a bridge over a body of water

Downtown density discussed in workshop

Terry RogersGovernment, Headlines, Milford Headline Story

a bridge over a body of water

Council discussed development in downtown Milford

At a recent workshop, Milford City Council discussed changing rules for downtown density. The discussion related to potential multi-use developments in the downtown area. Ben Muldrow of Arnett Muldrow and Associates, a city planning company, presented council with options that could encourage growth in the downtown area.

“We’re a Greenville, South Carolina based urban planning firm but as you know, I am pleased to call Milford home,” Muldrow said. “I live right down on West Clark. We also helped lead the team back in 2015 with the Downtown Revitalization Plan. And we have the privilege of working with communities all across America. I think one of the big things as we heard Mark kind of set out when you look at your downtown, I think a lot of times one of the first things that comes out is the preservation of historic and obviously, the downtown is an important place in the community. You want to realize that the way that looks and feels, the way that the way that the buildings relate to one another, that is there’s no other place in America like downtown Milford.”

Muldrow continued, stating that commercial corridors were different than the downtown area. He explained that when it came to chain restaurants, the corporation wanted every location to look the same. He used the example that Burger King wanted every Burger King to look like the one in the next town. This meant that the true uniqueness needed to be in a city’s downtown area. However, this did not mean downtown needed to focus solely on businesses. Muldrow explained that to grow a downtown area, there needed to be a residential component as well but determining the right residential was complicated.

“In Milford, we have a unit per acre. That unit per acre density limit layered on top with a minimal parking standard creates our performance, our business models, and I think one of the things ,as much as we want to explore the potential to redevelop a site, most of the time those rebuilding sites are going to be contained within the floodplain and that is going to limit or require certain kinds of requirements, be it parking, be it one retail space approach that for finding owners could be difficult performance.”

Muldrow also explained that when it came to development of a downtown area, there were always concerns about height. He questioned what was an appropriate height requirement and pointed out that the old Masonic building was actually fairly tall by Milford standards. However, because the building was located where the road tended to be lower, it did not appear out of place with the buildings around it. He also pointed out that when he asked people in Milford how tall Silver Lake Apartments were, they were unable to tell him because they blended in with surrounding properties.

“I’m kind of speaking to you all from the standpoint of that Rivertown Rebirth Plan, Muldrow stated. “We introduced the idea of wouldn’t it be great to have mixed use along the river. And then we saw was some interest from the private sector to do a project but what they said they needed to make it work was not acceptable. I  applaud the council for making that decision, and it kind of just didn’t fit.  This is just being able to kind of think through whether we are in a situation where our rules or codes or ordinances, are they business friendly, are they set up to be able to create a good quality?”

Muldrow explained that he was not there to argue for development but to explaine why development was essential to the growth of downtown. He stated that a mixed use development would be the difference between a downtown open for six to eight hours each day and one that was open for 12 to 14 each day. Councilman Jason James pointed out that most of the city was on a floodplain which meant it was difficult for builders to develop areas of the downtown.

“In Milford we have a requirement for mixed use. And that mixed use requirement in the downtown in theory is a really good thing. You know, along Walnut, I would hate the idea that somebody would come along and create a brand new structure and have first floor residential. First floor residential in our downtown is an odd dynamic and doesn’t seem to jive. It breaks up the continuity of our streetscape and brings up that continuity and a retail experience,” Muldrow said. “But then there are also certain sites where this mixed use might come into conflict with the development in a floodplain so it’s like we can only use the first floor for parking. Only now considering some sort of second floor office just to meet the mixed use qualification so we’re looking at changing that to make the projects work. I think that from my standpoint, one of the things I am most excited about in the future of Milford is some of the obvious potential to develop alongside the river, whether we are talking about the huge opportunity for police station once it’s vacated, whatever that might be, to the vacant property next to Gromark, the Lofland property next to the shipyard, there is tremendous development potential right in the core of our community.”

Looking at the way the community handled parking requirements was another thing that could encourage development downtown. He stated that the city should trust a developer to create parking that met the market need. His view was that developers knew what parking their customer base required and that reducing that to allow a development within city limits was not a negative thing. Councilman Todd Culotta agreed with that sentiment.

“I think as a governing body, we tend to be harder on developers about parking then the other way around. But you know, in the age of more people using Uber, more people not owning cars and the fact that downtown, obviously was built long before cars were ever invented,” Councilman Culotta said. “So parking is always an issue in every historic city. That is something we need to consider, to say okay, we know that the more parking they can offer, the better it is for what their total offering is for living, but do we need to be so hung up on saying what needs to be one or two spaces per unit? What if there is not and the people that are running down there understand that say, look, I know where I’m running, I know I need a car I don’t know parking if is available or it’s not. I mean, we need to be so rigid on that does that limit us from attracting investment to our downtown area?”

