P&Z Watch: Not So Sure about St Catherine’s Request to Rezone Residential to LB, Including 2-Acre Parking Lot

At Tuesday’s P&Z commission meeting St. Catherine of Siena and Saint Agnes Parish Corp requested to rezone several properties they own on the east side of Riverside Ave from R12 (residential) zone to the LB (Local Business) zone.

In the LB zone, not for profit offices can operate on the ground floor.

Specifically, six properties – 0, 13, 15, 17, 19 and 21 Riverside Avenue – would be rezoned. Two properties are houses and the others are parking lots.

19 Riverside Ave March 22, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

The church purchased 19 Riverside Ave in 2022 for $1.4 million. It had most recently been used for a dentist’s office, with an apartment upstairs.

The church does not own 21 Riverside Ave, but nevertheless proposed to include it in the proposed rezone to LB.

13-17 Riverside Ave March 22, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

Attorney Tom Heagney said he had advised the church that in order to avoid repeat applications for P&Z special permits in the buildings in the residential zone, to apply for the rezone to LB as that would allow them to rent to various non profits or to use the buildings for church purposes.

The commission was not comfortable with the proposed rezone to the LB zone, especially for the the 2 acre parking lot.

Heagney said the church had no motivation except to save time and money on repeated applications for special permits, but the commission said future property owner might have different plans. Approvals run with the land.

Other parts of town – think Cos Cob just down the hill and the village of Old Greenwich – are zoned LBR-2 and do not allow offices on ground floors in order to encourage retail use.

The commission was open to rezoning the Riverside Ave houses to LBR2. They noted that there was more nearby area zoned LBR2 than the single adjacent LB zone.

Map highlights 19 Riverside Avenue, which was recently purchased by St. Catherine’s Church.

Coincidentally, later in the same P&Z meeting, a proposal from a coalition of residents to create a village district in Old Greenwich was discussed.

Village District designations are consistent with both Greenwich’s 2009 and 2019 Plans of Conservation and Development. The goal of a village district designation is to preserve and maintain the distinctive look of the village as it relates to the use, scale and facades of existing buildings. Village districts allow the town an extra layer of review.

P&Z chair Margarita Alban anticipated Riverside residents might propose a village district as well.

Area in yellow proposed to be rezoned from residential R12 to LB includes large parking lot and houses owned by St. Catherine’s Church.

Heagney noted that 15 Riverside Ave, located in the middle of the church parking lot, was currently used by Transportation Association of Greenwich, “TAG.”

“They’re looking to use 19 Riverside  Ave for church offices,” he added. “There’s no other plan or motivation other than my thought that this was a good way of dealing with the church’s ability to not have to come in for special permits all the time when they’re looking to use it either for church purposes or for other non profit uses.”

As for 21 Riverside, Heagney said if the commission chose not to include that or the property owner would not want to be included in the LB Zone that could be excluded from the rezone.

Heagney noted recently P&Z approved, albeit with conditions, an application by J House to use of a portion of the portion of the church’s parking lot – 46 spaces – for valet parking for the hotel restaurant through a valet service.

Commissioner Nick Macri questioned the motivation of not wanting have to submit repeated special permits any time there was a change of tenants in the two buildings.

“The proposal is to rezone the properties and create one 92,000 sq ft piece of lot in the zone,” Macri said. “My concern with that is yes, you have to come in for special permits for uses of the two buildings, but if this moves ahead, now we’ve rezoned a very large area into a different business zone, and I’m not too sure what would ever happen in the future.”

“Fifteen years from now,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing I’m struggling with.”

Ms Alban noted that while the 2009 POCD completely forbade the conversion of residential to commercial, that had been lifted in the most recent POCD out of consideration there might be appropriate situations to approve a rezone.

Nevertheless, she said the commission wanted more information about how a rezone would work in the context of the POCD, which has the goal of enhancing the villages of Greenwich.

“And in the POCD, the driver for this is, that Riverside has long wanted to do what we have on the agenda tonight from Old Greenwich,” she said. “They have wanted to create a set of guidelines for the future for redevelopment of their part of town, so that when it redevelops, you guide it so it is more like a village.”

“This could be a really cool corner of Riverside. Or not. I’d love for you to put it in that context,” Alban said.

Mr. Heagney tried to allay the commissions concerns about the future of the parking lot.

“I understand the concern. We’re making a significant change to a 2 acre parcel of land and it’s right along the Post Road, on Riverside Ave, in a prominent location, but it’s a necessity for St. Catherine’s to have this parking lot,” he said. “The requirement of one space for every 3 seats in the sanctuary requires this parking lot to be part of the church. It’s not like they could go ahead and redevelop it into something else, because they need all those spaces.”

“Why not just rezone the pieces that are not parking lot?” Alban asked.

“When we approve a rezone it has to be consistent with the POCD, and the POCD’s major thrust with the villages and to enhance the villages,” she added. “Here is an opportunity to at least make sure we’ve protected that possibility in the future.”

“If we only rezone the buildings, we are reducing the possibilities of the church deciding to shut down and our not having a hand in any future redevelopment because that’s the concern here, right?” Alban said.

There was no public comment.

The applicant agreed to continue the application and take time to study the idea of rezoning the properties, minus #21 and the parking lot, to LBR2.