ROCKPORT — With parking a much discussed commodity now in Rockport Village, and the acknowledgement that guests staying at a proposed new hotel will compete for available space, developers are now on their way to the Rockport Zoning Board of Appeals hoping for approval of an offsite parking plan. That meeting is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 22, at 5:30 p.m., in the Geoffrey C. Parker Meeting Room at the Rockport Opera House.
Geoffrey C. Parker, who happens to be chairman of the ZBA, scheduled the meeting with the hopeful intent that all seven board members are available to convene.
20 Central LLC, the company asking Rockport for approval to construct a new hotel on Central Street in downtown Rockport, agreed to the ZBA path during a lengthy public hearing with the Rockport Planning Board Dec. 19.
Stuart Smith, a principal of 20 Central LLC, owns a large chunk of Central Street real estate, including the lot on which the five-story, 35-room hotel is sited for development, its two neighboring buildings and lots, the Shepherd Block and Union Hall, and the large 49-space parking lying between the buildings and Rockport Marine property on the harbor side of the Village.
That lot, however, lacks the capacity to accommodate all the parking spaces required under Rockport’s land use ordinance for the hotel project, as well as existing businesses and occupants of the Shepherd Block; consequently, the need for offsite, or satellite parking.
Smith and the project’s engineer, Will Gartley, had proposed sharing the existing parking lot between all the businesses, a music academy, two restaurants and hotel guests, reasoning that parking use would be occurring at different hours of the day and night; therefore, spreading out the demand.
Smith also said it would be unlikely that the hotel would be filled to capacity but for a few months citing his Camden hotel, 16 Bay View, which is full 62 nights out of 365 nights a year, he said.
But the Rockport Planning Board wanted a more concrete parking plan, and at the end of a three-hour public hearing, planning board member Victoria Condon calculated what was need for offsite parking, and proposed a motion, which was unanimously approved.
That motion read: “To require 20 Central LLC to go to ZBA to obtain approval of off street parking of 34 parking spaces, either under same ownership or lease, as condition of approval.”
Condon had calculated that the hotel, with 35 rooms, needed 37 spaces (35 for guests and two for employees), plus another 20 for the proposed rooftop restaurant, with its 60 seats. However, with 23 available parking spaces available in the existing parking lot behind the proposed hotel, the requisite offsite parking would require 34 spaces.
At the Dec. 19 meeting, Matt Levin, who is general manager of the Smiths’ three Camden hotels — 16 Bay View, Grand Harbor and Lord Camden Inn — described the parking system as proposed for Rockport Harbor hotel guests:
Two bellmen/valet parking attendants would be on duty during the day, especially at peak check-in and check-out hours.
At 16 Bay View, which was described by Levin and similar in landscape to Rockport Village, two valet attendants are on duty from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., respectively. They move between the three Camden hotels, as needed, helping to park or retrieve vehicles from offsite parking lots on Mechanic and Chestnut streets in that town for guests.
A similar scenario would play out in Rockport, Levin said, with two attendants on duty, valet-parking vehicles at Hoboken Gardens, on the corner of Pascal Ave. and Commercial Street in Rockport, a parcel also owned by the Smiths, or at Maine Sport Outfitters, on the corner of Main and Commercial streets, also in Rockport and also owned by the Smiths.
A courtesy shuttle vehicle would transport guests to their vehicles at those satellite lots, and parking attendants would use electric scooters to get to and from the lots, said Levin.
All staff at the proposed hotel, which will number 10-12, are to park at the offsite lots and use the courtesy shuttle to and from their cars.
That same complimentary shuttle would be available for customers of Nina June and 18 Central restaurants, if necessary. Those two restaurants occupy the Central Street ground floors of Union Hall and the Shepherd Block, respectively.
Levin said the goal would be to avoid congestion on Central Street, just as the effort is made on Main and Bay View streets in Camden. Tactics for that effort involve communicating with guests prior to their arrival to encourage them to drive into the parking lot, known as Sandy’s Way, behind the proposed hotel site overlooking Rockport Harbor, where a coned-off area will be dedicated to loading and unloading guests and luggage.
The Dec. 19 meeting drew neighbors, town employees, and an attorney representing a Main Street neighbor to the Parker meeting room, filling the seats.
During the public comment period, many spoke both in favor of, and against, aspects of the proposed hotel; two former planning board members, John Priestley and Kerry Leichtman, each vocalized their own opinions on the project, as did two members, Richard Remsen and Stephen Smith, of the Ordinance Review Committee, and Kim Graffam, a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Priestley, a Rockport resident and who has an architectural office across the street from the 20 Central Street, read from a letter that he and other Rockport citizens had submitted to the planning board earlier in December. That letter outlined concerns about the parking capacity in Rockport Village, its relationship to the hotel, and questions about the design of the proposed hotel building.
He said the 348 available parking spaces in Rockport Village are for town and public parking. He cited the town’s 2004 Comprehensive Plan section about Rockport Village, which described a lack of parking availability.
