Feb. 2 was a pretty notable moment for Riverside, although you wouldn’t have guessed it judging from the lack of any comment from the general public. Fifteen years ago, however, what transpired at last week’s village board meeting would have been unthinkable.
With trustees deadlocked at 3-3, Village President Joseph Ballerine voted to amend the zoning code and allow new planned developments of up to four stories by right in the village’s historic downtown and up to five stories (66 feet tall) if those buildings are part of a planned unit development.
When the village board back in 2006 passed a variety of zoning variations allowing the Village Center building at the corner of Longcommon and East Burlington to be four stories tall (50 feet), it caused no little outrage among a segment of the population.
The term “transit-oriented development” was said through a sneer, and the thought of denser, taller development downtown – no one even considered such development along Harlem Avenue at the time – was anathema, an insult to all things Frederick Law Olmsted.
Those village board decisions were felt three years later, when they played no small part in the 2009 defeat of Riverside Community Caucus candidates in what turned out to be the last time a village board race was contested.
How times have changed.
Not that there wasn’t pushback against the change, at least when it came to the downtown business district. Most notably, Trustee Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga, who joined the board of trustees after serving on the Riverside Preservation Commission, stuck to her positions on building height downtown.
For her, four stories was the limit – and then as part of a planned unit development process – not simply by right. The downtown’s historic water tower still casts a long shadow when it comes to development decisions there. It continues to make for a compelling argument against height.
Perhaps the amended zoning rules are just too abstract at the moment to make an impact on the public. And, anyway, there hasn’t been any major development downtown since the Village Center, which has simply melted into part of the scenery by now. Who knows if opposition will ever come?
With the changes made by the village board last week, however, Riverside is likely to be more attractive to developers, who now have wider latitude – not just from the new height allowances but from the village’s new-ish planned development process, something not available to them back in the Village Center days.
The focus on the downtown, however, shouldn’t take away from what the new code could do over on Harlem Avenue near the BNSF tracks. A new specifically labeled transit-oriented development zoning district is where Riverside may see its next impactful development.
Maybe then residents will really begin talking about the changes they’ll no doubt experience.