WINCHESTER – The Planning Board has a question to answer before Town Meeting – how should the town modify the Center Business District zoning bylaw to support revitalization and redevelopment in the town center?
Revitalizing the downtown has been under study for a few years now, growing out of the Planning Board’s Master Plan hearings. Grants have been won, studies commissioned, meetings held, and some measures have been taken, particularly regarding parking and signage.
The work has focused on five areas – the housing market, parking management, stormwater/ floodplain regulations, business environment, zoning and permitting.
To encourage the best uses of existing properties and most suitable types of redevelopment, the town needs to update the rules and regulations governing development in the center.
To effect any changes at the fall Town Meeting, the Planning Board needs to be ready to submit articles for the warrant by the Sept. 20 deadline. To get input on what townspeople and Town Meeting members particularly would support, the board held a public meeting last Thursday.
In considering new zoning, Town Planner Betsy Ware said some of the things to consider are the existing downtown, an examination of heights and increasing them as appropriate, housing in the upper stories, promotion of walking and biking, and balancing the historical character and redevelopment.
Currently, Drew Bottaro stated, the CBD zoning is outdated. It has no general vision or urban design guidelines to help developers understand what the community wants. The overly complex review and permit process discourages property owners and developers from investing in the center.
Key issues Bottaro identified are acceptable heights, the amount and type of housing, the type of streetscape wanted, historical preservation that informs, and governance.
Roger Berman introduced a specific question about parking, saying that currently two spaces are required for a new housing unit. If there is trouble providing that number, should the number be changed to zero? But would a condo be unlikely to sell without parking?
Mike Manzo said he couldn’t image building a significant number of residential units without parking. He asked if they had considered overnight parking on town lots. “You have to solve the parking dilemma,” he said.
Mary McKenna said they should think about street parking as well as municipal lots. “We should use what we have rather than forcing the creation of new spaces,” she said.
It was later noted that in the winter there are parking prohibitions due to snow removal.
Zoning changes could also adjust height, setback, massing, and materials requirements. Turning to the subject of building heights, Jerome Garciano showed a zoning volume plan using different colors for different heights to give a sense of certain heights in certain areas. If heights go up to four stories or so, the upper stories could be stepped back. Bottaro said they were looking for reactions, Would people tolerate four-story buildings?
Steve Parkhurst said that increased height is fine if they make sure the mass isn’t too great. “If you increase the density,” he said, “you have to have a place for them to park.”
Roger Wilson said that any area with a big parking lot, such as at the Jenks Center, is a potential building site. Berman said that for this Town Meeting they are limited to the Center Business District. He said they are trying to simplify zoning for the existing business area, not looking to change or expand its boundaries at this time.
After Bottaro asked what people might be afraid would happen, Allan Rodgers replied, “if you build it and they don’t come.”
Maureen Meister expressed concern that what is attractive in the town center will go. Looking back at the history of north Main Street after they created GBD-2 and GBD-3, she referenced one building which looking nothing like what they were hoping for. She also expressed concern that the market drives maxing out.
Manzo suggested doing zoning changes in concert with design standards and examples to force developers to meet the desire of the community.
He and Many McKenna stressed being careful. “If we get it wrong,” McKenna said, “we’re going to lose our village.”
Wilson pointed up a distinction between an attractive destination and what is attractive for the people living in the village. “Public infrastructure is the key to attracting people,” he said and then added transportation as another key.
Chris Mulhern said that the challenge with design guidelines is having flexibility to allow for innovation. “There are buildings outside the box which are fabulous,” he said.
Parkhurst opined that new residential use might come rather than commercial. The GBD-2 and 3 districts became attractive for residential development but not commercial, although the board wanted more mixed use.
Judy Manzo said there is a lot of foot traffic on Main Street but not enough. She favored first-floor retail and restaurant use. Time and time again, she said, retail space is turned over to offices.
Mulhern stated that it is not economically viable to add height to existing buildings. He also said that small retailers cannot afford the rents and real estate offices cannot tolerate walk-ups. “The real killer,” he said, “is parking.”
McKenna said that the building owners have to pay attention to ADA and get their buildings up to code.
When Bottaro asked what people want out of redevelopment, Wilson said, “Variety,” meaning more and different kinds of spaces.
On June 19, at 7 p.m., the Planning Board is holding a public meeting on the conceptual design study of the Main Street corridor from the Quill Rotary to Stop & Shop.
This is a conceptual plan study only, meant to assist the town in determining future zoning for the area and in addressing redevelopment within a 100-year floodplain. The meeting is an opportunity for business owners, property owners, and residents to assist in determining what improvements should be made to the Main Street corridor.
A week later, the board is holding an open house in three sessions on a Business Improvement District (BID) on June 26, at 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., noon to 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
A BID is a state-authorized, special-purpose, not-for-profit corporation controlled by town center businesses and owners. It can raise money and accept public and private funds and can provide common services such as market studies, business recruitment, destination advertising, sidewalk maintenance, snow clearance, etc.
The town recently received a $10K technical assistance grant from the Executive Office of Housing and Community Development to study implementing a business improvement district (BID) within the center. The EOHCD hired consultant Ann Burke to work with the town and the business community on this study. Burke is scheduled to be available on June 26 to make a presentation on the BID program and take comments.