Keene City Council advances proposal for apartments in commercial districts

Jun. 17 — Before approving a $ 65 million budget Thursday, the Keene City Council advanced a proposed amendment to housing codes that would allow for residential units above commercial buildings near downtown.

The proposal, which would permit new and existing buildings in the commerce districts up to four stories, or 56 feet, with apartments above the ground floor, received positive feedback from two Keene residents at a public hearing Thursday night.

A unanimous vote by the councilors advanced the proposal to the Planning, Licenses and Development Committee.

The city’s commerce districts do not allow residential uses, according to Keene’s Senior Planner Mari Brunner. Existing zoning rules allow for structures in these districts to be no more than two stories, or 35 feet, unless a special exception is sought from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to build up to 3 1/2 stories, or 50 feet, Brunner said.

City staff have identified the proposed zoning change as an opportunity to create more housing options, she said.

Brunner noted that the city underwent an extensive reorganization of its zoning rules with its land development code project, which took effect Sept. 1, 2021. While that effort made changes to zoning rules downtown, it left other zoning districts mostly untouched, she said.

“What staff have been doing is we have been going through the zoning districts outside of the downtown to identify opportunities to reduce barriers to housing developments and ways to promote other community goals,” Brunner said.

Allowing residential units on the upper levels only is meant to preserve the intent of the commercial districts and prevent residential-only buildings from being built in those districts, she said.

Under the proposed amendment, structures taller than two stories in the districts would require an additional 10-foot setback from the property line for every additional story or a 10-foot stepback for every additional story. A stepback refers to an architectural design in which an upper-level portion of a building is inward from the facade, toward the property’s center.

Stating his favor for the proposal, Dan Bartlett, a Keene-based architect, said he had a client who owned property in a commercial district approach him with a project proposing retail on the first floor of a building and apartments above.

“I started putting together a team to go ahead and propose this change anyway but the city beat me to it,” Bartlett said, noting the need for housing in the city.

Another Keene resident, Peter Espiefs, also spoke in support of the proposal but said the councilors should be wary of sections of the city designated as historic districts. “Be careful about the historic concept,” Espiefs said.

Councilor Bobby Williams stated that he favored the proposal but raised concern about how not allowing residential units on the first floor could limit the construction of housing favorable to people with disabilities and suggested an exception could be made.

Councilor Philip Jones, noting that he would not be able to attend the July 13 Planning, Licenses and Development Committee meeting where the matter is expected to be discussed further, also spoke in favor of the zoning amendment.

“Everyone knows the housing crunch,” Jones said. “This helps the housing crunch.”

Budget business

The councilors also voted to adopt next year’s budget proposal at about $ 65 million, a little more than $ 26,750,000 of which will be raised through taxes. The city tax rate is expected to increase by less than one percent.

The budget takes effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Ryan Spencer can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1412, or rspencer@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at

@spencerKS

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