same time, or soon after releasing their findings, the town board will release their determinations. An example of a determination would be the following. “The town board has concluded that the traffic impact will be X + Y amount.” The town board can then determine that X + Y is too impactful; or that X + Y amount of traffic is remediable by the means proposed by the developer; or that X + Y traffic is not remediable but that the benefit to the town of Chappaqua Crossing outweighs the impact of X + Y traffic. Whatever its determinations, the town board must use the facts in the FEIS to support them.
Based on their findings and determinations, the town board can reject the proposal, approve the proposal or specify what they would find acceptable. Then Summit Greenfield must decide whether to agree to proceed with the plan for development that the town board has specified would be acceptable.
Waiting for planning board recommendations
The town board expects to receive by the Thursday, December 9 deadline recommendations from the New Castle Planning Board on whether to amend the town’s zoning laws regarding the following aspects of the developer’s proposal:
• Whether to amend the town’s zoning laws to create a multi-family planned development (MFPD) zone;
• Whether to approve the traffic and parking plan proposed by the developer for the project;
• Whether to allow a fourth (or fifth, counting underground parking) story on the apartment buildings in the plan; and
• Whether to allow dwellings arranged around interior hallways, without individual access to the outside.
Town board considers change in town code on “Multiple Entry Dwelling Units”
On this last point, the town board agenda for Tuesday, November 23, indicates that the town board intends to set a public hearing to amend the law entitled “Individual unit access,” Section 60-417.271 of the town code:
“Individual unit access: In general, each individual dwelling unit within any multifamily development shall have its own separate entrance/exit leading directly to the outside. The Planning Board may waive this requirement as a part of site plan approval where said Board determines that the basic intent of this requirement in terms of safety and the avoidance of common hallway areas can be met through other elements of the building design.”
Currently each unit in every MFPD in New Castle has a separate entry/exit to the outside. A change in the town code would permit the apartment-style buildings described in the Chappaqua Crossing application. This change would also clear the way for other proposed affordable housing projects, such as the one under consideration for a site on Hunts Lane. The housing development company behind the Hunts Lane site is scheduled to make a presentation to the town board on December 7 regarding its plans for rental units on Hunts Lane.
Public hearing required on creation of an MFPD zone
Once the town board declares that the FEIS is complete, a loose end remains: According to town law, the town board must hold a public hearing before creating a multi-family planned development, or MFPD, zone. That hearing was opened on June 23, 2009, and on July 28, 2009, the town board voted “to adjourn the public hearing on the MFPD until the issuance of a Notice of Completion of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) under SEQR.” The board will announce the date of the public hearing, then forge ahead to conclude the SEQR process and render a findings statement, spelling out what Summit Greenfield might be allowed to do at Chappaqua Crossing.
The Modified Project the boards are considering
Below is a summary of Chappaqua Crossing “Modified Project” that the town and planning boards are considering, followed by a list of issues whose merits and drawbacks the planning board is still debating in its work sessions: Multi-family planned development, medium-density zoning and its affordable housing component; sewer access; parking and traffic; a fourth floor for residences; residences that open onto interior hallways rather than to the outside.
Recap of the Modified Project under consideration
Summit Greenfield proposes to rezone 55 acres of the 116-acre property for multi-family planned development (MFPD) housing. In the developer’s most recent proposal, the Modified Project, the housing side of the mixed commercial and residential campus will hold 60 townhouses to be taxed as single family homes and 139 apartments to be taxed as condominiums. Twenty of the condominium apartments would be affordable units that comply with the terms of the county’s “fair and affordable housing,” or FAH, settlement.
The 60 townhouses and 61 of the apartments including the 20 affordable units would be located in the “East Village,” or central part of the property, and 88 of the apartments would rise in two five-story apartment buildings to the north, the “North Village.”
The following is an account of the last three planning board work sessions discussions on Chappaqua Crossing (October 26, November 1 and November 16). Counsel Lester Steinman and F.P. Clark planning consultant Joanne Meder have guided planning board members in their talks.