Many municipalities across the country are moving toward a peripheral based parking strategy, Muldrow stated. He pointed out that Milford had already begun the process by acquiring the parking lot of the former M&T Bank building. He felt that separating those parcels before the former bank was sold was a great example of how a municipal lot and a business could work together. Councilman Andy Fulton asked how council could prevent urban blight. Muldrow stated that there were many ways to prevent that, including achieving a market density rate that promoted a high quality of life.

“I agree that I think we can try to protect ourselves from that type of blight or experiences that are not good, that doesn’t look good for a downtown but really your local economy is going to dictate the quality of the housing, the demand, the rents that are charged and things like that. That’s a bigger discussion outside of what we can regulate ourselves into,” Councilman Culotta said.

One of the ways to prevent this, according to Muldrow was to invest in incremental development, seeking passion driven developers who were not just interested in building but in growing the downtown area and who had a focus on the historic aspect of downtown, unlike a development option presented to council that did not fit what the Riverwalk Rebirth Plan envisioned and that did not fit the downtown area.

“I think that’s exactly what happened. When they did their presentation to us, the development that wanted to go in there, that’s exactly what happened,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said “Which we said “Whoa it’s not what we what we thought, that’s not what we had initially envisioned going down there.” It makes me proud of Milford because we as a council and mayor, in my mind, we had managed our growth very well. But that does not mean that an order to continue to grow, we need to modify some things, to change some things, change the way of thinking, change the way some policies and things that we’ve already put in place because we now need to keep up with our growth. We have got our growth now and we have to keep up with the growth now. We have got to bring those kids back, my kids, the ones that want to live in those kinds of places, they want to rent or they want to buy those condos. They don’t want to do the backyard.”

This was why now was the time to consider changing the rules for downtown development, Muldrow stated. He pointed out that there was already a mixed-use development behind where the former batting cages and miniature golf was on Rehoboth Boulevard that was nestled back in the woods to the point that no one was aware it was even there. However, if that same development was placed downtown, it would be intrusive and less accepted which is why there needed to be different regulations for the downtown area than for outside of downtown. Councilwoman Wilson pointed out that the council had made mistakes in the past and that she did not want to make the same mistakes in the future.

“I’m talking 30 years ago, but we’ve made mistakes along the way. We made them along the way but we learn and we grow and we’ve got different mindsets and each council has the opportunity to look back and see what we’ve done good and bad and go from there,” Councilwoman Wilson said. “But that does not mean that we can’t walk in see and maybe in Milford there was a time that we needed these rules. I’m 60 and there was a time they wanted no growth. When I started on council, we fought every growth, every development. We fought for y’all to get your homes, where you guys live. We had to fight for that. So what I’m saying is that we just have to keep an open mind. And we have to see what the market is and you know we have to be appeasing to the developers that will come to us.”

Berlin, Maryland, was a good example that Muldrow pointed out. He stated that they focused on the elderly as well as the younger generation in that town which has grown significantly. He also pointed out that healthcare was a growing industry in the Milford area and with the Milford Wellness Village as well as Bayhealth Sussex Campus, people of all ages were looking at Milford not only as a place to visit but a place to live.

“That’s also a growth industry for all of those young professionals who want to live in those three or four stories with the retail downstairs and be able to walk around the downtown areas. I just talked to a lady Monday night, her son graduated and he moved to Columbia,” Councilman James said. “The reason why they moved into a smaller house than what they wanted was because where they live, they didn’t have to do any of the backyard work and it was a walkable community. They could walk downtown. We’re going to be experiencing the healthcare boom for some time, but we haven’t seen at the end of it yet. It’s still growing. We’re gonna get those younger people, those young professionals, we don’t want everybody trying to move down to the beach. So we need to we need to provide a product that they want.”

Councilman Culotta pointed out that Milford is located very close to major metropolitan areas like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington DC and New York which made it an excellent retirement area. However, people tend to retire where there are things for families as they have grandchildren. Councilman Dan Marabello agreed but was not willing to reduce parking requirements. He also felt that mixed used developments had to have buffers to protect the neighborhood. City Planner Rob Pierce explained that there were no parking requirements for smaller developments but larger ones did have requirements. He reminded council about the mixed use that would be going into the former Rite Aid location that did not require parking.

Any changes to the parking or mixed use requirement code will be presented at a future council meeting where public comment will be accepted.

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