As the city of Concord considers the challenges of a tight rental market and the trend toward downsizing, it’s unveiling sweeping changes to its zoning code that it says will make it easier to build multi-family units and apartments at existing properties.
While the need for more housing is often illustrated by large-scale developments, like the recently opened Concord Lofts on Pleasant Street, the city sees opportunities – and obstacles – right in backyards across Concord.
“I think one of the things that we’re trying to do is level the playing field for housing opportunities for people in different neighborhoods,” said City Planner Heather Shank. “There’s a sense that we don’t want obstacles in these people’s way, because we need housing. Everybody knows we need housing.”
Current multi-family zoning regulations require that builders start with a much larger lot size than theywould for a single-family home. They also need to offer increased parking and all the units on a lot must be in one building. That can be a daunting list, and one that keeps many projects from getting off the ground.
The city is working on an initiative called ConcordNEXT, an overhaul of the zoning code aimed to increase housing opportunities and streamline development in New Hampshire’s capital city.
A Texas-based consulting firm, Code Studio, has worked for two years to draft the code, which can now be found on the city’s website.
The proposed code represents the first of two phases: phase one addresses the structure of the zoning code for residential and mixed-use districts, the second phase will involve public visioning sessions to develop standards for commercial corridors in Concord, like Loudon Road. The total cost to taxpayers for the project is projected to be $200,000.
There will be nine public meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday on different aspects of the proposed changes for phase one, including smaller sessions on issues like downtown development and residential neighborhoods. There will be a public presentation on the proposal on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in the Penacook Elementary School Cafeteria and another on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in Concord City Council chambers. A full meeting schedule can be found on the city’s website.
The city planning department wants feedback from the public on the reformed code. Shank said she plans to discuss the changes with the planning board in March and present them to the city council for approval before July.
Under the current zoning code, residents are allowed to add attached dwellings, like mother-in-law units, to their homes, but only if they are connected to the home.
Shank said the proposed code offers builders the opportunity to have a smaller unit on their property, but detached from the main home.
“This would allow for a small unit to be built if you want to earn some extra income and you would like to have some type of rental property to help you pay your bills,” Shank said. “A trend we are also seeing is parents or children who want to live nearby family.”
The area requirements for multi-family development would change, too, putting them in line with those for single-family homes.
“Right now, we have 25-foot landscape buffers, which makes sense maybe out on Loudon Road, but doesn’t make sense really anywhere downtown,” Shank said. Shank said in the case of a new, large apartment complex, the planning board could still impose specific regulations for buffers and other restrictions that would limit the impact on neighbors of the development.
The new code also would allow more units to be built in areas like the city’s mixed-use districts, where you can find housing as well as other accepted uses, like commercial spaces, as long as the structures meet standard requirements for yard setbacks, lot coverage and height. This would allow more units to be built in downtown Concord and Penacook.
Shank said the code overhaul also proposes reducing parking requirements for multi-family units. Currently, multi-family homes are required to have two parking spaces per unit, similar to the regulations for single-family homes. The proposal would change that to one space per unit, and one-and-a-half spaces for duplexes.
The city would also no longer require parking spaces to be on the lot where a unit is proposed. Renters could instead rent parking spaces in nearby lots and have that count toward the project’s parking requirement.
The city is changing the way it defines its residential zoning districts to focus more on size than the type of development being built there. For example, the city now has a “single-family residential district.” New districts would be based on lot size and width. This, the city says, could open the door for more people to add multi-family units onto single-family homes.
The code also proposes a new conservation district in the city’s more rural areas that identifies protected space not available for development.
Many of the zoning changes have been about making the code for building reflective of what Concord actually looks like.
Much of Concord is built on small lots, meaning most neighborhoods don’t comply with building standards right now. And in other areas, older homes sit on huge lots, but builders are unable to take advantage of the space.
“People can’t necessarily do what they want with them, or subdivide them. You don’t want to tear the house down. It’s a beautiful, old historic house,” Shank said. “So, creating zoning that’s more consistent with the neighborhood allows people to maybe do changes without having to get variances.”
To protect neighborhood character and make sure new multi-family development is consistent with existing neighborhoods, the city is proposing additional aesthetic standards that would limit buildings’ lengths and require a certain number of windows to be facing the street.
The city will be reviewing its process for getting projects approved. One way to streamline development is to make it so more can be done at the city level or planning board instead of getting held up with small approvals at the zoning board. Reducing variances developers will need to get projects underway has been a major driver for the city, Shank said.
“If it’s a big project, it’s got to come to planning anyway, so let’s just take care of it without making people go to the zoning board first, and then the planning board,” she said about the change, which could lower costs for developers by skipping the ZBA.