Does the site meet the criteria for creating a multi-family planned development (MFPD) zone?
The purpose of the MFPD zoning is “to provide opportunities within the town, on a planned basis, for housing of medium density,” and should be located within a half-mile of a business district, “in reasonable proximity” to shopping, services, community facilities, suitable transportation services and utilities. Meder told planning board members the Reader’s Digest site satisfies this half-mile requirement, since the business-office portion of the property will exist next door to the residential MFPD zone. The planning board did not question whether the Chappaqua Crossing portion of the property zoned for business offices offered “shopping, services and community facilities.”
Density and density bonuses
Meder explained that in 1979 the town created a MFPD “special permit” to make a framework for different levels of housing density within New Castle, depending on the location of the site. The highest densities were permissible in the hamlet centers of Chappaqua and Millwood, and “as you work outward, there is a corresponding reduction in density, requiring much less land to support the MFPD in the hamlets than in the ‘hinterlands’.” At 1.2 units per acre, a condo development such as Riverwoods would be considered low density; Chappaqua Crossing is “around 3 units per acre,” Meder told board members, “making it legitimate to consider the site potentially of medium density.”
The fact that the housing is “clustered,” some parking is located underground, that affordable housing is included in the mix and that sewers are proposed would entitle the developer to exceed the normal density calculations for the size of the property. With each of its successive plans – first for 278 units and now in the current plan for 199—Summit Greenfield has claimed it could construct double the number of units by virtue of these density bonuses.
Planning board member Sheila Crespi asked Steinman and Meder, “Since density bonuses have never been on the table as part of this application, we’re just reviewing them conceptually, they’re not part of this proposal, are they?”
Planning board member Jerry Curran: “But in future they can be?”
Meder: “It depends on how it’s approved.”
Steinman: “You can’t just pop up and ask for them at the end if it’s never been analyzed and hasn’t gone through the environmental review process.”
Meder explained that although in theory the developer is eligible for density bonuses, he is not asking for them and neither are they automatic. “If he does ask someday [with another, new application], it’s the town board’s call to decide whether the increased density is appropriate for the site, and the site has to be able to support it mathematically. So even if one could demonstrate that increased density is permitted based on the area requirements, [the developer] still couldn’t exceed the amount of building coverage governed by the town’s guidelines.
Affordable housing component
Summit Greenfield has committed, Meder reported, to build 20 affordable units that meet the requirements of the county “fair and affordable” settlement. “There are still questions about what that means,” she said, “ but whatever it requires, the developer will provide.”
Showing the need for MFPD housing
In order to allow the creation of an MFPD zone, the developer is required to show the current need for the type of housing he proposes to build. Planning board chair Carpenter said that she believes there is clearly a need for affordable housing – both for housing that complies with the county settlement as well as for the type of affordable housing designed for people who live or work in the town such as teachers, police, and firefighters. But, she noted, “I haven’t seen an analysis of the current need for most of the housing that’s proposed [in the Chappaqua Crossing plan].”
“In fact,” continued Carpenter, “the affordable component of this proposed development has been slashed [from 20% in the original proposal to build 348 units to 10% of the 199 units proposed most recently]. This is one of the last parcels in town on which a fair amount of affordable housing could be accommodated.”
“You mean you’re questioning the amount of market rate units that are proposed?” asked Meder.
“Yes,” responded Carpenter. “Obviously there’s a need for affordable housing, both at the county level and for our town’s definition of affordable housing [for municipal workers, police, teachers, people who work in town], the kind that were defined under the Berenson decision.”
“But those are not the kind proposed [by the market rate units in the Modified Project],” Carpenter pointed out. “We’re not getting much of either kind of affordable in this proposal. Before we assume we need more condos or multi-family housing in town we have to look at what kind of multifamily housing is needed in town.”
