Q&A: Mayor explains proposed zoning changes in Old Town

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With a newly elected City Council in place, Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard is proceeding with plans to revamp some zoning in Carmel’s downtown, specifically the Carmel Arts & Design District, Midtown and the Range Line Road corridor. Residents of this area, often collectively called Old Town, have expressed concerns about wanting to maintain the look and feel of their neighborhoods. They have sent letters to the Carmel Plan Commission, urging officials to not fill the area with massive buildings next to residential homes.

The city is looking to create a new zoning area called the Central Business District, which would increase building height maximums from four stories, or 60 feet, to six stories or 75 feet. There would be a height limit of three stories or 35 feet for buildings adjacent to single family homes. It also would allow the Carmel Redevelopment Commission to have greater control over architectural design in the area.

Separately, the city council is also considering reinstating a policy for Range Line Road in Carmel that says buildings must be at least two stories. The council eliminated that rule a year ago pointing to buildings such as KFC, Walgreens and Turkey Hill, that all have unused or underused second stories.

The Carmel Plan Commission will hold a public hearing on the Old Town zoning changes at its Jan. 19 meeting. The City Council will separately examine Range Line Road heights. Brainard sat down with Current in Carmel to discuss his vision for these parts of town.

Some neighbors expressed concerns about the changes in height limits. Can you talk a little about the reasoning there?

It’s important to consider that these neighborhoods are considered low-urban density. They are not medium-urban density and certainly not high urban density such as a major urban city. This is the level of density and height that towns in Western Europe and the United States, the height they were built at prior to structural steel. The height recommendations come from architects that pay attention to massing, the height of buildings and how people interact on the street with those buildings. It’s important to recognize that on the edge of this area, we will use common sense to be certain that a lower density neighborhood in the design district area will be integrated appropriately.

Although the heights might be increased, there might be a greater buffer, is that correct? And I heard new buildings could only be a story taller than buildings next to them to protect the residents.

That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about with appropriate integration.

Would we ever see a building as large as Sophia Square again right next to residential buildings?

I think there are two rental houses next to Sophia Square. I wouldn’t want to predict the future, but Sophia Square is not particularly high. Again, it’s lower urban density and that’s worked out very nicely. We might have other blocks of Main Street that are of that height.

But it wouldn’t be next to single story houses?

Well, we might see (something the size of Sophia Square) at the proposed PNC site (a mixed use development on the parking lot at Main Street and Range Line Road with a new home for the bank), and there are single story homes next to that on the north side. So there very likely could be a taller building there. But sometimes you could build a single story house and it’s 30 feet tall, so we’re not talking about a huge difference. Sophia Square is not right next to any other buildings. There’s a buffer since it’s across the street.

Some neighbors expressed concerns about the CRC having greater control when it comes to new buildings in the area.

This is the same way City Center has been built. The same way the Arts & Design District has been built. It’s worked out very well for the city. It’s in essence a ‘smart code’ that focuses on massing and heights and setbacks as opposed to uses.

Would transparency be a concern with the CRC when it comes to zoning?

No. All meetings are public whether it’s the plan commission or the redevelopment commission, so there’s no change there.

And there’s always a chance for public comment?

Not necessarily a public hearing, but there’s always opportunity for public input.

Can you explain why you think there should be a requirement for taller buildings along Range Line Road?

I think it should be higher than two stories. We have a tremendous amount invested in that area. It’s in many ways a main street through the commercial district of Carmel, and to put one story buildings doesn’t provide enough tax revenue to maintain the road and the police and the fire to serve that area. Again, it should probably be a three to four story height requirement along that road. Two to start. It’s a matter of fiscal analysis, but it would also help create a beautiful commercial district that would be pedestrian friendly and walkable. We’re about to make some changes to Range Line Road (including new roundabouts) and going up higher makes sense.

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