At Tuesday’s Planning & Zoning meeting, the owners of a building at 107-109 Greenwich Ave (in the CGBR zone, Central Greenwich Business Retail) proposed a zoning text amendment that would allow a group fitness center with classes limited to 10 people to be exempt from existing parking requirements.
The building owners, David and Victoria Yolen, appeared on the Zoom meeting along with their tenant, Cindy Sites, who runs Greenwich Barre Studio in their building.
Attorney John Tesei represented the applicants.
Sites is in violation of regulations because her use is only permitted on the second floor of Greenwich Avenue if parking is provided.
On Greenwich Avenue there are strict rules about permitted uses on ground floors and second floors.
On ground floors dry cleaners, movie theaters, grocery stores and package stores are permitted, but you’d be hard pressed to find one. Ground floor uses haven’t been required to have parking since the 1960s. Approved uses include restaurants and retail stores.
On second floors, restaurants are not allowed except for the three that are grandfathered: Douro, Ginger Man and Back 4 Kitchen.
Nor are offices allowed on second floors unless they have their own parking.
Attorney Tesei said, if granted, the text amendment would make Greenwich Avenue more vibrant, and draw in more people who would stay to go shopping and visit coffee shops and restaurants.
He said it didn’t make sense that personal services operations such as one-on-one fitness, (as opposed to group fitness centers), are allowed to operate on second floors without parking requirements, even if there might be 10 instructors and 10 clients, for a total of 20 vehicles needing parking.
Tesei also argued that salons are exempt from the parking requirement yet they are a more “intense” use.
“Restaurants– you did away with the separations, (prior to March 2018 there was a requirement that restaurants with liquor licenses on Greenwich Ave be 1,000ft apart) they were considered bad because of the amount of parking they need versus retail,” Tesei added.
Tesei said an impact of Covid-19 is a resurgence in Greenwich’s office space market, specifically for small office spaces.
“Why?” he asked. “You have some companies coming out here looking for space because the mind set has changed. Now remoteness is acceptable. What that means for the Avenue – What would be good to talk about in terms of vibrancy and use, and people going to lunch, dinner and stores, is to waive, to some degree, parking (requirement) for office space on the second floor.”
“People are driving less,” Tesei said. “They are finding a way. The bottom of the Avenue is terrific.”
“We started out closing Greenwich Avenue from Havemeyer down,” P&Z chair Margarita Alban said. “But we changed it because we got so much protest that people wanted to park on the Avenue…The kind of facility you’re talking about, 10 people show up at the same time. But at a beauty salon, you never see 10 people all walk in the door at the same time.”
Tesei argued that people find a way to get to the bottom of the Avenue.
“Whether it’s Christmas season or whatever is going out down there,” he said. “It’s about where people want to go and have the opportunities. The more people you can get on the Avenue, the more vibrant the Avenue is going to be.”
Ms Alban disagreed. “Retailers continue to object to the loss of parking. You’re saying, yeah, people find a way, but all the push back we got was about the loss of parking.”
“We know people want to park in front of the store. (Greenwich Avenue) is a funny little eco-system,” said P&Z director Katie DeLuca. “You don’t want to make it an outdoor mall. People want to see cars (parked) in front. They don’t want to walk. It’s an interesting balance.”
“Mr. Tesei, you’re here to talk about one business you’re representing, but how many second floors can become gyms for people 10 and under?” Alban asked. “How many could all show up with 10 people at the same time?”
“You should hope that empty second floors do get filled up,” Tesei said. “If you have 10 people coming at one time for a class – I see a lot at Soul Cycle – there’s never going to be enough parking right in front, they’ll go to ancillary parking locations.”
“If you get 2, 3 or 4 of these that would surprise me,” Tesei added. “The salons themselves, the nail salons, are vibrant, they take up a lot of traffic. They just do. To say these are not similar, to me, is inconsistent with reality.”
“I think the second floor parking (requirement) should be consistent for all the uses,” suggested commissioner Andy Fox. “We can’t keep making one-off decisions. This week it’s going to be group fitness. Everybody knows the second floors are vacant. As the commission, we need to help fill these stores with businesses that help drive people to the Ave to shop.”
“All second floor space (should be) treated the same, whether it’s retail or not. I think the second floor space is the hardest to lease. Not all second floor spaces have access to parking. So right there you limit which second floor spaces can have these other uses. I support reducing the parking requirement for this application, but we should look at the whole second floor parking requirement,” Fox added. “Retail is changing tremendously because of Covid, and we have to support retail on the Avenue or it’ll look like some bad areas of Detroit.”