“I think you’re right,” said Crespi. “And I think there’s been some confusion in the developer’s presentation of the market-rate units as meeting different housing needs within the town. Basically, we’re talking about very expensive condos, priced between $700,000 and $1 million, so we’re not providing a housing category that differs from what’s [in our town already].”
“Also,” explained Crespi, “I’m questioning the marketability of the housing proposed in terms of the juxtaposition of commercial and residential, for example, particularly the North Village apartments, which sit right next to Building 600 of the commercial property. That’s the type of use you don’t see very much in New Castle and the commercial traffic will be cutting between the North Village residential and the commercial areas as people are coming and going all day long. You have this kind of mix in the hamlets, but we don’t have anything in New Castle on the scale of this proposed use.”
Planning board has doubts about parking management plan
Carpenter reiterated her interest in encouraging full development of the commercial space and expressed serious reservations about committing parking spaces to residential development before making sure that the commercial office space has the parking it needs to operate successfully.
Although the site currently provides 1680 parking spaces for 700,000 square feet of office space, that ratio is an old one that Reader’s Digest has historically enjoyed. According to today’s town code requirements, the 520,000 square feet of office space to be made available at Chappaqua Crossing should require 2080 spaces, yet Summit Greenfield is proposing to reduce the number of commercial parking spaces to 1300.
In addition, Summit Greenfield is proposing to add another 60 parking spaces for the 142,000 square feet of space in the Modified Project that it intends to fill with a low-intensity data storage tenants. Planning board members have expressed the opinion that the developer has not provided sufficient detail for this use.
Rather than provide more parking spaces, Summit Greenfield is proposing that the planning board monitor the parking as Summit Greenfield adds commercial tenants.
Legal counsel to the planning board Steinman explained, “The developer is saying, in effect, ‘We don’t believe we need as many parking spaces as are in your town code’s requirement and here is a mechanism for you to allow us not to build that many.’ The question is can this [traffic management plan] be a bridge between what [the town code] requires and what [the developer] wants?”
The developer’s parking management plan suggests that the planning board rely on the town’s building inspector to monitor commercial parking conditions at Chappaqua Crossing and, as Meder put it, “when certain thresholds are reached, take actions.” Such actions, she explained, would be “operations designed to control the demand side of parking rather than the supply side.”
Planning board chair Carpenter asked, “Shouldn’t we review [the developer’s] parking management plan first, and then decide whether such a plan will work? We were concerned that changes [in parking supply and demand] should come back to the planning board [rather than to the town building inspector]. Since we have to approve the parking management plan, it ought to come back to us.”
Crespi agreed: “It seems to me that it should come back to the planning board for review because no one knows how or whether it will work. Before throwing it to the building inspector, it should come back to the planning board.”
Concern about traffic plan as well
Asked by Steinman to decide as a policy matter how the board would manage traffic and parking on a continuing basis if the project is approved, planning board members complained that a lack of information on the management plan prevented them from being able to predict what their future involvement should be. In addition, Crespi noted, the parking plan depended on the use of jitneys and bicycles.
Crespi expressed concern for the safety of bicyclists on Route 117, “with one lane in each direction and no shoulder, and then add rush hour mode to that.” As to jitney usage, she stated that figures in the FEIS showed very low usage rate for the jitney currently, with 3.3%, or about 28 out of 800 Reader’s Digest employees making use of it. “So how many people are going to use it?” asked Crespi, “ and how will you manage it over not just one employer, [Reader’s Digest], but over potentially dozens of different tenants of different sizes and types of operations with different business modes?”
Steinman responded: “I understand the drawback of not seeing the traffic management plan. You will get to see this. But as part of the [request from the town board, soliciting planning board advice], it’s not necessary to evaluate that plan. That’s not part of your job. The planning board’s concern should be only procedural: How to view your authority at the inception of the project and also down the road.”
