Main entrance to the former Avon building on Midland Avenue
Midland Rye Calling, and City Answers Yes to Zoning Changes
BY TOM MCDERMOTT
In 2018, Avon Products announced it was closing its former global data center on Midland Avenue and laying off the last 100 employees, with an intention to sell the 18-acre property. The property, which is split into two lots of about 14 and 4 acres each, along with the Marriott Courtyard, are the only developed properties in the City’s B-5 zone.
Fast forward to July 19 when George Comfort & Sons/Midland Rye LLC purchased the Avon site for $23.1 million. Shortly after the purchase was completed, the new owner approached the City Council in order to make changes to the B-5 zoning code from office use only to mixed uses, in order to improve its ability to attract a tenant to the 180,000 square–foot site. Peter Duncan, President and CEO of George Comfort & Sons, and a longtime Rye resident, personally addressed the Council, which agreed to send the matter to the Planning Commission for further review.
At the time, storage and medical offices were mentioned as possible uses.
In November 2019, after a series of public meetings, the Planning Commission provided an advisory recommendation to the Council, supporting the proposed zoning changes, with a number of amendments. They revised “personal” storage to “self” storage; made Day Care a main use; allowed Finishing and Assembly as a use; and included medical use as a parking standard.
Fast forward to September 2020 when Midland Rye revised its petition, setting off a series of meetings with the City Council. The Council was most concerned with wording in the petition’s text regarding issues that could impact quality of life for residents of Rye Colony and others who live nearby. These issues included that “Finishing and Assembly” did not mean manufacturing; a possible increase in traffic, especially truck traffic, along Peck Avenue; the possible storage of chemicals on the property; and environmental and landscaping concerns, along Peck and Midland.
Through several City Council meetings last fall, the petitioner continued to revise the language of the text, the residents, in writing and on Zoom calls, voiced their concerns. Councilmembers Sara Goddard and Pam Tarlow bemoaned the fact that the City’s last Master Plan was in 1985, that it was hopelessly outdated, and that Midland Rye was trying to jump through obsolete hoops.
At the December 16 Council meeting, resident John Leonard urged the City to seek quid-pro-quo benefits from the petitioner to benefit the City and residents. Ken Taylor, president of the Rye Colony board, said, “Residents were strongly opposed to the rezoning to allow for chemical storage or introduction of light manufacturing.”
Over the course of the meetings, Mayor Josh Cohn and others tried to balance the concerns of the neighborhood with the ambitions of the ambitious petitioners to see if a consensus could be reached. After Pamela Hass and others in Rye Colony complained that they had not been invited to see the property, Duncan arranged to meet with them several times.
Meanwhile the City Planner Christian Miller reminded all that these were general zoning changes being proposed; that the Planning Commission had endorsed them; and, most importantly, that <any> further specific changes related to a new tenant would be part of an extremely detailed site plan, presented to the Commission, and that the process included public meetings. He also reminded the Council and residents that B-5 zoning is already restrictive in a number of ways.
Finally, on the evening of January 6, the Council, Midland Rye, and its advisors, the City Planner, and residents reviewed the language of the petition and the SEQRA document, which found no moderate or large impacts.
Pam Hass commented on Zoom, “I want to make it clear that I hope the property can be used and not deteriorate…I want the Councilmembers to remember we are families and to vote as if on behalf of their own families.”
The wording about chemicals had been adjusted; the prohibition of manufacturing was reiterated; it was thought that the new uses would most likely reduce traffic compared to full office use; the owner promised not to reduce landscape cover; several Councilmembers spoke of their concerns for neighbors and emphasized that they were being heard.
Then they voted. Then, they took a Mulligan on the first vote, as Goddard had thought she was voting only on a negative SEQRA finding. Tarlow, Goddard, and the Mayor took pains to explain their votes. In the end, the Council voted 4-2 in favor of the zoning changes.
Peter Duncan acknowledged that he hadn’t thought it would take this long to get approval, “But there were contingencies, like the pandemic. We’re very appreciative to have received approval of the changes.”