Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Zoning Changes for the Burlington College Property/Cambrian Rise Development

Planning Commission Meeting, 9/13/16, on Cambrian Rise

In what was expected to be the final meeting of the Planning Commission on Planning and Zoning’s proposal to change the designation of the former Burlington College Land from medium development, waterfront (MD-W) to Neighborhood Activity Center (NAC-CR), the Planning Commission delayed their decision. The suggestion for a continuance rather than a definitive vote originated with Eric Farrell, a member of the audience, when it became clear that the PC would not approve the NAC-Cambrian Rise proposal at this meeting. Only four of the six Commissioners were present even after a 40 minute delay, amounting to a bare quorum. Harris Roen made it clear that he would vote against the proposed amendment, meaning it would fail.
            This proposal would create a new zoning district for the property allowing mixed-use and a modification of the existing caps on building height, density, and the method by which these are calculated. P&Z proposed that this new method of calculation be applied to both Cambrian Heights and written into the Comprehensive Development Ordinance and applied city-wide. This aspect of the amendment failed to gain the support of Emily Lee and Andy Montroll and the Commission voted to send the amendment back to P&Z for re-writing so that the altered method of measurement was limited to Cambrian Rise. 
            Speaking against the proposed amendment were three members of Coalition for a Livable City. Charles Simpson called for a full Act 250 review of the project before any approval, with special emphasis on transportation issues. With up to 770 units under consideration by the developer including 80 senior units, the impact on this two lane section of North Ave. between the fire station and Burlington High School, is significant. Seniors require more intensive ambulance service which in Burlington comes with a fire truck.  As the “Cambrian Rise” designation makes clear, topography does not allow any vehicle access other than North Ave. to the site. By changing zoning to allow NAC facilities, non-residential traffic will be generated. Permitted non-residential uses include animal grooming, appliance sales/service, art gallery/studio, automobile & marine parts sales, a bakery, a bank, a beauty parlor, billiard parlor, bowling alley, cafĂ©, cinema, convenience store, crisis counseling center, daycare, dental lab, dry cleaner, grocery store up to 10,000 sq. ft., health club, hostel, hotel, library, museum, offices, performing arts studio, pet store, pharmacy, photo studio, and post office, among others. While the intent of an NAC is to include services for local residents, it is clear that the business model for many of these enterprises will require outside employees and a wide customers base, adding to the traffic flow.
            Andy Simon presented objections to the overall development plan as articulated by Save Open Space-Burlington (SOS-B). These include the failure of the plan to preserve a maximum amount of open space and wildlife habitat, view-scapes, or public access to extensive recreational land. The impact of the city’s largest development project to-date on surface water adjacent to an already fragile lake ecosystem on which the economy of Burlington depends has not been sufficiently mitigated. Joanne Hunt of SOS-B spoke as well in support of Andy’s position and against permitting this project.
            Along with developer Eric Farrell, Michael Monte of the Champlain Housing Trust spoke in strong support of the project, Monte citing the backlog of affordable housing requests by the area’s low-income and homeless population.
            At one point in the proceedings, Planning Director David White explained that the calculation for maximum residential units is based on the roughly 33 acres of the entire plot and that this zoning change will not alter the medium residential density, waterfront (MR-W) currently applied to the 12 acres to become public parkland for which the developer will be paid 2 million dollars. Simpson then again addressed the Commission to say this was highly irregular. Not only was the public park being used to ventilate the dense Cambrian Rise development providing a view scape, recreational land, public gardens, and some surface water mitigation at public expense, now it was clear that these 12 acres were the basis for increasing the density of the private portion of the project in a bait-and-switch maneuver.
            Much of the ensuing discussion centered on P&Z’s efforts to clarify the height limits. Director White apologized for misspeaking at the previous PC meeting when he said that heights wouldn’t be changed with this amendment. They would be, he said. Because of the existing Orphanage building, new construction on that parcel can legally rise to 65 feet, the distance to the half-way point of the Orphanage roof. Because the project conforms to Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) regulations and generates 25% affordable units, an additional 10-ft. of height can be added beyond statutory limits. As a result, P&Z proposes a lot coverage limit of 72% and an FAR of 2.5. Both numbers include the IZ bonus of 10 ft. in height and 0.5 FAR. presumably calculated on the entire 33 acres but with building limited to the 21 acres that remain private land. P&C recommends a nominal maximum height of 80 ft., a third higher than the current 60ft. limit on WRM, but agian the bonus could make this 90-ft. Still, White explained, the height as seen from North Ave. would appear to conform to existing zoning. The complicating factor, he explained, was site slope. Presently, height is measured from the set-back grade on flat parcels and the midpoint in sloped parcels. As White states in the amendment packet, “A maximum height of 80-ft is proposed to ensure that new buildings can actually be 65-ft. in height at the street level consistent with the current allowed height given the Orphanage. This also means, however, that a building could be built to a maximum of 80-ft at the street level if it were on a flat site.” He then proposed that on sloped lots, rather than measuring to the mid-point, one story simply be added as measured from the downside of the slope. This would allow the nominal maximum height to be 65-ft. but as measured from the downside, to be 65-ft plus the one additional story. Unstated was that 10-ft. IZ bonus could also be added “by-right”.
            The Comprehensive Development Ordinance (CDO) creating the NCZ-Cambrian Rise (NAC-CR), Table 4.4.2-1, would allow residences on the ground floor, unlike other NACs. New language would permit heights of 80-ft plus 10-ft and an FAR of 2.0 plus 0.5 here and a new method of measuring height city-wide. One additional story would be allowed on buildings on sloped lots above what is nominally specified by zoning. It was to this general change to the CDO that Emily Lee object to and the reason the PC sent the amendment back to P&Z staff for redrafting.
            What we have in the Cambrian Rise case is a series of duplicitous maneuvers by P&Z designed to soften the public’s perception of increased density and height. Here, a park is purchased by the public which in effect alleviates the developer of his open-space and surface water mitigation obligation while delivering the lake views, community gardens, recreational space, and veneer of wild life habitat that add profit solely to the developer. The park--ostensibly a public facility--will be for the development’s residents but maintained at public expense. Then, rather than taking the development itself as the platform on which to calculate floor area ratios (FAR) and thus density, the public park is included. Building height increases are disguised by a new method that focuses on high-ground visual appearance rather than actual height from the lower end of sloped lots and simply adds a story above nominal maximums wherever plots incline--virtually all of the city. Finally, the obvious housing needs of the poor, addressed through the IZ formula, are used to justify specific projects without any  consideration of alternate ways of addressing homelessness: a higher minimum wage; rent control; or additional direct investment by Champlain Housing Trust in other locations. Instead the only City response is promotion of intense commercial development with an IZ component, and official shaming open-space and balanced growth advocates.  

 -Charles Simpson

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