Crespi noted: “But we’re not actually starting with a baseline. [The developer] is proposing to reduce the amount of parking and have virtually the same amount of commercial space occupied.”
Meder noted that the town board had asked the developer to submit three alternative plans identifying sections of the property that could be “land banked,” reserved for future commercial parking needs. In response, Meder reported, the developer provided a plan to fit 300 more spaces in the 6.5 acres the developer has designated in the Modified Plan as space donated to the town for municipal purposes, as well as two plans showing possible parking structures, one of two levels, one of two and a half levels. Together, the two structures contain another 320 parking spaces, but each violates some zoning provisions on building setback and parking setback as well as on building coverage.
Carpenter suggested delaying approval of residential development, especially in the North Village, until the developer can show that there is enough parking for the commercial tenants. “One way of working it is to say that if the parking plan works and the developer’s alternative parking mechanisms bring people to the site without ‘single occupancy vehicle trips’ and the need for them to park, then the North Village might be a potential future place for development. But until it’s clear that that works, [the developer] doesn’t have any place else to put more parking.”
“In a sense,” continued Carpenter, “[the property] is being overbuilt from the beginning. I would have concerns about approving something that did not provide adequate parking from the beginning with the idea that maybe people will take a bike, maybe people will take a jitney from the train. Would be nice, but until we know that’s going to happen, we’re putting ourselves into a corner.”
Crespi added: “I do think the adequacy of the parking is vital to the viability of the commercial space. Ultimately, an employer will want to know their employees can get to work and can park. With the small amount of detail [on the parking management plan] that’s been presented to us, it’s hard to express an opinion on whether it will work.”
Only part of the Chappaqua Crossing project is in the existing sewer district, Meder told the board. In the absence of a sewer district expansion, there can be no MFPD as proposed in the Modified Project. In the East Village, only 79 of 111 units are located within the existing sewer district. “The remainder [the other 120 units],” said Meder, “need sewers.”
For the 32 units of the East Village as well as the 88 apartment units of the North Village that fall outside the existing sewer district, the town submitted a petition last July on behalf of the developer asking the County Board of Legislators for a sewer district extension. In so doing, the town board added the Reader’s Digest site to its long-standing request for sewer extensions for Random Farms, Yeshiva and Riverwoods, a request that has been outstanding for more than ten years. The county has made no decision yet on the extension, but recently asked for additional information.
Traffic and emergency services
“We need to have a clearer understanding of how the traffic and parking works between the commercial and residential,” said planning board member [Curran. “And I’m not only concerned with what’s going on within the complex but also with what’s going on in the surrounding area at high peak periods. I have two daughters, so I’m familiar with the high school traffic. We need to know what type of modification and solutions the applicant will provide relative to those high peak periods.”
“The fire department was contacted,” Meder noted, “and has not reached its decision yet on the adequacy of circulation around the building and to the interior garages underneath, or its ability to service that height building. They have a 70-foot ladder truck but would need mutual aid and a 110-foot ladder truck from Mt. Kisco Fire Department. The town will need more input to fully address that issue.”
Curran expressed concern that police, fire and ambulance crews would find traffic, especially at peak times for high school traffic, problematic and suggested that the developer might have to work with the board of education to find a solution.
An urban use in a non-urban area
Carpenter suggested that the planning board examine the proposed design and location of the buildings in relationship to other uses. “For example,” she said, “there’s much lower density one-acre residential zoning [Cowdin Lane] right next door to the five-story [North Village] apartment buildings. I guess [the MFPD] could be considered a [sort of bridge in density] from commercial to residential, but I’m concerned by the way those buildings are designed, as urban apartment buildings when it’s not in an urban area.”
“An urban concept but not an urban area,” Crespi reiterated. “Something needs to be done about the design to make it fit more into the neighborhood, whether it’s courtyards or something, but not big, rectangular apartment buildings.”
