If zoning change approved: Guilderland buildings to get taller

The Enterprise — Michael Koff 
The Picotte building at 1450 Western Ave. in McKownville is a five-story office building. 

GUILDERLAND — Guilderland’s commercial buildings in four different zoning districts are poised to become 10 feet taller, if the town board approves a proposed amendment to the town’s zoning code. The amendment will be discussed at a continued public hearing at town hall on June 18.

While the town planner has said the change wouldn’t ruin Guilderland’s suburban character, some residents have objected, with one terming it “a call for urbanization.”

The code currently allows buildings in four zones to be built to a maximum height of two-and-a-half storeys or 35 feet. The proposed change would remove the mention of number of storeys and raise the maximum height by almost 30 percent, to 45 feet.

This would allow buildings including apartment buildings, office buildings, medical office buildings, mixed-use buildings, independent living facilities, retail shopping centers, and convenience stores, among many others, to build to a maximum of 45 feet.

The new height would apply to buildings in the multiple residence (MR) zone, the business non-retail professional (BNRP) zone, and the local business (LB) and general business (GB) zones. The general business zone is the town’s most intensive commercial zone and allows such uses as car washes and sit-down restaurants.

Meanwhile, in addition, the town has seen an increase in recent years in the number of applications for planned unit development projects, which have no set height maximum. The town also created a new zoning district last year, the Transit-Oriented District in the area near the Crossgates Mall ring road, in which some buildings can be as tall as 55 feet, if they are more than 150 feet away from a residential district that is located outside the TOD district.

Town Planner Kenneth Kovalchik told the town board on May 21 during the first portion of the public hearing that the removal of the word “storeys” is similar to language used by the towns of Colonie and Bethlehem. He also said that, from a planning perspective, a higher maximum would meet the smart-growth principle of compact design, which calls for growing vertically instead of horizontally, as a means of preserving green space.

Kovalchik told The Enterprise, “I don’t think going from 35 to 45 would be considered much taller.” He referred to a number of tall buildings in town and said that they do not necessarily stand out: Executive Tower at Stuyvesant Plaza, the Picotte building at 1450 Western Ave. in McKownville, the dual-branded Hilton Hotel at Crossgates Mall, and Wolanin’s 1700 Designer Residences at 1700 Western Ave. in Westmere.

“I think if you can properly site buildings, I don’t think it’s going to ruin the character of the town,” he said.

The organization Smart Growth America has 10 smart-growth principles, he said, including encouraging vertical growth, to reduce lot coverage, preserve additional green space, and prevent trees from having to be removed.

Builders today might need between 12 and 15 feet to accommodate all of the additional equipment that is now necessary to install between floors of a building, Kovalchik said.

Jacqueline M. Coons, the town’s chief building and zoning inspector, told the town board on May 21 that, while residents now want 9-foot ceilings in their living spaces — including in hotels or independent-living facilities — there is also a need to accommodate a greater amount of mechanicals than ever before above the ceiling, such as plumbing and electrical equipment and fire suppression systems.

In the 1990s, Coons said, Guilderland adopted an ordinance requiring fire-suppression systems in almost every building other than one- or two-family dwellings. In 2003, Coons said, New York State adopted the international version of the building code, and now almost every “residential type of occupancy requires a fire-suppression system,” she said, noting that hotels and independent-living facilities — anywhere that people sleep — are considered residences for this purpose.

In a larger building with a lot of common space, she said, the space between floors accommodates all of the pipes, all the sprinkler heads, all the mechanicals, and “miles of wire for wi-fi” as well as low-voltage alarm equipment. There can be as much as five feet of space these days, above the finished ceiling, she said. “The need for space between finished floor levels is increasing,” she said.

Laurel Bohl of Western Avenue, who has stepped down from her leadership role in the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth to run for town board, called the height increase a “huge change.” She said, “As long as I’ve been a resident, the townwide limit has always been two-and-a-half storeys or 35 feet, and to change four zones is a big, radical change, to move them up to the 45 height, which is the equivalent of three-and-a-half floors.”

She said that an issue that would change the character of the town this much should happen only after weeks of input from residents on what they want. She and several others called on the town board to continue the public hearing, which it did.