“Andy (Fox) is saying just make a decision to treat all businesses the same, which would mean we eliminate second floor and basement parking requirements,” Alban said.
“The retailers got super concerned we were taking away parking,” (with the bump outs for restaurants for outdoor seating on the Ave), Alban added. “What we did with the nodes (is equivalent to eliminating ) 5 parking spaces in front of each restaurant. And there are 27 restaurants. The retailers are very nervous about it.”
“There is a climate of concern. I get it,” Tesei said. “What I’m trying to say is, I look at this as an opportunity for the Avenue. I see the glass half full….My clients have owned this building 20 to 30 years. Their taxes go up every year. They are in a situation where they need to bringing tenants. You’re left with what I’ll call supportive type of uses. We had the situation of music schools, which I think should be (allowed) on the Avenue. I look at it as a plus, as a way of bringing tenants in who will help support the retail.”
“I’m fascinated by Andy’s (Fox) comment,” said commissioner Dave Hardman. “It deserves a couple months’ study. At the same time I think Mr. Tesei is making a compelling argument. We need to figure out how to get people on Greenwich Ave on the second floor as well as ground floor.”
“By having these arbitrary parking restrictions, we’re essentially prohibiting these market force opportunities,” said commissioner Peter Lowe.
“I’m willing to explore eliminating parking requirements, but we need to settle on a direction for this text amendment,” Alban said.
Several commissioners said they wanted to avoid another situation like Soul Cycle on Mason Street, that was more successful than the commission anticipated when they approved their application, and there have been many complaints about how much parking Soul Cycle’s patrons take up.
“Our eternal regret is (approving) Soul Cycle, but we learned not to do large fitness on the Avenue. Soul Cycle is large fitness. It has 32 to 35 people in a class,” Alban said.
“If we get into it and it doesn’t work, or if it’s too successful… clawing it back is a problem,” Macri warned.
“I’m truly shocked at what you’re saying,” Mr. Tesei said to Mr. Macri. “What I’m hearing is you’re sitting here saying God forbid it’s successful? That’s the whole idea. God forbid any other use than retail be successful.”
“Greenwich Ave is the prime retail area, and it says that in the regulations. If you have classes on the second floor and take up the parking…that could take over and be the predominant practice on Greenwich Avenue,” Macri said.
“We have whole bunch of second floor uses with no parking requirement. And we have an issue with employees parking on the Ave and taking up spaces,” Mr. Fox said.
Building owner Victoria Yolen said she and her husband had owned the building for 25 years.
“We’ve seen good times and bad. It’s not rocket science that these are very difficult times for America’s main streets. Amazon has destroyed retail. I’m asking you to be aware, brave and proactive to bringing vibrancy back to Greenwich Avenue.”
Mrs. Yolen said she didn’t believe cars were the problem.
“It’s people or lack of them causing death to Greenwich Avenue. Without the people there’s no foot traffic or revenue,” she said, adding that Cindy Sites’ classes are popular.
“Women love her instruction. Some even walk (to the Ave). After class they go across the street to a local coffee shop or to Roller Rabbit, Lululemon, CVS or Sephora…these are women we want to encourage to come to the Avenue,” Yolen said.”I don’t believe there’s going to be millions of second floor fitness places because it’s really hard to have a business like this, and not really lucrative. It is not a gym. It is a small locally owned service boutique business that Greenwich needs.”
“We’re driving the type of traffic that Greenwich wants to attract,” Mrs. Sites said.
Mr. Tesei said Mrs. Sites had spoken to staff at P&Z and believed that her use of the space was allowed before she signed the lease. He said the difference between group fitness and one-on-one was nuanced.
There was a suggestion that because the building is historic that the applicant work with staff to explore the possibility of applying for the group fitness use under a Historic Overlay rather than text amendment.
“That ‘s a great idea and it buys us time,” Alban said. “This idea of how you help and not hurt retail is definitely paramount to us. Yes, there is the scary thing you don’t want the Ave to turn into 80 gyms, but we all do recognize, it’s evolving. It’s not even Covid. Retail is evolving. We have to keep thinking how to keep Greenwich Avenue alive.”
“Human beings are social animals,” Tesei said. “You saw that when they opened up the Avenue. Socialization is part of the human species. That’s what we’re talking about.”