Meder noted earlier in the discussion that the developer had amended the final environmental impact statement by removing the descriptor “invisible” in describing the view that residents of Cowdin Lane would have of the five-story apartment buildings. In his latest FEIS, she noted, the developer had described it instead as “a small view of pieces of the roof line in the North Village, especially in winter,” judging it, said Meder, as “of relatively moderate impact.”
Access to exterior and height of buildings
Carpenter remarked that she would like to see “some serious attempt to comply with our zoning” by providing each dwelling unit with exterior access. The apartments proposed by Summit Greenfield are organized around interior hallways, whereas all other dwellings in the town have individual access/exits to the outdoors.
“Outside access for all of them?” asked Meder. “Or only for the affordable?”
“For all of them,” responded Carpenter.
“So more townhouses and less multi-story?” asked Meder.
“Yes. I don’t know if the town can accommodate five stories,” Carpenter responded, citing Old Farm Lake and Stone Creek as examples of dwellings that have a preferable “townhouse look more than an apartment-building look.” On Tuesday, November 23, the town board will set a date for a public hearing on this issue of whether to allow dwellings in New Castle that do not provide individual access to the outside. Apartment-style hallway access is being proposed for all but the 60-townhouse dwellings in the Modified Project of 199 housing units at Chappaqua Crossing.
Examination of overall intensity of use at Chappaqua Crossing
“I think another point that has to be examined is the overall intensity of use of the property,” said Crespi, “because what we would hope to see is a revitalization of commercial property to nearly its full extent – 642,000 square feet – which provides a very good tax base to the town without the draw on services that residential requires. But at the same time, with all the traffic associated with the commercial, you would be adding a very large residential development and all that traffic, as well as impacts on town services. So we really have to look at the overall impact and intensity of use in making any kind of recommendation.”
“Summing up for myself,” said Carpenter, “I have a concern that this site is zoned commercial and we want to see it remain viable as a commercial site. To the extent that it’s rezoned for residential, I think the applicant has shown serious need for affordable housing, and we should look at that carefully. But we don’t want to see an excessive amount of higher residential density than the site can sustain at the risk of losing the viability of the commercial development on the site. If so much of site ends up being covered by residential that the commercial becomes unviable because it doesn’t have enough parking and [Summit Greenfield] can’t rent the office space because people [renting the office space] can’t park, that would be a real concern for me.”
The planning board next meets on December 7, two days before its deadline for turning in its recommendations to the town board. The planning board may approve, approve-with-modifications, or disapprove of Summit Greenfield’s application for zoning changes.
Possibility of need for super-majority vote by town board on Chappaqua Crossing
There is a question at the moment that the town board’s counsel is puzzling over: An override of a disapproval by the planning board may require a super-majority of four votes from a town board that has only three voting members on Chappaqua Crossing matters. Two board members, Elise Mottel and John Buckley, have already recused themselves because of conflict of interest issues.
As with the petition drawn up by neighbors of the Reader’s Digest property, which was signed by the board of education, invoking Town Law §“265, which also would require a super-majority of votes to rule on the proposed zoning change, there is uncertainty. “In both instances,” explained Clinton Smith, counsel to the town board, “the super-majority raises a lot of interesting and complex questions. We don’t know what the planning board will say and no one has filed a petition yet.” See “Board of Ed votes 4-1 to sign petition requiring super majority vote by town board on Chappaqua Crossing,” NCNOW.org, 11/1/10.
Below are the four one-hour planning board discussions on Chappaqua Crossing issues of parking, building height and MFPD zoning.
October 19: PARKING—HOW TO MANAGE IT, WHO SHOULD MANAGE IT?
Site plan review authority now and later
October 19: WHETHER TO PERMIT FOUR STORY BUILDINGS, UNPRECEDENTED IN NEW CASTLE
November 1: MULTI-FAMILY PLANNED DEVELOPMENT ZONE—WHETHER TO APPROVE IT
November 16: AN OVERVIEW LED BY JOANNE MEDER, PLANNING BOARD CONSULTANT