Iris Broyde, who lives on Westmere Terrace, spoke at the hearing, saying that Pyramid hopes to build two five-storey apartment buildings 150 feet from the end of the dead-end street. “The significant intrusion that this will have on the neighborhood is inarguable,” she said. “And so when I consider a proposal such as this, which seems to be encouraging that we increasingly do this all over Guilderland, I find that to be a very disturbing trend,” she continued. She said that promoting the construction of taller buildings is “pretty much a call for urbanization.”

Christine Napierski asked the board if anything was going to be done to bring the issue of height changes to the public, to get their input. Supervisor Peter Barber said that Kovalchik and Coons would do more research and see if they have any adjustments, based on the comments from the public hearing. If there were any changes, they would be posted to the town website, he said.

Bohl and Napierski both said that the proposed changes are hard for people to understand if they are just placed on the website as part of a list of changes with no explanation.

Kovalchik told The Enterprise that he believes most developers now build close to the current maximum allowed, of 35 feet, and that new homes are getting up close to the 35-foot maximum too. Another proposed change to the zoning code would keep the maximum height of homes in residential districts as it is, but remove the word “storeys” as a way of measuring height.

At the May 21 hearing, Kovalchik and Coons said that the town has seen many variance requests lately for buildings that are a couple of feet over the 35-foot maximum, because of the requirements for all of the items that must be built in between floors.

Kovalchik told The Enterprise, “If you’re able to increase the height maximum, you can reduce the number of variances needed.”

Still under consideration

The town board continued the public hearing on maximum building height to its meeting Tuesday, June 18. A time was not set, but the board meeting starts at 7 p.m.

At that time, the board will consider, in addition to the maximum height and the location of senior facilities, a change to its zoning code for off-street parking requirements.

This proposed amendment changes who would decide how many parking spaces are needed for a new type of use, not specifically listed in the zoning code. Currently, the zoning or planning board decides the number of spaces; the amendment would give that authority to the zoning administrator.

Coons told the board that a car wash proposed for Western Avenue was an example of a business not listed in the zoning code that needed to have parking spaces specified.

Another is a drive-up grocery store proposed for Twenty West Drive; shoppers never get out of the car but are handed their purchases, Kovalchik told The Enterprise.

Coons already decides how many spaces should be required, based on similarities to existing categories in the code and then presents that number to the zoning or planning board, she told the town board, adding that she has already been given authority to approve matters such as a change to a new, similar tenant.

“So we’re asking for the same thing with the parking requirements,” she said. A board could still overrule any decisions she makes about the number of spaces.

Portions approved

A few portions of the proposed changes to the zoning code were separated out and approved on May 21. These were:

— Self-storage facilities: This change added a definition for a non-indoor self-storage facility, modified the definition for indoor self-storage use, and applied existing supplemental regulations for indoor facilities to all self-storage facilities;

— Family apartments: These apartments will no longer be required to be connected to the principal structure in agricultural zones (zones R, RA3, and RA5). Kovalchik wrote in a memo to the town board that this would allow greater flexibility for family apartments in agricultural zones by allowing their location in buildings such as barns, not connected to the house as they must be as in other districts;

— Conservation/cluster subdivisions: The current code allows for open-space lands to be conveyed to recognized conservation organizations or other entities such as a school district or the Pine Bush Commission upon approval of the town board. The amendment removes the need for town-board approval. The town board would still need to approve, if the lands were to be conveyed to a private person; and

— Setback from senior independent-living facility to single-family lot: The change raises the required setback from a senior independent-living facility and an adjacent single-family lot, increasing it from 40 feet to 100.

Attorney Jim Braman of Lemery Greisler spoke at the May 21 hearing on behalf of the firm’s client, Viscusi Builders, urging the board to reconsider this. Viscusi Builders has been in discussion with the town for months about a facility it wants to build at 493 Church Road, but it is located less than 100 feet from an adjacent single-family home, and further from Western Avenue than 1,000 feet.

Kovalchik told the board that this 100-foot buffer is consistent with other requirements of the zoning code; a 100-foot setback is also required between a multifamily building to a single-family lot, he said. Coons said there have been just two of these types of projects approved to date, but both have followed the town’s suggestion and observed a 100-foot buffer.

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