Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Main/Union Gateway Use Variance Appeal

Lately I've been working behind the scenes to assist the Rochester Regional Community Design Center with the collection of examples of quality urban design as applied to gasoline service stations. While I'm of the opinion that no gas station is a good gas station, design ordinance grounds for a specific zoning type may be the only tactic by which a proposed Fastrac (which, imagine that, is tied to Assemblyman David Gantt!) for the corner of East Main Street and North Union Street can be avoided.

I have been given the green light to broadcast the cause and/or strategy. Here is the meat and potatoes in the words of Roger Brown:

"On Monday evening, June 8th, the Rochester Regional Community Design Center (RRCDC) will be going before the Planning Commission (the proceedings begin at 6:30pm and we are #10 on the agenda) to appeal a zoning decision that would allow a Fastrac Gas Station/ Market to be built on a vacant parcel at the intersection of North Union, Inner Loop on-ramp, and East Main Street.

The project is in the Center City Design - Main Street zoning district and was given a use variance by the Zoning Board to allow the gas station component (16 pumps are planned for). The RRCDC will be appealing the design of the project as it greatly deviates from the design requirements of the zoning ordinance and if built as proposed will be extremely detrimental to the area and it's future potential. The site is an important gateway to both the city, the Marketview Heights neighborhood, and the public market.

We are asking for your help and support in this issue - either by appearance at the hearing and/or by letter to the Planning Commission."

I plan on being in attendance as well as sending correspondence. The offical battle will be fought by Roger during a 15 minute presentation in which the argument will be made that a use variance does not give a developer carte blanche with the siteplan. The only amendment the zoning board is responsible for would be the bare minimum, a driveway entrance on Main Street. Beyond that the developer is responsible for building according to the Center City Master Plan adopted in 2004.

My angle in correspondence will focus on the diminishing presence of individual driving in the future as it relates to resources, the idea that a city should be promoting walkability and transit as opposed to automobile use, and lastly the environmental impact (the site is currently not a brownfield, I don't believe the city should be in the business of creating more).

If you'd like to join the fight, here are the particulars on how to contact the Planning Commission:

All correspondence should be addressed to the Planning Commission, Attention: Zina Lagonegro, either by fax (with a cover sheet to Ms. Lagonegro) at 428-6137, by E-mail at, or by U.S. Mail to the address below. All correspondence needs to be in the Zoning Office no later than 3:00PM the day of the hearing, June 8th.

Zina Lagonegro
City of Rochester
Bureau of Zoning
30 Church Street, Rm. 125B
Rochester, NY 14614

Coming up next time on the blog, a pair of stories regarding new office developments along Main Street.


urban explorer said...

I applaud the RRCDC for fighting this critical battle for better design. However, I am concerned over the alternative site plan developed. While it perhaps represents the design "ideal" for an urban gas station, I fear it may be seen as too unrealistic in this real estate market. Two story buildings with pumps hidden in the back play right into Fastrac's contention that "planners and designers" want to impose design that won't work from an operational and market conditions standpoint. I wish you would advocate for a more modest proposal with the building at the corner and the pumps to the side, along the Inner Loop ramp. This scheme is very similar to a new Sunoco on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. This also keeps the pump islands and associated traffic further from the residential backyards along Lyndhurst Street, a not insignificant point which has been brought up.

Also, in arguing against gas stations at all, you undercut the RRCDC's own argument for a better designed gas station. You also set yourself up to be seen as a environmental elitist white outsider trying to impose your long term vision of a car-free city on a struggling neighborhood that would welcome almost any business activity and in fact has been in favor of the gas station/mini-mart. The argument should stick to the site design, not the use; the use question has been settled by the zoning board months ago. Let's assume it will be a gas station, now let's make sure it will be a well designed, yet pragmatic, gas station.

urban explorer said...

Also, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE understand the process. The RRCDC IS NOT appealing the use variance. That was granted by the Zoning Board months ago; the only way to appeal the use variance is file an Article 78 proceeding in State Supreme Court. What is happening tonight is an appeal of the Director of Zoning's site plan approval. As an administrative action, site plan approval can be appealed to the Planning Commission. Tonight is ALL ABOUT SITE DESIGN, NOT ABOUT USE!!!! Arguments about use tonight will be ignored and make you look foolish and be pounced on by the slick lawyers for the developer.

Bob and Tia said...

First, I should have been more clear that this is just one of three alternative site plans developed by RRCDC. This one contains the most building space of the three. I did not acquire drawings of, and was not able to scan the other two.

I do understand the process. The current site plan is not in compliance with the zoning designation 'Center City-Main Street.' All that can be reasonably done at this point is to point out that the Director of Zoning did not follow the 2004 adopted updates to the Center City Master Plan Ordinance when approving the site plan. I will have no part in tonight's oral presentation. I am fairly certain that Roger Brown is aware of the valid procedural argument.

In speaking my piece about use as a private citizen through correspondence I hope to make it known that any old development cash-grab is not development the city should be interested in. It is obviously too late in this case.

Finally, about the neighbors favoring the development, I was told this is because they were assured by Fastrac that this would be a real grocery store. I can't honestly believe that. Roger was slated to give a version of his proposal to neighborhood leaders earlier this week. I don't have any knowledge of how that went or what their opinions were.

urban explorer said...

Thanks for the response. Sorry to be overly negative/paranoid and no offense was intended. I'm just so worried about this development proceeding and setting a terrible precedent.

Regarding the neighborhood, yes, I had heard the same thing about them being promised an actual grocery store. Apparently they were also trundled off to Buffalo to see an urban Fastrac in operation and were suitably impressed. The cynical side of me wonders if this is actual neighborhood support or manufactured neighborhood support instigated by David Gantt, his minions, or forces friendly to him.

These is something terribly fishy about this development when Art Ientilucci, who as Director of Zoning has good training, skills, and design sense, approves this site plan. He was somehow pressured by higher ups to do so.

Bob and Tia said...

No problem, I did consider the criticism valid.

I also realize that to set poor development precedent would undermine the progress made when the Monroe Village organization was able to pressure Rite-Aid into a reasonable building at Monroe and Goodman (though it still has its flaws).

I know that the braintrust behind the RRCDC pitch went to Buffalo on Tuesday to get an impression of that Fastrac as well.

I do not know Art or much about him beyond his title, but it does seem awfully strange that the site plan would not go before the entire zoning board without some sort of influence (or maybe I don't know zoning board standard procedure).

urban explorer said...

In the city, unlike most suburban towns, site plan review is handled administratively by the Director of Zoning (Art). This means that site plans do not go before any public hearings. The advantage of this is a streamlined process; the disadvantage is that it's far easier for to pressure one person (i.e. the Director of Zoning) especially if he is threatened with his job, than it is to pressure an appointed board of volunteers.

To complicate matters, however, this project DID need a use variance from the Zoning Board. But use variances, as the name suggest, deal only with the proposed use, not the site layout or design. Those issues are meant to be addressed in the site plan review process.

When the Director of Zoning approves a site plan (even against his better judgement), that administrative decision can be appealed to the Planning Commission. That is what is happening tonight. This has only happened 3 or 4 times in the past 25-30 years.