A few years ago, despite its appearance on a town master plan, the idea of a downtown Malta still seemed like a joke. Suburbs are about driving, not walking; about residential here and commercial there, not mixed-use development; about single-story buildings, not multistory ones.
But, lo and behold, a downtown is really starting to take shape in the area around Routes 9 and 67, with connected sidewalks, with multi-story, mixed-use buildings up close to the road with street-side parking and parking lots hidden from view behind the buildings. The plan is right; the town just has to stick to it.
One of the first tests to see if it will is now coming. A developer is proposing a large retail development consisting of seven buildings along Kendall Way, the road that leads from Route 9 to the Shops of Malta. It’s the first major project to come under a new form of zoning the town adopted in February for its downtown, called a form-based code (the only municipality with such a code in New York state).
Form-based codes differ from traditional zoning codes, which focus on where buildings should go based on their use, by focusing on form -- how buildings should look, their size and shape, their relationship to each other and the street. If a developer can build the way the town wants him to build, meet the vision of smart growth embodied in the code, then he has the right to build with no special approvals.
The development in question appears to meet that vision, with some exceptions. The developer will be seeking some unspecified area variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals at its meeting tomorrow night (July 2). Developers routinely seek such variances, sometimes just to save money, sometimes to remove an inequity, sometimes because it’s the only way their projects can work. Some municipalities grant them easily, some grudgingly, others not at all.
Editor's note: The following paragraphs were inadvertently dropped from the end of the editorial that appeared in print.
Malta should be slow to grant any variances given the existence of its form-based code, and certainly shouldn't grant them if they go in the wrong direction -- i.e., making the project look more like a suburban one.
By the same logic, the Planning Board should definitely reject the developer's next request: permits for drive-throughs at two restaurants and a bank. The code doesn't call for drive-throughs, and for good reason. They're quintessentially suburban, catering to the automobile, and don't belong in a pedestrian-friendly downtown.