Thursday, April 10, 2014

The 1,500 Square Feet Conundrum

Back in August 2013, Per Blomquist went before the Planning Commission seeking site plan approval for a new building he was hoping to construct at 248-250 Columbia Street, on the footprint of two existing houses that he intended to demolish. Blomquist's plans came a cropper when Cheryl Roberts, then counsel to the Planning Commission, consulted the Schedule of Bulk and Area Regulations for Residential Districts and declared that each unit in a multiple dwelling had to be a minimum of 1,500 square feet. The apartments Blomquist was proposing would only be about 750 square feet. Although other lawyers and architects familiar with bulk and area requirements disagreed with Roberts' interpretation, maintaining that the 1,500 square foot requirement per dwelling unit had to do with lot size not the interior space, Roberts' reading of the bulk and area chart carried the day. When Blomquist went before the Zoning Board of Appeals seeking an area variance to construct a new building containing five one-bedroom apartments, his request was denied

John Friedman, lawyer, Third Ward alderman, and chair of the Legal Committee, concurred with Roberts and decided that the bulk and area regulations had to be changed. He convened a zoning workshop, made up of Roberts, members of the Common Council Legal Committee, and others, to amend the regulations. Two zoning workshops took place at the end of February, during which consensus was reached about minimum apartment size (500 square feet), minimum lot size (3,000 square feet), and conforming setbacks, but no amendments were proposed to the Council. The group decided to do more than just make the immediate and obvious adjustments but foundered when it came to setback requirements for accessory buildings. A meeting scheduled for March 21 was postponed for a month and scheduled for April 25.

The experience of Wednesday night's Planning Board meeting clearly made Council president Don Moore, the only person present who had participated in the zoning workshops, wish the Legal Committee and the Council had taken some immediate action.

The specter of the 1,500 square foot rule emerged first when Brenda Adams was presenting Habitat for Humanity's application to subdivide 208 Columbia Street into two building lots of equal size. Habitat plans to build two of their passive houses on the site, and Adams assured the Planning Board that they would meet all the setback requirements set forth in the Schedule of Bulk and Area Regulations. But would they be 1,500 square feet? The answer, although she didn't offer it, was no.

The houses that Habitat has already built farther up on this block of Columbia Street are only 1,200 square feet, and the ones now being proposed are to be exactly the same. When it was pointed out that the 1,500 square foot minimum per dwelling unit applied only to multiple dwellings not to single-family homes, code enforcement officer Craig Haigh insisted that it applied to single-family homes as well. (He later acknowledged that he was mistaken in this.) 

Planning Board chair Don Tillson asked Adams to provide drawings of the property that showed the proposed houses superimposed on the lot, so that the Planning Board can make sure that they conform with the zoning requirements at the board's May meeting.
The first proposal to run seriously afoul of the 1,500 square foot rule was 742 Warren Street. There are currently two apartments in the building--one on the second floor, the other on the third floor. The plan is to divide each apartment in two to create four apartments. What was proposed were interior renovations involving no change of use, so it wasn't entirely clear why the project required site plan review, unless it simply had to do with the impacts of increasing the number of apartments, but Planning Board member Cappy Pierro raised the 1,500 square foot issue. "Does that kick in that apartment size thing?" he asked, and indeed it did.

The apartments, which are each now an entire floor of the building and meet the 1,500 square foot requirement, will be reduced to about 750 square feet each. But, it was pointed out, this building is in the Central Commercial District, and the Schedule of Bulk and Area Regulations is for residential districts. No matter. According to Haigh, all R-4 requirements need to be met in the Central Commercial District. Even though Lew Kremer, the architect for the project, weakly protested that "Craig had looked at these [plans] many times," Planning Board counsel Daniel Tuczinski advised that the project needed a use variance, presumably because of the increased number of apartments, and an area variance, because of the decrease in the size. The applicant was referred to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Next up was Joe Catalano, attorney for the Galvan Foundation, with two Galvan projects, the first being 202-204 Warren Street. A few weeks ago, Gossips reported a rumor that this building was to be developed as some kind of subsidized, low-income housing, but based on the information provided by Catalano on Wednesday night, that seems not to be the case. As Catalano explained, the building--which is really two attached buildings--was originally designed to have six apartments, one on each floor of each building. As the plans for the building are now, the apartments on the second and third floors would remain as full floor apartments. The apartments on the first floor would become live/work spaces, with the front half having some nonresidential use--retail or office space--and the back half being living space.

Even though all the contemplated uses are permitted uses, the proposed live/work apartments constitute a change of use, which triggers review, and guess what? The original, full floor, turn-of-the century apartments are not 1,500 square feet each, and the dwelling units proposed for the first floor will be no where near 1,500 square feet, so this project, too, was referred to the ZBA for an area variance.

The last project presented on Wednesday night was Galvan Quarters, at State and Seventh streets. Originally, the apartments proposed for the old Hudson orphanage were described as "transitional housing"--part of the county's three tier scheme to address homelessness. Now they are being called "affordable." As Catalano explained it, "They're going to be market price, but because of the size, they will be 'entry level.'" The size for these apartments, which Catalano called "efficiency apartments" but could also be called "studio apartments," is between 300 and 400 square feet--smaller than the 500 square foot minimum the Common Council has been contemplating.

When Catalano first presented this plan to the Planning Commission in January, he made the assumption that the building was exempt from the 1,500 square foot minimum because it was in the General Commercial Transitional District, and it is the "Schedule of Bulk and Area Regulations for Residential Districts." Haigh's declaration that all R-4 requirements need to be met in commercial districts succeeded in sending this proposal to the ZBA for an area variance.

Witnessing the series of proposals to create much needed new rental apartments being sent to the ZBA, which in November denied an area variance to the proposal for 248-250 Columbia Street because they felt that 50 percent less than the required minimum was too great a variance, Moore avowed that the Council needed to "move on the reduction of the minimum apartment size at the next Council meeting." He later stated that the amendment could be accomplished at the Council's May meeting.

Meanwhile, the ZBA, to which three projects, representing a potential eighteen apartments Hudson didn't have before, meets next Wednesday, April 16, at 6:30 p.m.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe how far this misinterpretation of a zoning lot area schedule has gotten. It is obvious to all but a few that the interpretation being peddled is incorrect and due to the ripples being created, could not possibly have been intended.