Neighbors concerned about height limits changing in Old Town
Neighbors have voiced concerns about zoning changes in the Old Town section of Carmel, which could mean taller buildings, the loss of industrial space and giving away zoning control to the redevelopment commission.
The Carmel City Council held a public hearing on Feb. 1 to discuss changing the zoning rules for Old Town and Midtown. City Councilor Jeff Worrell said the goal is to provide greater flexibility for these areas. The issue was tabled and will likely be voted on at the Feb. 15 meeting.
Building height maximums could increase from 60 feet or four stories to 75 feet or six stories. New structures adjacent to single-story homes would be limited to 35 feet in height. Some are advocating for a 35-foot buffer between these two as well, but Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard is “adamently opposed” to that.
That’s just one step in the process. Once the zoning rules are changed, then an area would have to be rezoned. The Carmel Plan Commission is currently considering rezoning 68 properties in Midtown and 12 properties in Old Town, all of which are located near or not far from the Monon Trail in Carmel’s historic downtown.
Here are the concerns that people have voiced:
Residents of the Johnson Addition and Wilson Village neighborhoods held a meeting on Jan. 27 to suggest a larger buffer between residents and taller buildings. Right now, a new structure can be built close to a single-story home but can only be 35-feet. The next building after that could be six stories or perhaps up to 75 feet tall.
“I have a pool in the backyard and I would like to know how you would feel if someone fifty feet above you looked down on your pool?” organizer and resident Charlie Demler asked the plan commission at its Jan. 19 meeting.
Demler said the 35-foot buffer, which some have asked for, doesn’t go far enough.
“That’s less than two car lengths,” he said. “Get out with a tape measure. I did.”
Brainard said he prefers that buildings come up to the street for a consistent look. He doesn’t support mandatory buffers.
“We are generally opposed to that because it would be non-urban, it would look suburban,” he said.
Director of Planning Mike Hollibaugh said they have built in safeguards, and in many cases this zoning rule will lower the heights allowed if single story homes are adjacent.
“There’s been a lot of concern about something similar to Sophia Square, and we’ve tried to address that and apply the same thing to the C-2 rezone on West Main Street,” he said. “We’re listening but we’re also trying to balance high-priced real estate and density and the development goals that the city has with a respect and sensitivity for existing residents.”
Much of this project’s goal is to allow the City of Carmel to pursue its plan for greater density in the Old Town and Midtown areas. Brainard has repeatedly emphasized the importance of getting as much property tax per square foot in Carmel as possible, and taller buildings help meet that goal. He said he doesn’t want 20-story skyscrapers, but a few buildings up to six stories aren’t a problem for him.
“It’s hard for some people to visualize,” he said. “Within the archways, along Main Street and into the Midtown area, we want sufficient height so the retail stores on the bottom level work. … We’re building at heights that cities have been building at for thousands of years in Western civilization. Four to six stories works well and it creates sufficient density that helps create a walkable, pedestrian-friendly community and so the stores have enough customers to succeed, similar to Sophia Square.”
Christine Altman, a Hamilton County Commissioner and owner of the historic building that houses Woody’s Library Restaurant, said she likes the idea of density, but that concerns about parking and traffic jams need to be addressed.
“Unless the city is going to make a commitment to support mass transit or public transportation … this is not going to be a successful redevelopment project,” she said.
Brainard said he is committed to mass transit and he thinks Altman herself has done a great job working on that issue.
Density could also be increased by a separate proposal to examine buildings that are considered “contributing,” of which there are more than 300 in Old Town. Some officials says that many of these buildings aren’t truly “historic” and therefore the number would be decreased to only 65, which means it’ll be easier to demolish and construct newer — possibly taller — buildings in their place.
GIVING CONTROL TO THE CRC
Altman also talked about how this proposal zoning change would mean that architectural review would be handled by the Carmel Redevelopment Commission instead of the Carmel Plan Commission. She said she has the utmost respect for CRC Director Corrie Meyer but knows someone else could take her place down the road that wouldn’t be ideal.
“This abdication of what you’re appointed to do is what concerns me in the future,” she told the plan commission on Jan. 19.
Brainard said the CRC is just as transparent as the plan commission because meetings are public and board members are appointed by elected officials. He noted that Meyer doesn’t vote on CRC matters but only serves in the executive role.
LACK OF INDUSTRIAL SPACE
Another outcome of this proposal is that many of the buildings that are currently zoned for industrial use, such as properties along Industrial Way, could see a change in the future. Planning Administrator Adrienne Keeling said that if those buildings were to become vacant for a significant period of time then they could lose their industrial zoning. Current businesses don’t have to leave, and new industrial tenants could fill their spaces.
“As long as it is constant, those industrial uses can remain,” she said.
Josh Kirsh, who sits on the Carmel Clay Parks Board and the Carmel Plan Commission, said he previously voted to rezone some industrial spaces and now he has some “buyer’s remorse.”
“I know this sounds strange coming from a guy on the parks board, but I am concerned about our lack of industrial space,” he said.
Brainard said there is an industrial space that is grandfathered in, and nobody is telling them to change. He said Carmel’s land is better utilized for office, commercial and residential uses.
“Our land costs are too high,” he said. “Industrial makes no sense in Carmel, Indiana.”
Hollibaugh said the “market is pushing away from that.”
“Some of it is from the redevelopment efforts and some of it is from higher and better uses when land transactions occur,” he said. “Some of this isn’t being initiated by the city.”