ORLEANS – Having devoted many hours to developing and advocating changes for the downtown village center, the planning board has shifted its focus to the potential of the Route 6A corridor through town.
“We want to understand what happens along Route 6A,” Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey said at the board's June 11 meeting. “There are implications for the whole town.”
To do that, the board has enlisted the help of some home-grown consultants: the bicycle and pedestrian committee and the architectural review committee (they'll meet with the planning board June 25) and the historical commission and cultural district committee (scheduled for July 9). On June 11, it was the affordable housing committee's turn.
The committee's Tom Johnson, a former member of the planning board, recalled that Route 6A property holders such as Selectman David Currier had asked that density changes approved for the village center be extended to the limited business and general business zones along the corridor.
“At the time, the focus stayed on the village center, which is great,” he said. “I think it's time to really focus on the limited and general business districts to add on some additional zoning bylaws that allow for not only encouraging similar projects like the one across the street from the bowling alley but also allow the bowling alley to add some housing units. I'm just using this as an example.”
The incoming sewer system “will make a huge difference in those areas,” said committee chairman Katie Wibby. As to encouraging mixed-use buildings with stores on the first floor and apartments above, she said, “The market should really decide that. I don't know if we have the expertise to say this is what we picture.” She would encourage more housing complexes like the one across from the bowling alley that are “not intrusive on that main road (and) by their nature and density are more affordable.” Increasing housing density would require installation of crosswalks and, preferably on both sides of the street, sidewalks, Wibby said.
Board member Chip Bechtold wondered whether, given the high property values in Orleans, it would be more appropriate for the town to participate in creation of affordable housing in adjacent communities.
“Orleans as the commercial center of the Lower Cape is actually a perfect place for there to be more rental property, affordable rental property especially,” said board member Debra Oakes. “We've got the amenities, and 6A is right where people could walk to the grocery store, drug store, get public transportation. Places like Eastham and Brewster are tucked off in the woods. You have to have cars to go anywhere.” Orleans “may have high land costs,” she said, “but we've got a lot of empty commercial spaces and derelict commercial spaces.”
Even so, Oakes said, the “barrier that needs to be addressed at every level” is the Cape's high construction costs. “Fixing up a small house is prohibitively expensive,” she said. “Turning a small house into a two-family is prohibitively expensive. I'd like to see ways the town could build up a low-interest loan fund for people who want to acquire a property and make it affordable.”
The discussion continued as everyone rose to gather around an elongated map of the corridor stitched together by Meservey.
“If you start meandering down 6A,” he said, “there are a lot of parcels that are fairly small, small businesses or even some single-family homes. If the town were to say there was no minimum lot size for apartments, then anyone with a parcel could divide by the density and put (them) in.”
Board chairman Andrea Reed noted that the historical commission has been “looking to preserve the land value of scale.” Another speaker suggested “developing more housing around, but retaining, historic structures.”
“Cove Road is almost all houses,” Oakes said. “Every one of them could be multi-family.” Referring to the nearby Beth Bishop property, she said, “When I win the lottery, that's what I'd do. It could be six apartments in a perfect location for people to live and walk around.”
Most parcels on 6A “are owned by private people,” board member Brian Sosner said. “As an investor and developer myself, what you're really saying is that you want to encourage density along the Route 6A corridor. The way to get it is to encourage private owners to accomplish the objective, to sell it or buy it.”
Increasing density without an overall design for the area is a problem, the committee's Nancy Renn warned, using as an example “just building housing without thinking about a community center. What's the plan?”
There was discussion about possible incentives for housing construction, ranging from relief from sewer hook-up charges to creating a growth incentive zone through the Cape Cod Commission that would be focused on housing. The latter agreement would allow projects to move forward without a costly review by the commission.
“This is like new dance partners,” Reed said. “We're just learning how to have these conversations. We want to push a little bit on our thinking.”