The proposed Bristol Yarn Mill development, located at the site of the former Robin Rug factory, received Master Plan approval from the Bristol Planning Board by a 3-2 vote.
After months of public debate, letters, and testimony by experts and abutters, on Thursday, May 12 a divided zoning board voted in favor, 3-2, for Master Plan approval of the proposed redevelopment at the former Robin Rug factory into 127 residential units.
It has been a complex process for a complex plan, and developers are far from breaking ground, though they have surmounted the first hurdle. The plan now must go before the Bristol Town Council, which will deliberate a series of necessary changes to the zoning overlay district that encompasses the property. These changes include changes to the width of surface parking spaces, an increase in the allowable density, from 98 to 127 units, and a decrease in the amount of commercial space, from 22,000 square feet to 6,300 as proposed by the developer, Brady Sullivan Properties, LLC.
The plan must then go through more permitting, specifically the Coastal Resources Management Council and likely the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, before once again coming before the Planning Board for a final approval.
Density amendment was focus of debate
The hour-long meeting was mostly consumed by discussion of a last-minute amendment to the draft decision, written by Solicitor Andy Teitz. The amendment changed the number used to calculate the number of units that could be incorporated into the building, from the 227,286 square feet used by the developer’s engineering firm, to the 296,717 square feet number that is used by the town’s tax assessor’s database. Effectively, this change enables the development to fit 127 units into the zoning ordinance language that calls for one unit per 2,250 square feet of space without an additional Town Council amendment.
Board member Brian Clark suggested that the amendment was effectively “spot zoning” — something Teitz disagreed with, given that the Yarn Mill is substantially different from the other buildings in the area.
“It’s very much distinguishable from the other buildings,” said Teitz. "Spot zoning is not illegal; it’s illegal when it does not comply with the comprehensive plan."
“I didn’t say that it was illegal,” said Clark. “I said it was frowned upon."
“You’ve had expert testimony and it’s up to you to decide,” said Teitz. "Comprehensive plans are big broad documents and sometimes there are big broad statements that are contradictory. The Bristol comprehensive plan specifically calls out this plot by name, so I leave it to you to interpret that.”
When Clark asked what square footage appeared on the original application, Diane Williamson, Director of Community Development, did not have the original application on hand so could not answer. Clark questioned if the BOMA (The Building Owners and Managers Association) Standard of Floor Measurement, the industry standard that has been used for over 100 years, was used; Williamson did not know. Clark suggested the PFA standard — “plucked from air” — had been used in its place.
Williamson replied that is why she liked to go by the tax assessors data.
“It clarifies going forward that this density is going to be set by the Town Council,” she said.
“We should base it on something that’s industry standard,” said Clark.
"I would venture to say the architect based his number on livable space, which is how they would have come up with unit numbers,” said Stephen Katz. “I would argue that given this is the first time we’ve seen this [larger] number mentioned, we should mention that. If we’re going to do this, let’s give the council all the facts. Let’s not hide things.”
Katz proposed an amendment to clarify how the density number was reached so that the Town Council would be aware. It failed by a 3-2 vote. On Wednesday morning, Katz said he was surprised by the amendment being voted down.
“I think we have to give the Town Council, who is going to be the ultimate arbiter in this issue, all the facts, and let them decide,” he said.
Teitz said on Tuesday that this amendment does not change the fact that the Bristol Town Council has to approve an increase to the overall density anyways, as they had voted in 2008 to set a limit on the number of units for a development at the site to 98.
“It’s a case where the Town Council is going to make the decision again, presumably in 2022, as to the number of units,” he said.
Planning Board member Armand Bilotti said something similar during the meeting.
“In the end, it really doesn’t make a difference, the Council will decide,” he said.
The final vote mirrored the one taken in the late April decision to draft an approval, with Clark and Katz voting nay, and Murgo, Squatrito, and Bilotti voting to approve the development and forward the matter to the Town Council.
What’s best for the town, or the developer?
Critics and abutters who have voiced their displeasure with how the development has been handled by the Planning Board have said that they feel the town is essentially working on behalf of the developer in order to secure a deal for the property, which has sat vacant for over two decades.
“I kept hearing from folks in the town of Bristol this was the opportunity to get something done,” said Katz on Wednesday. “I think that’s a garbage statement. In today’s market, it’s a seller’s market…I just cannot believe that Brady Sullivan is the only choice that this town has.”
Teitz responded to the assertions that the Town was working on behalf of the developer on Tuesday.
“I don’t think there’s any secret that the town administration is in support of this,” he said. “The town administrator and the planner indicated that the redevelopment of this property has been on the radar for the town of Bristol for 25 years or more.”
But answering a question as to whether the town had given any preferential treatment to Brady Sullivan, Teitz adamantly denied the assertion.
“I think the answer there is absolutely not,” he said. “I think staff and certainly the planning board were very conscientious about listening to and balancing everyone’s concerns.”
Teitz said that the process has been transparent and aired out in public each step of the way. When asked about the board making a unanimous decision during a March meeting to draft a preliminary motion to deny the development, he indicated this was an approach to get Brady Sullivan back to the table for negotiations after they had refused to agree to a continuance of the proceedings. It was an approach, he said, that ultimately worked.
“The developer blinked. The developer wouldn’t agree to a continuance before then,” he said. “It worked well because it led them to saying ‘What do you need?’”
Although the board had agreed that they would not go above 105 units during that March meeting, it was concessions Brady Sullivan made that turned the tide and led to ultimate approval. Teitz mentioned an increase in buffering between the parking lot and abutting properties, the presentation of a landscaping plan for the surface level parking lot (which normally wouldn’t be necessary until later), deeding the State Street parking lot to the Town, and the completion of a more accurate traffic study during the busiest summer months that will be peer-reviewed by a town-hired consultant (at the developer’s expense) as examples of them working in good faith with the town.
“They said we can’t give you 105 [units], we can’t do that, but we’ll give you the other stuff,” he said. “This was more transparent than normal, not less…Everyone is saying [the planning board] denied it and then changed, but I think if you watch what happened at that meeting, it was pretty clear they were sending a message to the developer.”
Katz said he didn’t know why three of his fellow board members decided to change their votes and approve the plan.
“What caused these three members to essentially flip? I don’t know,” he said. “I know all three of them very well, I consider them friends. I’m sure they had very good reasons for changing their votes the way they did, and I'll leave it at that.”
Katz said that in addition to his belief that abutters’ concerns about the density should be heeded, he still has his doubts about the fiscal impact of the development and disagrees with the developer’s decision to forego the required number of 20 affordable housing units by opting instead to pay $680,000 into an affordable housing trust and convert existing buildings on the property into just three affordable units.
“We’re supposed to be doing what is best for the town of Bristol, not any one particular developer,” he said. “There isn’t a single person in Bristol that doesn’t want to see something happen that is positive, but it has to be the right thing. And I stand by that. It has to be the right thing for the town.”