He said the town’s land use ordinance (Chapter 1000) requires 170 off-street parking spaces for the existing buildings and businesses along Central Street that are currently owned by Smith.
The previous owner (Leucadia Corp.) of those properties, said Priestley, created 52 parking spaces, but not not enough for a hotel, thus leaving 20 Central Street LLC with a deficit of 118 spaces for the hotel.
Priestley also said congestion will occur on Central Street in front of the hotel, with guests likely to pull up to the front of the hotel.
The hotel design, said Priestley, eliminates the open space adjacent to the Shepherd Block. He said the design lacked conformity with nearby buildings, included more glass than other buildings and lacked specific granite features.
While planning board members attempted to abbreviate Priestley’s time at the podium, he argued that the meeting was a public hearing and persisted with his comments.
“While the planning board cannot put an individual developer’s profitability above the broader needs of the town, as embodied in the ordinance, it is human nature to try to accommodate an applicant’s proposal,” he said. “In the case of this particular proposal, it is important to note that the applicant does not need to proceed with this application to profit from this land. The land is already populated with businesses. Further, there is little doubt that this experienced hotel developer can find success with this hotel with another suitable location in town.”
Taylor Allen, owner of Rockport Marine, told the board he is an abutter and said, “I am in favor off this project.”
Abutter Martha White, who owns a house across from Sandy’s Way, indicated support of the project, saying the Smiths execute hotel projects well; her one concern, however, constituted delivery trucks and shuttles idling in the parking lot.
“Could it be an electric shuttle so it is less polluting,” she asked.
Abutter Peter Ralston, whose gallery is across the street from 20 Central Street in the old Corner Shop, said he was 101 percent in favor of the hotel project.
“Let’s work with the developers with what I think will be a vital addition to the town,” he said. “Small towns do have small hotels. Let’s see if we can make this one work and add to the vitality of the village... This as an opportunity not to kick the can down the road — with due respect to all parties — which we’ve been doing for years. Maybe the town can use this as an opportunity to look at signage and be creative. If I had two votes I’d vote three times for this project.”
Abutter Priestley returned to the podium to clarify his point that parking waivers allowed over the past decade from the town to businesses in Rockport Village were applied to existing buildings, not new construction, “which is a different formula than existing buildings requiring waivers,” he said.
Kerry Leichtman, resident, current town assessor, and former planning board chairman for 14 years, spoke of a decade when the town had hoped for increased economic vitality in Rockport Village.
He distinguished his comments from his current position as town assessor, saying he was speaking as a citizen.
During his time on the planning board, he said, there was much discussion about the lack of parking capacity in Rockport Village.
“It was a busy time, with full agendas and a lot going on,” he said. “Anytime a project that came to us that wanted to situate in downtown, we could not apply the [parking] ordinance to them, with the exception of the last item that says you [the planning board] may waive this and create your own standards. Nobody would have fit it. If we were to apply parking standards we wouldn't have this business.”
He said an informal effort was underway 10 years ago to talk about revitalizing Rockport Village, because there were too many empty storefronts.
The group talked then about, “getting a hotel downtown and a place to get $1.99 eggs,” he said. “The idea of planting their [visitors] butts in Rockport over night was a way to get shops flourishing, people to restaurants and people downtown.”
Leichtman said the town needs to create signs for parking and erect adequate lighting.
“Something has to happen,” he said. “There’s not enough business going on. Kick-start it by bringing people in. I think the hotel is the way to do it. Something has to be a nucleus to make the town thrive. We need commerce here.”
Augusta-based attorney Kristen Collins, who is with the firm Preti Flaherty, said she represented Rockport residents Kimberly and Rex Reymeyer, who live in Rockport Village a little more than 600 feet away from the proposed site.
“I got here a half hour early and had a hard time parking,” she said. “I heard other people comment the same, and it’s 10 degrees out there in the middle of winter.”
She warned the planning board to distinguish between applying set rules of ordinance to the current parking issue, as opposed to creating legislative action to resolve it.
“I challenge the concept that the planning board gets to just make up its own standards if it feels it needs to,” she said.
She said the ordinance stipulates that if an applicant’s particular circumstances merit, the board can reduce requisite parking space numbers, but the burden is on the applicant to produce more data so that it’s known that, “there’s not going to be overlap between restaurants, that x number of people are to avail themselves of the valet.”
“You are looking at the applicant’s actual situation and representations,” she said. “It’s about need, not what we want to do get this business in town.”
She advised that the issue had to first go to the Rockport Zoning Board of Appeals, and that the town, “be clear with study-based facts, not just ‘we want to support this business.’”
She added: “Your ordinance may not be ready to handle it, but that means you have to go back and amend your ordinance.”
Collins later warned the board members to consider how they articulate their personal opinions about the proposed development.
