Hartford Allows Taller Buildings

Tuesday, December 02, 2014
Hartford — A proposed $3.5 million project slated for construction this summer could allow downtown White River Junction to reach new heights — literally.

The proposed mixed-use building, planned for the northeast corner of Bridge and Main streets near the Windsor County courthouse, is too tall to conform with town’s zoning regulations, so town leaders have changed the rules to allow for taller buildings in the area.

Responding to a set of requests from developer Bill Bittinger, the town’s Planning Commission and Selectboard approved a total of four changes to building codes that will help to clear the way for his building, which will include storefronts topped by office space and apartments.

Last week, after a brief public hearing at which no one raised objections, the Selectboard increased the maximum height of buildings in that area from 40 feet to 60 feet.

Bittinger said that, while the planned project would be about 10 feet taller than Hotel Coolidge, it would be shorter than the nearby FairPoint building located a short distance away on Currier Street.

“It would not become an outlier,” he told board members before their unanimous vote at a Tuesday night meeting.

On Monday, Bittinger said that now, he will be able to focus more of his energy on raising finances, identifying renters and working through an agreement with the railroad company, which owns some of the land Bittinger would like to landscape.

“Clearing the permitting hurdle is a critical step and a positive step to go forward,” Bittinger said.

Bittinger’s influence on White River Junction’s revitalization is significant.

The board held the vote in 35 Railroad Row, a building which currently hosts many of the town’s municipal offices and, along with a neighboring structure, was also built by a partnership that included Bittinger.

Bittinger also has partnered with Selectman Matt Bucy on the redevelopment of a different project on North Main Street.

“My commitment is to town revitalization through buildings,” said Bittinger, a Hanover resident.

He noted that 35 Railroad Row is about 45 feet tall, the same height as the main structure of the proposed building.

“I don’t hear a lot of people saying, ‘Railroad Row is nice but it’s too tall,’ ” he said.

Lori Hirshfield, Hartford’s director of planning and development, said the changes don’t constitute “spot zoning,” an undesirable practice of having zoning laws that vary from property to property, because the change will affect other buildings in the area.

The 40-foot maximum height was increased to 50 feet within one zoning district, and to 60 feet in two other zoning districts, one of which includes the project. In all cases, buildings must meet site requirements including fire safety rules set out by the fire department.

The proposed building’s solar panels will count against the height of the building, as will any other rooftop accessories such as air conditioning units or antennas.

The site, adjacent to the Polka Dot Diner, has been vacant since 2005, when a fire destroyed the White River Amusement Pub, a strip club that had been operating there for about four years.

Bittinger said his project won’t encroach on the land occupied by the diner, which closed down earlier this year after a 125-year history as an eatery.

“We like the historic aspect of the Polka Dot right on South Main Street, and we’re anxious to see it revitalized,” he said.

The board also approved a change which redefines what constitutes “residential floor area” within a project, which is important because it plays into allowable ratios between residential and commercial space.

Before the change, common areas such as lobbies, hallways, elevators and mechanical rooms counted as residential floor area; now, those areas are excluded from the definition, which effectively allows developers to include more residential space in their 

The other changes allow the developer more flexibility in how many residential units are created and the size of those units, and increases the overall amount of residential space allowed.

Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said on Monday that there is a growing demand for residential space, as institutions such as the Center for Cartoon Studies draw in residents and people appreciate the benefits of easy access to bike paths and the river.

“The downtown area is becoming, once again, a desirable area for people to reside,” Parker said. “There has been virtually no new residential space.”

Selectboard Vice Chairman Alex DeFelice noted that, because Bridge Street drops in elevation, what looks like 50 feet from the front of the building could look like more than 60 feet from the rear of the building.

Planning Commission Chairman Bruce Riddle spoke in favor of the changes.

“Some of these projects, the cost of infrastructure can exceed the economic value of the project,” he said. “One of the reasons we went up higher was to increase the economic value.”

Parker said the change will allow the community to get more out of its commercial strip on the same amount of public infrastructure.

“If you can build a building on an 80-foot frontage that would normally have taken 100 feet of frontage, then you’ve left more available space for the next project,” he said.

DeFelice also raised concerns about whether sufficient parking exists to accommodate the building’s residents.

Bittinger said he plans for the building’s inhabitants to use a mixture of public and private parking.

Though Bittinger said the project has now been permitted by the town, Hirshfield said the parking issue can still be reviewed by the Planning Commission.

In schematic drawings hosted on the website of Bittinger Associates LLC, the project is envisioned as a 20,000-square-foot, super-insulated building covered in metal on its exterior walls and an array of solar panels. The plans include a cafe and beer garden facing the railroad tracks that run past the building’s rear, and 13 one-bedroom apartments on the 4,600-square-foot parcel.

Hirshfield said that the 40-foot limit was intended to keep buildings at four stories of 10 feet each, but that over the years, buildings have trended toward taller stories and more rooftop accessories, which has led to several buildings receiving 

Parker said that the biggest benefit to the community will come in an immediate stream of additional property tax revenue that will ease pressure on taxpayers.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.