Nine months after the idea was first announced, the Lowell Planning Commission got its first look at a site plan that will turn the former Unity High School property into a collection of condominium buildings. It was the main order of business discussed during the commission’s Monday meeting. After nearly two hours spent on the subject, the body turned their attention to a short discussion on whether the city should regulate the placement of vape shops.
Unity Development Includes 4 Buildings, 44 Units
Developers Jerry Zandstra and Todd Schaal were before the Planning Commission to request their property at 219 High Street be rezoned from mixed use to a planned unit development. All planning commissioners were present except Amanda Schrauben who was out of town. Also attending the meeting were City Clerk Sue Ullery and Andy Moore, a consultant to the city from the engineering firm Williams&Works.
In preparation for the meeting, Moore drafted a 14 page memo outlining the various objectives and qualifying conditions that need to be met before any property can be rezoned as a planned unit development, or PUD. Most of the meeting was spent reviewing the information in this document.
Commissioners were also provided engineering and landscaping plans. As envisioned, the PUD would be created in three phases. The first phase will convert the former bus garage into 14 condominium units with seven on the ground floor and seven in a newly built second floor. Since this building lies in the floodplain, the ground floor would be raised a foot to eliminate the need for residents to hold any flood insurance.
Phase two would be to convert the former Unity High School building into 16 condominium units. About five feet of the building protrudes into High Street, and the developers noted they would remove that portion of the building to resolve the encroachment issue.
The third phase would see the construction of two buildings along King and Monroe Streets. These would house 14 additional residential units. This section of the property is currently vacant.
Parking Availability a Concern
During discussion regarding the project, issues such as demands on public services and state requirements for working in the floodplain were noted as items requiring further information and investigation. However, commissioners appeared largely supportive of the PUD request.
The only topic generating some conversation was the availability of parking. Commissioner Colin Plank noted the plan appeared to be at least 11 spaces short of the 88 needed to accommodate all 44 residential units planned. He also questioned the size of those spaces given the larger vehicles driven today.
Moore noted that under the ordinance, the PUD could count the spaces in public parking lots located within 400 feet of the property toward their required parking. This appears to be a reference to Section 19.02 of the Code of the Ordinances:
Except for the C-2 District and the MU District, the off-street parking required for nonresidential districts shall be located on each site or in parking lots within four hundred (400) feet of and readily accessible to each site.
It is unclear whether the Planning Commission has the authority to make additional parking requirements as part of the PUD process, and there were mixed feelings shared among the commissioners.
Marty Chambers, the city council representative to the commission, pointed to Big Boiler Brewing which often fills its lot, resulting in customers using the adjoining Huntington Bank parking lot without any problem. He added that he thought it was a good thing when a city had parking concerns because it meant the community was vibrant and drawing in people.
Plank wasn’t so sure and suggested asking the people who lived in the area if they thought the lack of parking would be a good thing. “No one wants a multi-floor parking garage in the area, but no one wants parking on the street in front of their house either,” he said.
That sentiment was shared by a resident from Jefferson Street in the audience. Near the end of the meeting, she mentioned that she thought the project was “perfect,” but that the development shouldn’t be allowed to use spaces in the nearby library lot which is often already full of library patrons. “Those spots are there for all of us,” she said. “You have to provide parking for your own people.”
Written Recommendation to Be Made Next Meeting
Planning commissioners opted not to set a public hearing on the PUD, noting the City Council would be required to hold one themselves. They directed Moore to research a few items pertaining to the use of city services, parking, state floodplain requirements and whether the property in within the historic district and subject to requirements of the Lowell Downtown Historic District Commission.
Moore will return with that information and a written recommendation for the Planning Commission to consider at their next meeting. If recommended by the commission, the PUD application will go to Lowell City Council for a public hearing and their final approval.
Regulation of Vape Shops Discussed
The only other action taken by the Planning Commission during its meeting was a short discussion regarding vape shops in the downtown district.
Plank and Commissioner Tony Ellis had apparently asked at the last meeting whether these businesses should be regulated, particularly in light of the city’s action to keep marijuana facilities out of the downtown. “It seems like a double standard,” Plank said. While marijuana shops are being limited to districts outside the downtown, vape shops don’t have these same restrictions.
“It drives me nuts that there are vape shops down here, and students get hooked immediately,” said Ellis, who is a high school teacher. He noted that the health risks associated with vaping are well-documented. “It’s horrible, and I can’t do anything about it.”
Moore replied that it is possible to regulate specific types of retailers in various districts, but it could create an unwieldly ordinance that could require frequent updates. He also appeared skeptical about the benefit of singling out a specific type of business. “What’s the city goal in making cultural judgements about what is good and bad?” he asked. He added that vaping is more similar to alcohol and tobacco than marijuana since it is not considered psychoactive.
The commission ended the discussion without taking any action.
The next regular meeting of the Lowell Planning Commission will be held on August 12, 2019 at 7pm in City Hall.