For the second time in a year, Norwell is considering zoning changes aimed at energizing its town center.
The annual Town Meeting that convenes on Monday will take up a proposal by the Planning Board that would allow a mix of commercial and residential uses, and lower the hurdles for small businesses to set up shop in the area.
“The whole idea is to create a more vibrant town center,” said Chris Di Iorio, town planner, of the triangular-shaped area that includes portions of Main, West, River, and Dover streets.
Last year’s annual Town Meeting shot down a previous plan to overhaul the zoning rules in the center, rejecting a new table of permitted land uses and a related proposal for an overlay district that would have allowed for more flexible development options but given the town more design control.
The Planning Board decided to return to this year’s Town Meeting with a modified-use table proposal only, setting aside the overlay district for now.
“We thought one of the reasons it didn’t pass last year was that it was confusing to people,” Di Iorio said. “This year, we wanted to just focus on the use table, which would make it easier to understand and would have an immediate effect.”
The town center is currently home to a number of businesses, including a Dunkin’ Donuts, an Irish pub-style restaurant, a gas station, several convenience stores, a bank, and a few professional offices.
The area also encompasses the police station, a State Police barracks, the post office, the James Library & Center for the Arts, First Parish Church and its cemetery, and several single-family homes.
But the area has never acquired the vitality of some other downtowns, Di Iorio said, citing outmoded zoning, together with the lack of easy pedestrian access to and within the area, among the key factors.
“Larger big-box retailers on Route 53 have drawn a lot of shoppers away from the town center. We have had retail operations that have not been able to survive,” he said, noting that there are several empty storefronts.
The intent of the changes, Di Iorio said, is to make the center a more inviting place for residents by attracting a greater number and variety of businesses. He said that in turn would help all businesses.
Including housing in the mix of future development could help support the town center’s businesses by generating more foot traffic, he said.
A lively center can also “strengthen the community,” he said, noting, it would provide a central place where people would congregate.
While it is intended to benefit the entire town center area, the proposed rules would apply only to that portion of the center that is within the business district, which is roughly bounded by Dover and River streets and the Main Street corridor.
Current zoning does not allow mixed uses or any multifamily housing in the town center. The proposal would allow buildings to have a mix of business and residential uses — including multifamily housing — as long as the housing was located above ground-floor commercial space.
Up to two residential units could be created by right in those mixed-use buildings. With a special permit, the proposal would allow three units, or one unit per 15,000 square feet of lot area for a maximum of six units.
The existing rules require a special permit to locate a commercial business in the center. The proposed change would allow a variety of those business by right if they do not exceed 5,000 square feet, including convenience stores, cafes, art galleries, and retail shops.
Some of those businesses could operate in larger spaces with a special permit. Other uses, including restaurants and grocery stores, would be allowed by special permit only.
“What we wanted to do is streamline the process for small mom-and-pop retail operations,” Di Iorio said.
The plan takes into account concerns raised by some businesses and residents last year, Di Iorio said, noting for example that the number of residential units was sharply scaled down.
Sally Turner, a Planning Board member, said she opposed last year’s proposals, believing they went “way too far.” But Turner said she is backing this year’s plan because “something needs to be done” to energize the town center and the current proposal is “a more measured one.”
Turner said this year’s plan drops some of the features that concerned her a year ago, including one that would have allowed buildings of up to three stories.
Since it does not address dimensional rules, the current plan leaves intact the height limit of 2½ stories, or no more than 34 feet.
“I felt a full three-story building, especially with a flat roof, would have been out of scale and out of character with the town center,” she said.
Barry Keppard, coordinator for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s South Shore subregion, said Norwell’s proposal is in keeping with some of the themes his agency promotes for local development.
He said, for example, the planning council encourages communities to focus development in their existing centers, and to diversify their housing stock, goals that are both reflected in the Norwell plan.
The Norwell plan also fits with the council goal to “decrease the amount of time people have to drive” to obtain goods and services in their community, Keppard said.
Di Iorio said that the proposed zoning changes, alone, will not be enough to fully energize the center, but “it’s a start.”
He said the town will still need to address dimensional rules and undertake much-needed streetscape and roadway improvements
“We have sidewalks that are not connected, or are lacking in a lot of areas,” he said. “There are hardly any benches. . . . The roadway is wide and traffic goes through there very quickly. It’s just not an inviting place to walk.”