‘Bridging the gap’: Phenix Hall pitch to soften downtown height rules moves forward

A redition of a proposed mixed-use building to replace the closed CVS on North Main Street, with a glass-fronted connection to Phenix Hall.

A redition of a proposed mixed-use building to replace the closed CVS on North Main Street, with a glass-fronted connection to Phenix Hall. Ciborowski Associates


Monitor staff

Published: 04-18-2024 2:22 PM

Modified: 04-18-2024 2:56 PM

Sue McCoo knew that adding flexibility to downtown zoning to allow for the repurposing of Phenix Hall would mean her store, Hilltop Consignment, would probably lose its longtime home on Main Street. 

The zoning change would open the door for the development, and part of that project would mean tearing down the former E&P Hotel, where she is a tenant, alongisde a former CVS.

She endorsed it anyway. 

“It would be a truly transformative project for downtown,” McCoo said. “And yes, I will have to move the store. But, for Concord, it’s well worth it.” 

City officials have long aimed to attract development that would bring growth and breathe new life into Concord, especially Main Street. Toward that, work began in 2018 to overhaul the city’s zoning and the first phase of new language was drafted in 2022. But the endeavor stalled before any major changes were implemented. 

Meanwhile, major developments, both repurposing old spaces and building anew, have come knocking.

For Mark Ciborowski’s plan to rehabilitate the music venue in Phenix Hall and build an adjoining seven-story commercial, apartment and restaurant building, the rigidity of downtown zoning has so far slammed the door, even as city staff and officials have applauded his vision. Now, he’s proposing the city allow for case-by-case exceptions to the zoning restrictions on his project and future ones, clearing a path forward.

“The City of Concord has discussed a widespread rezoning for years — great idea, long overdue, well intended, but unfinished. In fact, a long ways away from finished,” said Ari Pollack, a lawyer for the project. “There are good projects hanging in the balance. Narrowly tailored zoning amendments can be an important tool as an interim measure … (and) can help bridge the gap that exists between zoning relief and a more widespread rewrite.” 

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Phenix Hall plans face two regulatory hurdles. The new building’s height would exceed the 80-foot maximum allowed in its zone and would violate the rule that structures “shall not obstruct the views of the State House Dome” from segments of nearby I-93. The amendment would allow the planning board to grant conditional use permits, or case-by-case exceptions, to projects within 10 feet of the current height ceiling, provided that they “respect” views of the dome, are “necessary” for the development and are “positive” additions to the city skyline. Such exceptions are more accessible than what’s required to be granted a zoning variance.

Ciborowski’s proposed ordinance change had its first test Wednesday in a Planning Board hearing. Residents, business leaders and officials — including the chair of the zoning board — lined up to support the new language, emphasizing the importance of — either by revamping zoning or creating more workarounds — allowing city regulations to more efficiently greenlight projects that align with the city’s goals and character. 

“When we're talking about trying to marry the nuance of progress with history, I think that the nuance of this proposed amendment change actually helps that, and it gives that nuance back to the board to be able to say, ‘hey, we want this to happen,’” said Elyssa Alfieri, a past chair of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce and Concord Young Professionals Network. 

The view of the dome from afar, State Rep. Eric Gallager said, means less to the people of Concord than a rooftop view from Main Street would. He felt the ordinance should reflect that.

“Who do we want to prioritize here? The people who actually live here, or the people who just pass through on the highway occasionally?” Gallager said. “Use it as  an incentive to actually come into downtown: you want to see the statehouse dome? Get off the highway and come in here.”

Those who opposed exceptions to the height and dome view rules worried about losing guardrails that protect Concord’s historical landmarks and identity.

“There are those who have recently pushed to rebrand our city’s image. The fact is that is Concord has been, and is branded as, the state's capital,” former city councilor Allan Herschlag said. “Why is there this rush to go down the slippery slope of  removing the view of the dome?”

Herschlag worried that the flexible standards in the new language would set a precedent for many new projects to block the dome entirely. He also felt what he saw as irresponsible amendments were no substitute for comprehensive regulatory updates. 

The zoning overhaul “has turned out to be an unmitigated failure,” he said. “Now we are told that, if we chip away at pieces of our current zoning code, again before revising our master plan, somehow we will get it right this time. I'm not willing to take that chance.”

Proposed ordinance changes fall to City Council, which referred this to the Planning Board for its input and recommendations. 

The Board endorsed the measure, sending it back to the council, while recommending that city staff add language making the requirements to qualify for an exception “more surgical.” 

Leaving final drafting to City Council, planning board members wanted clarification on whether the amendments would apply to the entire zone — which includes parts of State Street and Penacook Village — or even just the eastern, more downhill side of Main Street, as recommended by the city manager’s office. The board also wants projects seeking the permit to be endorsed by the Heritage Commission.

If the ordinance adjustment passes City Council, it would not automatically move Ciborowski’s project ahead – he would still have to apply for the conditional use permit. 

Ciborowski laid the groundwork for that pitch Wednesday night, describing the project as filling “the most notable gap tooth on Concord’s Main Street,” furthering downtown’s music and restaurant scene, adding apartments to a starved city housing market, and adding a “cool” factor to the city skyline. 

McCoo, among those with the most to lose from the development, agreed. 

Though it would mean demolition of an older building, the E & P building had lost its historical value through several rounds of now unusable internal renovations. The city as a whole, she felt, stood to gain from the proposed project.

“It just would change how things are,” she said.