CITY HALL — The new zoning code is still months away from City Council, but council members are already weighing in.
Last week, council directed code compliance officers not to enforce the current zoning code — which dictates land uses throughout the city — as it relates to two specific properties because they intend on addressing the issues in the new code.
City Hall’s last zoning code expired in 2011 and was replaced by the interim zoning code, which is in effect today. The Planning Commission is refining the new zoning code for council’s review later this year. The refinement and drafting process has taken longer than expected and the interim code has been extended many times.
Last Tuesday, two businesses came to council, asking that the interim code be amended for different reasons. City attorneys, noting that they’re swamped with other work, suggested instead that council give the businesses a pass under the theory that they plan to include the changes in the imminent new code and that drafting ordinances to amend an expiring code would be a waste of time.
Patrons of The Pretenders Studio, a dance studio serving kids and adults, came out in large numbers to ask that council make exception for the youth-serving arts and exercise facility, which found itself in a zoning code no-man’s-land.
The studio lost its home but had located a potential new space in an office building on residential land.
“It’s not existing housing that’s being converted to anything else,” Councilmember Gleam Davis said. “Unfortunately there’s nothing in our current zoning ordinance — and I’m not sure there’s anything even in the proposed zoning ordinance — that allows this kind of use in this sort of situation.”
More than a dozen people, including high school students, stayed until after midnight to ask council to save the studio.
The studio’s founder and director Lisa Gumenick explained that the landlord of the new property needs council’s assurance and they need it fast. For that reason, she said, the studio can’t wait for the new zoning ordinance to pass.
“If we could wait until July we would,” Gumenick told council, “but if we do not gain your support tonight — I hate to even say this in the presence of the kids here — but we will have no choice but to close.”
Councilmember Ted Winterer noted the large turnout and asked city attorneys to draw up a letter telling law enforcement not to enforce the law because it’s about to change.
“This studio is clearly a very valued member of our community,” he said. “I think the e-mails we’ve gotten on the issue have been extraordinarily compelling about the number of youth in our city who’ve been admirably served and not only taught just to dance but how to give back to their community. It’s very impressive history and a valuable member of our city that we wouldn’t want to lose.”
In the future, he said, council will have to address the fact that these youth-serving businesses are getting priced out of Downtown.
“I do believe that we do need to find ways for these particular sort of youth-serving uses to find space in this city and it’s become increasingly challenging,” he said. “We need to open up these opportunities in these particular buildings.”
The second issue dealt with a landmark law that was keeping a historical doctor’s office from being allowed to be used as a doctor’s office.
“Because it hasn’t been used for nonconforming use for over a year it no longer can be reused for its original purpose which was built historically as a doctor’s office,” Winterer explained. “It’s been purchased by the Saint John’s Foundation and they’d like to temporarily put some doctors in there and then ultimately use it for their headquarters.”
The Landmarks Commission is already recommending that, when council looks at the zoning ordinance, they make changes that would allow the office to be used in such a way, Winterer said.
“Unfortunately the owners of the property, they would like to be able to reoccupy it and start using it again prior to our adoption of the zoning ordinance, which is why we put this on the agenda,” he said.
Councilmember Pam O’Connor, whose day job is in the field of historic preservation, noted that maintaining the historic use of a building is one of the guiding principals Secretary of the Interior’s standards for the treatment of historic properties, which dictates local preservation laws. For this reason, allowing a doctor’s office to be used as a doctor’s office makes sense.
Davis pointed out that buildings left empty tend to deteriorate, which would be a detriment to preservation.
Council, again, agreed to ask law enforcement not to enforce the law.