MUNSTER — It was standing room only as more than 100 residents packed Town Hall on Thursday to weigh in on plans to give a substantial face-lift to the town’s decades-old zoning code.
The 7 p.m. meeting centered on plans to modernize Munster’s zoning codes so that it promotes sustainable growth and reorients Munster as a walk-able community with parks, trails and high-quality development.
Brian Wright, principal of Tennessee-based Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative LLC, fielded comments and questions from Munster residents. The firm was hired in March to update the town’s zoning.
“We want to work with you because you know this town more than anyone,” Wright said. “You’re the local experts.”
Wright said the firm’s goal is to create a zoning code that eases suburban congestion, improves Munster’s economic viability, connects neighborhoods and allows for high-quality mixed-use development.
The town’s current code has not been updated since 1985, serves as a barrier for the type of development sought by residents and no longer aligns with the town’s long-range plan for redevelopment, Wright said.
Munster resident Frank Darrington started out the Q&A asking Wright if he has faced any pressure from officials to create a zoning code so that it conforms to NICTD’s West Lake Corridor and South Shore Double Track projects.
“Have you been instructed to have your plan conform with Visclosky’s $1 billion train to nowhere and (other transit-oriented) plans?” Darrington said.
Wright reassured Darrington he hasn’t, adding that he was at the town hall Thursday to genuinely listen to the community and craft a plan based on feedback.
Many in attendance asked if the zoning code could be changed so that it alleviates daily traffic congestion along Calumet Avenue, improves parking at businesses, deters fast-food chains and fosters development of more mom and pop stores, and sensibly pursues development that does not aggravate flood zones.
One Munster resident, Michael Goepfert, 44, said he and his family walked to dinner the other night at the new Centennial Village redevelopment, but they usually stay clear of the retail development further north on Calumet Avenue, where places like Panera, Five Guys and Chipotle are located.
“I don’t go to any of them, not because of the restaurants but the parking situation. I’ve got a small car and I don’t know how an SUV could even fit between the lines,” he said. “So I know Munster has a parking standard based on square footage of a building. Double it.”
Lea Fisher, 34, who lives on the north side, told Wright she wants to see Munster become more community-centric like Valparaiso, where officials have significantly revitalized its downtown.
Roxann Paulson, 56, who lives in the Wicker Park area, asked Wright to consider the wants and needs of both the older and younger generations when crafting a new zoning code.
“I want to make sure we get old ideas and we get new ideas,” Paulson said.
Wright said his No. 1 priority is gauging the community’s interest with upcoming engagement events, including “Planapalooza,” which is scheduled for July 26-30. After that, the firm will then issue a draft of an ordinance and release it to the public for comment.
The end-result will be a user-friendly, easily readable zoning code, Wright said.
In speaking with residents and city officials this week, Wright said many said they love Munster for its quality parks, schools, low crime, relative affordability and proximity to Chicago.
Those same folks said they want a new zoning code to reflect the goals of the town’s Comprehensive Plan, distinguish Munster from neighboring towns, aid redevelopment in the north end and accommodate transit projects.
Munster officials want to transition to a character- or form-based code that emphasizes building massing and scale and the relationship between the building façade and the public realm, rather than focusing on separation of uses, according to town officials.