2023 Council Candidate Question Three: Modernizing Zoning

Zoning codes are drawn up to tell people where they can do certain things. There used to be zones in New York City where people could have stables and ice houses. In Verona, the codes told builders how high their structures could be, and how they could be split between commercial and residential. Much of Verona’s zoning code doesn’t work well now, and it often stands in the way of the modernization and revitalization that Verona needs downtown.

The new Master Plan is an opportunity to create codes that work for Verona in the 21st century. That’s the third question asked of all three candidates in this year’s Town Council election and their answers are presented in alphabetical order:

Q: The next Council must update the Zoning Code to be consistent with the new Master Plan. Which aspects of the commercial zone should it focus on, and which aspects of the residential zones?

Christine McGrath: I actually believe most of the focus should be on the commercial zone. Luckily, the Master Plan was developed by our planning board to be incredibly flexible. There are elements of our Zoning Code that just don’t make sense anymore. There’s one line in particular about the fact that the uses within commercial buildings have to be evenly distributed. Developers don’t want to even operate within that constraint. In fact, when the Council recently rezoned that section of Bloomfield Avenue between Montrose and South Prospect, that was one of the aspects of the zoning code that we removed. There’s other aspects of the Master Plan that were really wonderful, that we need to look into in terms of parking requirements, and creating safe walking and bike routes in town, but I think most of the zoning changes from the Master Plan need to be focused on that commercial zone on Bloomfield Avenue and Pompton. I would foresee minimal if any changes being made on the residential side.

Explain this to voters a little bit more. A potentially new Bloomfield Avenue – Pompton zone could have one layer of ground floor retail, but maybe three or four stories of residential above, is that what we’re looking at?

Christine McGrath: Well, I don’t know if we were anywhere close to making that sort of decision or if we even want to change our height requirement. Right now we’re at three stories and I’m not sure if one’s up down across all of Bloomfield Avenue would make sense but we do need to make very targeted changes to our existing zones. We’ll look at whether or not we could facilitate having retail on the bottom and apartments above. In terms of what that looks like for the density and the height, that’s where we’re still going to need to get some residents in club before any changes are made because again, residents are very clear they want to maintain that small town feel. We need to be very careful when we start talking about height and density.

Q. The next Council must update the Zoning Code to be consistent with the new Master Plan. Which aspects of the commercial zone should it focus on, and which aspects of the residential zones?

Alex Roman: Okay, that’s a good question. Through service on the Planning Board, I was heavily involved in the Master Plan generation process and I think a lot of attention to land use. One of the big things that I want to do in Verona is not change the character of the town. I have a feeling that if you have come to Verona and put down roots here, you should expect the town to not drastically change. You should expect the character of the general feel of the town to remain similar to what it is. So I am always a little bit wary about recommendations in planning. Sometimes I feel you always have to temper the planners a little bit because they’re always very interested in development and you need to continue being a very suburban sort of quiet, residential community. We need to be cautious about how much development there is, so I want to maintain the single family neighborhoods in their existing character and condition. And I really didn’t see any recommendations related to the residential zones that would substantially affect that. So I am not really looking to change anything in any of the residential zones. In the commercial zones, I think we have to be responsive to the commercial needs. We focused a lot through economic development programs on retail vacancies. I really want to make sure that we don’t have retail vacancies stacked up in this town. We’ve actually done pretty well with filling a lot of them. I’m really, really proud of what’s happened with our business community. And I think that we have done well with that. But I look at the building stock in Verona and some of what our downtown building stock is, I feel is not helping us a lot. There are some older buildings there that are simply not conducive to modern restaurant and retail uses.

