HUNTSVILLE – Huntsville councillors do not want to see anything – not even zoning restrictions – get in the way of developers who want to put a mass of residential units on the site of the former Empire Hotel.
Christopher Brown, senior planner for the Town of Huntsville, presented a report at a March 13 planning committee meeting that recommended a zoning amendment for the downtown core that would allow property owners and developers to build more residential units than they can now.
The change would help implement the town’s community improvement plan.
“It’s tweaking the zoning bylaw to make it possible for property owners on Main Street to have more than one apartment unit above the shops, which is more of a housekeeping item, but it’s about time we made those changes,” said Brown.
The focus of the presentation was largely on the former site of the Empire Hotel, which is now an empty lot on the corner of Main and Centre streets.
The town’s zoning bylaw would allow only 15 residential units on the site if it were redeveloped. Brown’s report recommended councillors modify the zoning on the lot to allow up to 29 residential units.
Chris Marshall, director of planning and sustainability for the town, said the recommendation would not restrict council from approving more than 29 units on the site in future.
“We’re suggesting increasing the residential density permitted in the downtown core across the board, generally. In the case of the Empire site, it would increase those 15 units permitted with the zoning to 29 units. That’s not to say when the applicant or property owner comes in with a proposal to develop a site that considers more than that they can’t go through a zoning amendment to do that,” said Marshall.
He said that if a developer submits an application to increase the number of residential units on the Empire lot, council could barter for affordable housing units in exchange for its approval.
“It’s retaining that tool in the council’s tool box to negotiate affordable housing,” said Marshall.
But John Gallagher, a planning consultant for the estate of lot owner David Keay, argued that it would be better to simply not have any restrictions when it comes to residential units.
Gallagher noted that the property had 51 residential units before it burnt down in October 2009. He said Keay had wanted to retain the right to rebuild with the same number of units, but, when the building was torn down, the property lost its legal non-conforming status and became subject to the new zoning restrictions.
He argued that 29 units was not enough.
“I understand that you can go through a process. The problem is not a lot of people are going to expend the $15,000 to $20,000 for drawing and design studies to formulate an application,” said Gallagher.
He said potential property buyers and developers want to know exactly how many residential units the town would allow on the site.
Mayor Claude Doughty said he did not support staff’s recommendation.
“I know it’s a planner’s priority to wait until an application hits, but in the reality of absorption rates in Huntsville today, we have to do absolutely everything we can to make this a clear, obvious and transparent project that doesn’t require as much red tape to get something going,” said Doughty. “It would be very challenging for any developer to do that project. If we can make it less challenging by clearing the way, we need to do that.”
He suggested the creation of a working group to hammer out development guidelines for the Empire lot. That could lead to 64 smaller residential units on the site, he spit-balled.
“I honestly believe council wants to create a framework,” he said.
Committee agreed to put staff’s recommendation on hold pending further discussion.