Planning Board meets to think outside the developer’s box

March 28, 2008
by Christine Yeres
The Planning Board met in a specially scheduled work session on Monday evening, March 24, to fulfill its promise to the town board to turn its attention to possible municipal and recreational uses for New Castle of some portion of the Reader’s Digest property.

While developer Summit Greenfield is working to supply answers to questions about the environmental impacts of its proposal to build 278 condos on the property and to eliminate restrictions on the number of businesses allowed under its current zoning, the town board is busy enlisting other town government bodies (and has encouraged residents as well) to treat this as an opportunity to think outside the developer’s box and contribute to the crafting of the town’s own “generic environmental impact statement.”

Space for town government offices?

With impressions from their early-morning walk-through of the property fresh in their minds, planning board members, their counsel and their planning consultant discussed what uses are possible and, if multiple uses, in what proportion those uses should coexist on the 116-acre site.  The continued presence of Reader’s Digest, “the business,” was a given in their discussion, but, at the town board’s request, members explored in concept municipal uses of the uninhabited northernmost buildings that the developer has slated for demolition and would replace with 160 units of residential condos.  The town board has thought that it might avoid a costly police facility expansion by moving the Recreation and Parks Department to that existing Digest space, leaving police to inhabit the entire downstairs of town hall, or to free up second floor town hall space by relocating its building department at Reader’s Digest as well.  On the whole, planning board members were not overly impressed by the state of those northern buildings.  A member described one of the buildings as “a rabbit warren” inside, low-ceilinged and without light.

Save the auditorium?

The town board had expressed some interest in saving the Reader’s Digest auditorium (also marked for demolition in the developer’s current plan).  Creation of playing fields and construction of an indoor pool were possibilities planning board members trying to imagine arranged surrounding the auditorium.  They pored over large site plan drawings playing with ideas of a reduced number of residential units; proposing different proportions of office space, housing and recreation while acknowledging that they needed much more information to intelligently weigh the costs of renovation vs. demolition and rebuilding.

Members gave some thought to acquiring, then building onto, the auditorium to make a performing arts or sports-and-arts center.  As it is, members agreed, the 400-seat auditorium is a stand-alone edifice, very limited with only two additional rooms—each about the size of the conference rooms A and B combined (where board work sessions take place at town hall).  Planning Board members pictured playing fields on the strip of land that lies between Roaring Brook Road the Reader’s Digest main entry road off Route 117.  They tried to imagine placement of a pool, but shivered slightly at the cost of building and maintaining one.  The planning board showed no great interest in the pair of one-acre lots directly across from the high school entrance and Education Center that the developer has offered as fitting for police, fire and ambulance use.  They briefly considered placing a pool on the chunk of property across the street from the front of Reader’s Digest along Roaring Brook Road between the last house on Roaring Brook Road east of the Saw Mill and the railroad tracks, but quickly judged the spot to be impracticable.

Andy Tung, from the developer’s engineering firm, and Megan Smith from the developer’s attorney’s firm, attended the meeting, as well as a resident of New Castle who had been a Reader’s Digest employee for many years.  The planning board’s F.P. Clark planning consultant, Joanne Meder, who was also present, will compile the planning board members’ thoughts and then members will make their report to the town board.  In the meantime, the town board has invited residents to think of possible uses of the property also, and is about to hire an in-house town planner as well as a consultant to explore the possibilities.