With a caveat that it could be tweaked in the future, the Derry Town Council voted in the majority to approve changes to the zoning regulations for the Central Business District and Traditional Business Overlay District as part of its strategy to revive Derry’s downtown area.
The vote was 5-2 at the June 16 Council meeting, after open-microphone criticism of the move from downtown business owners and the Greater Derry/Londonderry Chamber of Commerce.
Planning Director George Sioras explained the changes and the Planning Board’s rationale. The new zoning mandates a minimum square footage for apartments of 800 square feet, mandates 2.5 parking spaces, and directs that any residential units be third floor and above. According to the ordinance, the first floor of every building will be retail or a restaurant, with the second floor reserved for offices, and apartments beginning on the third.
Sioras said the Planning Board was trying to be in sync with Council goals for downtown. “We are looking at multifamily housing, at density,” Sioras told the board and audience. “The goal was to encourage mixed usage downtown.”
While Derry has more than enough apartments, Sioras said, the goal of the zoning was to encourage people to go downtown to shop, eat and do business.
“We are asking the Council to let this move forward, and maybe we can look at it again in the future,” Sioras said.
But some community members objected to the zoning.
A direction for downtown
Ron Dupont, a principal in the Red Oak Properties real estate company, said he owns 75 rental units in Derry. Most are residential, with four commercial properties, he said.
Dupont owns land next to the Opera House and said he was planning to build 35 apartments. “If the ordinance passes, with the square footage restriction, I won’t be allowed to build 35 apartments. I can only build 30,” he said, explaining that at 800 square feet per apartment, he can put in 12 units per acre.
Also, Dupont said, he’s concerned about the second-floor office rule. He doesn’t think he can rent the office space and said, “If we’re forced to put offices on the second floor, I won’t go forward.”
He said Derry would be losing a $3 to $4 million building.
“I’ve already had it surveyed and spent $25,000 on that,” Dupont said. “This is a bad plan.”
Lifetime resident Melanie Davis, co-owner of The Grind café, said her perspective of downtown had changed after she opened her business. “There are great people downtown,” she said. “They live here, they eat here, they take knitting lessons, they learn to paint, they buy birdseed, they get their nails done. They do it downtown and they do it happily.”
Part of Davis’s original vision was to revitalize a “sleeping” downtown, she said. But in pouring lattes and selling muffins, she’s learned that “downtown is vibrant.”
Davis is concerned about the properties owned by absentee landlords who refuse to sell, update their properties work with the other businesses. “We have a fantastic momentum,” she said. “We don’t want to lose it.”
She doesn’t want to see limitations placed on those who would make downtown their home, and she urged the Council to “carefully consider” the zoning changes.
Will Stewart, director of the Chamber of Commerce, said while the Planning Board had the “best intentions” in passing the ordinance on to the Council, he and his members think the zoning change will have the opposite effect from what is intended.
“The issue is flexibility,” Stewart said, “and you can’t have that if you mandate offices on the second floor.”
Stewart said he was also concerned about the 800-square-foot requirement for apartments and the 2.5 parking spaces. “The market needs to be taken into account here,” he said. “The 800 square feet will limit the number of people living downtown, and people are what makes economic development. People attract businesses.”
Downtown is already slowly moving in the direction the Council wants to see, Stewart added. “We need to embrace the market, not fight it,” he said.
Resident Mark Connors said he applauded the Planning Board for “trying to do something,” but said the Council was hearing from several stakeholders who were leery about the plan. He noted that many of the speakers had not come to the previous Planning Board hearings because they hadn’t realized this issue was being discussed, and, Connors suggested, “You should put a little more ‘meat’ on your agendas. If it had been done in this situation, more people would have come to the Planning Board meetings.”
Connors also suggested, “If there are one or two landlords holding up the business district, we should be able to do something about it.”
Board chair Tom Cardon said this was being addressed through the Property Maintenance Committee.
Bea Shay, owner of the Oasis Salon on West Broadway, said she lives upstairs and uses three to four downtown businesses on a daily basis. “I use the skateboard shop, I go to The Grind, I see programs at the Opera House,” she said. “I’m involved with theater at Pinkerton and use the Costume Gallery.”
Shay observed that towns like Portsmouth and Newburyport, Mass., have apartments above businesses.
Planning Board alternate Marc Flattes urged the Council to support the changes. “It meets everything the Council asked for,” he said.
Steve Trefethen, a Realtor who owns several downtown properties, observed that 800 square feet is a “pretty big unit” and that second-floor office space will be a hard sell in the current market.
But, he said, “I have been in touch with most of the other landlords, and they do want to rent their units.”
Melanie Davis took the microphone again to urge the Council to take more time discussing this change or to table it.
In the Council’s discussion, member Richard Tripp said he doesn’t agree with the housing restriction of third floor and above. “We need people living downtown,” Tripp said. “This is a step in the wrong direction.”
The 800 square feet also bothered Tripp. “It’s a little big for a single professional,” he said.
Tripp added that he couldn’t support the zoning changes as written.
Councilor Joshua Bourdon asked Sioras, “How will prohibiting residence below the third floor help Derry?”
Sioras said one of the goals of earlier committees focused on downtown was to entice office workers to go to the shops and restaurants.
But he added that he had not fielded any recent requests for office space.
Bourdon pressed, “So if we pass this, the offices on the second floor could remain vacant?”
“The position of the board is, ‘Let’s move forward,’” Sioras said. “We can always tweak it.”
Bourdon also asked about handicapped accessibility and Sioras said the Fire Department and Code Enforcement are working on it.
“I appreciate what you’ve done,” Bourdon told Sioras. “But I’ve spoken with some of the business owners, and they are very nervous. I can’t support the residential piece.”
The Council voted on the motion and Bourdon and Tripp voted against it, while Cardon, Mark Osborne, Al Dimmock, David Fischer and Phyllis Katsakiores voted in favor.