EXETER – A proposal to convert Exeter’s former First Baptist Church into a multi-residential condo building has been given the green light to move forward without on-site parking.
The city’s zoning board recently voted 4-1 to give Exonian Properties LLC parking relief for the project at 43 Front Street. Nearby downtown municipal parking lots will be used by future tenants.
According to city zoning, the project would require 24 on-site parking spaces.
The 220-year-old building known as “Red Brick Church” was purchased in February 2021 by Florence Ruffner and developer David Cowie. Cowie and Jay Caswell are also behind the renovation of the Ioka Theater into a mixed-use retail/condo building.
The project provides for the transformation of the church into an 11-unit condo complex.
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Zoning board member Rick Thielbar was the only council member to vote against granting parking relief at the April 19 council meeting.
Thielbar said the council often receives requests for parking assistance from stores and businesses, with most of them being approved. However, he said the need for parking for residential units differs from retail.
“Retail businesses (like a restaurant) use short-term (municipal) parking spaces,” Thielbar said. “When you talk about parking for residences, you’re talking about a 24-hour demand for those spaces.”
This was the second time the subject had come before the zoning board. Council first discussed the request on March 15, but moved ahead with it to allow further study of parking options.
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Attorney Sharon Somers, representing Exonian Properties LLC, told zoning board members at the April 19 meeting that developers had considered underground parking and additional ground parking, but ruled it out as too expensive.
“Another factor that needs to be considered is that the back of the building would have to be removed (to create more parking spaces), which certainly contradicts all the efforts of the applicant and the historic district to try to preserve structural integrity,” Somers said.
Plenty of parking available in municipal lots
Somers told council that four municipal parking lots were within 300 yards of the building at 43 Front St.
According to records obtained from Exeter’s Public Works Department, these four lots have a total of 195 spaces, 49 of which are reserved for winter and overnight parking. Additionally, there are 339 off-street parking spaces available in the city.
“According to the city’s own information, there is a significant amount of parking available either in parking lots or on the street downtown,” Somers said. “The Spring Street and Front Street parking lots are literally right outside the door of this building so all of those are nearby and other opportunities are just a block or two away.”
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Somers said winter parking wouldn’t be a problem because the city doesn’t require a permit to park. It is on a first come, first served basis. The Center Street lot has 10 designated parking spaces for winter parking, Exeter Reservoir Lot 5, Front Street Lot 22 and Townhouse Common Lot has 12.
“Based on our discussions with the city, there is currently no excess demand for the use of these designated winter parking spaces,” Somers said. “Bottom line there are plenty of designated winter parking spaces to accommodate the nighttime winter needs that the council was concerned about the last time we were here.”
Three spaces will be available at the rear of the building for deposits and to allow access for people with disabilities, Somers told the council.
Alternate ZBA member Martha Pennell asked if the city is considering the impact such projects will have on downtown parking. She said the conversion of Ioka to condos and other new developments will also rely on lots.
“I just want to be sure that we’re not at the tipping point,” Pennell said.
Somers said the Ioka has been reviewed by the Planning Board whose job it is to take it into account.
She added that Director of Public Works Jennifer Perry is aware of Exonian Properties’ request for 24 off-site parking spaces and is prepared to consider expanding designated winter parking spaces, should the need arise. felt it.
Thielbar asked how subsidizing parking for private developments benefits the city.
“It’s the planning board’s decision,” said Laura Davies, a member of the zoning board. “We are tasked with dealing with the difficulty that there is no on-site parking.”
Exonian Properties LLC has already received approval from the Historic District Commission to modify the facade of the building.
The next step will be to present the plans to the Planning Council on May 26.