“The board should be careful of what it says at pre-application meetings because those types of comments can taint the process,” she said, referring to comments made in October at a meeting when board members articulated appreciation of the hotel plans. “You have to be careful because it appears you have a predisposition to approve this application and that was before the application was filed. So if you now go forward with and extend this waiver application because you like the applicant or the idea then you’ve got a problem.”
Kim Graffam, Rockport resident whose family owned the Central Street real estate prior to 2010 arrival of Leucadia Corp in the town, said she supported the hotel enterprise.
“I’m thrilled to see activity in downtown Rockport and wholeheartedly support the plan,” she said. “I don’t think parking is going to be an issue. When there is a function at the Opera House, our lot at the seafood market gets used all the time.”
Because she sits on the Zoning Board of Appeals, she said she would recuse herself from the process if the parking matter were sent to the ZBA.
Richard Remsen, chairman of the Ordinance Review Committee, likewise advocated for the hotel project, describing how Rockport Village was a ghost town just in the last decade.
“I think this is great project,” he said. “Some of the aesthetics people are going to debate.”
He said the hotel had a “a good set of plans.”
Rockport resident Steve White stated his concerns about parking, and said, “if there is a front entrance on Central Street I think we are going to have a issue.”
He said big signs are needed for guests to drive to the back of the building.
“My opposition does not have to do with cosmetics,” he said. “My opposition has to do with reasons of accessibility and safety for children and old people,” he said. “I urge the board to consider worst case scenarios, not summertime. I drove tonight, thinking [the meeting start] was 5 p.m., so I parked out here and ate a sandwich at 4 p.m. so I could find a parking space. It was busy out there and for what? There’s nothing going on tonight. It was unsafe to walk to the Opera House tonight in this town.”
He shared photos he took Dec. 14, at 4:40 p.m., of Central Street.
“If you look up the street, it’s pandemonium,” he said.
His concerns included increased delays on Central Street, children in danger of being struck by vehicles, the cost to town to defend itself against liability, increased traffic on side roads, and the increase of18 wheelers and construction vehicles.
“I’d love to see a profitable new business in town but only if you’ll use this to do something about the parking issue,” he said.
He also described general infrastructure problems in Rockport Village, including packed snow and ice on sidewalks on Union Street.
“The immediate village gets lousy clearance of snow and ice off of sidewalks,” he said.
Jessica Duffy, who owns the restaurant 18 Central, which is house in the Shepherd Block, spoke in favor of the hotel project as a positive economic boon.
A nearby Main Street citizen said parking is the main concern pertaining to increased activity in Rockport Village, in general.
He questioned the effectiveness of valet and off-street parking, maintaining that 35 rooms is too many for a boutique hotel. Another resident cited concerns about the satellite parking if the offsite areas are sold and the parking evaporates.
Rockport Planner Bill Najpauer said the town could make that latter point a condition of approval of the hotel plans.
Stephen Smith, not a relation to Stuart Smith, said the town encourages revitalizing downtown Rockport.
One of the major issues that controls development in urban spaces is parking, he said. But parking requirements kills development of historic downtown districts.
Attorney Collins stood up again and said she checked Camden’s ordinance, which, she said, stipulates “no parking standards downtown.”
“Everything again that has been discussed tonight in terms of economic development?” she said. “That is a great legislative issue. The Planning Board can certainly make a recommendation to the Select Board.”
But, she cautioned, that is a better way to go about this rather than, “extending your slight ability to make waivers, appeals and dragging applicant through a year and a half of court to make their development and ultimately possibly not being able to do so.”
After the parking discussion ended with the motion to send the offsite parking proposal to the Rockport Zoning Board of Appeals, the conversation turned briefly to design standards.
Planning Board Chairman Joe Sternowski asked Smith about architectural modifications, referencing communications he received from the public.
“I realize the design of the building, and the way it fits in with the neighboring buildings, is somewhat subjective,” he said. “Different people have different perceptions of design. I have received a great deal of input about design. You heard some of those comments. Would you consider modifying some aspects of design?”
Smith replied: “I think you need to look at source of comments. A lot of the comments came from a source who did not get the job. I think most of the comments I heard had to do with balconies on the front of the building. Other than that, I think this building fits in extremely well.”
Sternowski asked: “Would you consider making any modifications. I have received numerous inputs this week, this month. I am not an architect.... Some comments may be valid, some more personal.”
Smith responded: “I’m not proposing to satisfy every single person in town. I sat through six years of debate in Rockport as to the design of the library. We are not at this point in favor of making too many changes to the plans as they stand right now.”
He said, however, that some adjustments had been made, including that the balconies in the building’s center section are to become smaller, and window sizes have been adjusted.
“I don’t want to go down the avenue of listening to others telling me what they think the building should look like,” said Smith.
Chairman Sternowski asked Smith if he would share with the planning board what the building is to look like with new drawings.
Smith said yes, adding, “We are always interested in good ideas.”
The Planning Board will reconvene to continue its review of the application in February.
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