So I want to encourage appropriate updates to older properties. I would still like to see facades be improved. I’d like to see underutilized properties improved just because I want to have uses in the town center that people here in Verona really want. I think that every time that we add a restaurant that people enjoy here that’s a big amenity to the town. I’d like to see us to have services, like I wish we had a small hardware store. I wish there were a lot of things that we had in downtown Verona that we don’t. I feel like we need to guide the commercial building owners in a direction to which they’re economically incentivized to improve their buildings to bring better uses. So that’s why I touched on the potential for use change in the Concentric Zone. If you make it so that somebody can add revenue generating residential on a building, at the same time, they’re going to upgrade the facade of the building or upgrade the entire building if they have the ability to put a couple of apartments above it. So I think that by making that simple change to the town Center Zone by saying that you can do 242 floors of residential or one floor of commercial. I think you’re going to cause a lot of the older buildings to get updated in and of themselves. I don’t want to change the Extended Town Center Zone, that zone has a very different feel to it. If you look at the Extended Town Center Zone, the building setback off of Bloomfield Avenue and you start having a setback you start seeing more landscaping. So I really don’t want to change that feel of it. You see a lot more professional offices, medical and dental offices, real estate offices in Extended Town Center. So it has a use and it has its own specific purpose, but it’s not Town Center. Also, Extended Town Center tends to backup to more single family neighborhoods whereas Town Center tends to backup to other commercial or to churches or parking lots, etc. So we need to always balance between the zones. They did propose certain things in the Extended Town Center Zone with relation to parking. I always am very very cautious about lessening parking requirements because we consistently have traffic and parking issues here in the town. So that’s a recommendation that I would be very cautious about how I accept it, if I did. We can potentially allow for shared parking payments in lieu of parking, things like that to still make sure that we don’t end up with people parking in residential neighborhoods. For some of these buildings, there are two other big challenges that did get picked up on in the Master Plan. One of them is Pilgrim Plaza. There was a whole stack of recommendations related to the Regional Retail Zone which the only use in that is built from Plaza. That’s one that I have a very big concern about because it’s kind of an older shopping center which tends to have a lot of commercial vacancies on it and it’s also our own grocery store. So one of my big goals is to maintain the viability of Pilgrim Plaza. I don’t want that to be a redevelopment target. I don’t want us to lose our grocery store. I need to figure out some sort of balancing process by which that shopping center can remain commercially viable, but can be upgraded aesthetically, can be a good destination for the community without turning into a traffic problem and without getting turned into a redevelopment zone.

There are a lot of recommendations in the Master Plan that are specifically related to Pilgrim Plaza. Again, some of them we take with a grain of salt but they’re very worthy of reading. They proposed allowing pad sites within Pilgrim Plaza. Depending on what that is, that’s worthy of review, but now we only allow one building at the Plaza. That’s why you have the large building at the very back of it, and then a giant parking lot in front of it and then the street. So we could potentially make a change in that zone to allow for a building on Pompton Avenue on that parcel to hide the parking inside of the property and to put a more modern, much more attractive building in front of it. Now I don’t want giant chain restaurants, I don’t want uses that are negative to the neighborhood. But if you were able to have things with outdoor seating, places to eat, there’s a lot of creativity that can be done within that and to make sure that again, we both aesthetically upgrade that and maintain its viability. So it’s not a redevelopment park. I think that that’s something we need to very, very seriously look at.

The other big challenge is the C2 Zone, the professional office zones. That’s something where we look at what’s happened through COVID to work from home. That is a land use that I worry about because I don’t think that a lot of attorneys, tax preparers etc. are going to have a need for professional office space like they used to so what happens with that is kind of a question mark. Again, I want to avoid a situation where someone wants to come in and start redeveloping the C2 properties into apartment buildings. So the question is how do we maintain the viability of what we have- a lot of medical offices which are a very good use. We have a co-working space which is a good use. This is something that I honestly think needs a lot more research and discussion. I don’t have a magic answer to it, other than to say that I’m focusing on it and I would like to maintain a lot of the C2 uses as they are so that they are commercially viable and not temptations for redevelopment.

Christian Strumolo: Repeat the question about the Master Plan. The Master Plan was redone already.

The next Council must update the zoning code to be consistent with the new Master Plan. Which aspects of the commercial zone should it focus on and which aspects of the residential zone?

Christian Strumolo: Well, I’m against any large developments. They have the one project that they’re approving up in the Afterglow section that’s going to be over 200 units. And not only did they approve 200 units, they gave them a tax abatement. So for example, if that complex has 50 children coming out of there into our schools, our schools get zero funding because they approved a tax abatement. I’m against any large development, and I’m against any tax abatements whatsoever. When it comes to the zoning aspect, the Zoning Board and Planning Board are appointed by the Mayor and Council, three year, five year terms.* Whoever’s on there now is the individuals that they appointed. So I’m sure that you know, as the time goes, you know we can get new appointments on there, but I would bring in a professional. They should bring in an outside firm who specializes in zoning to come in and sit down with the Council and explain to us what they would recommend for a township like Verona. Our schools are busting at the seams. We can’t afford any more big housing projects.

Okay, but that doesn’t answer the question of which aspects of the commercial zoning code should we focus on and which aspects of the residential code, if any, should be addressed.

Christian Strumolo: I’m not up to date with every code that we have. I’m not a sitting Council member. But if I do get elected, I will sit down with the Town Manager. I will sit down with the Chairman of the Zoning Board. I will sit down with – we don’t have an engineer because our engineer resigned for whatever reason – and find out what’s in the best interest of Verona.