Convenience stores are inconvenient for their neighbors, breeding traffic and crime, in the view of New Haveners who filled a zoning hearing.
Neighbors turned out en masse to the hearing, a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, to argue against granting approvals to two such proposed stores: a Cumberland Farms in Westville, which would include a large gas station; and a bodega in Newhalville.
The board, meeting at the Hall of Records at 200 Orange St., voted unanimously to reject the Cumberland Farms application. The other one goes to the City Plan Commission before the board votes on it.
Tough Crowd In Westville
For Cumberland Farms, a chain of convenience store/gas stations in the Northeast and Florida, Tuesday night’s vote was the end of a drawn-out process of community meetings and plan revisions. (Read about that here.) The developers, seeking special exceptions to put in a gas station at the corner of Whalley Avenue and Dayton Street and to stay open until midnight, faced two basic concerns: a fear of increased traffic problems and a sense that the neighborhood has no need for another gas station.
Mark Vertucci, the project’s traffic engineer, tried to quell concerns by citing a study the project had commissioned. He said it shows the plan would cause “no significant impact on traffic in the area.”
“I really can’t accept the claim that there will be no impact on traffic,” said board member Victor Fasano (pictured) as neighbors nodded in agreement. In a lengthy back-and-forth with Vertucci, Fasano argued that the traffic would get worse at the proposed gas station, as cars make left turns to enter from Whalley.
“It’s a horrendous situation as it is,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many of the neighbors who spoke at the meeting. “Now this is going to compound that.”
Perhaps an even greater obstacle for the developers was the sense among neighbors that, given the presence of a Hess station directly across the street, the area has no need for another gas station.
Patrick O’Leary (pictured), the project engineer, argued that Cumberland Farms wouldn’t be trying to set up shop in that location if there weren’t demand for it.
“This site was not picked arbitrarily by Cumberland Farms,” he said.
That argument didn’t sway the neighbors or the board. Matt Higbee, in one of the more forceful speeches of the night, argued that allowing the gas station would “saddle the neighborhood with gas pumps” long after Cumberland Farms’ 20-year lease is up, since developers are generally loathe to buy properties that have been used as gas stations.
“Approval for this project is approval for a vacant gas station in the future,” Higbee (pictured) said, holding up a photo of a vacant station on the Merritt Parkway.
Julia Chaffe, a neighbor, brought a poster to illustrate her point Whalley has 13 gas stations between downtown and Amity. That’s more than enough for such a small stretch of road, she said.
Some neighbors expressed concern that a highway-style convenience store/gas station wouldn’t benefit the character of the neighborhood. Colin Caplan, an architect who leads walking tours through New Haven, argued that the proposed store “has nothing to do with New Haven. It has nothing to do with our well-being, our memories, and our sense of place.”
The only New Haveners to speak in full support of the project were the current owner of the property, Al Morgillo, and his attorney.
“Who are they to tell me and my associates what to do with my property?” asked an indignant Morgillo. He said he has owned property in Westville for 50 years. “If this is not approved, my associates and I will stop maintaining the property and let it go down to nothing, and you can see what happens. I can afford to do it.”
Shortly after, Morgillo got the chance to make good on his threat, as the board voted to reject both of the special exception requests, killing the project.
Board member Stanley Kontogiannis praised the developers’ efforts to get neighbors on their side, but said it hadn’t been enough.
“Despite your community outreach, the community wasn’t behind you.”
Newhalville Not Interested
Humberto Collado had no idea opinions would run so strongly against his proposed bodega at 381 Shelton Ave. He hadn’t counted on opposition from Newhalville neighbors who see convenience stores as breeding grounds for crime.
New Haven police Sgt. David Guliuzza set the tone by reading a letter by Lt. Herbert Sharp, Newhallville’s top cop.
“The location has a significant crime rate,” the letter said, and the proposed store would only make things worse. “With convenience brings overpriced products, loitering, and a high probability of crime.”
The letter prompted loud applause from the 15 or so neighbors who lined up to speak in opposition to the proposed store, which would take over a building long occupied by Morena Hair Salon.
Collado (at right in photo) said he was surprised by the negative response. He said he had spoken with people who live in the area who welcomed his plan to open a store that would provide essentials like milk and bread in the early morning, before the Quick Check Stop across the street opens.
Rigoverto Alicea (at left in photo), who came to the meeting to translate for Collado, suggested that the owners of the Quick Check Stop may have been behind the opposition.
“It’s like any other business,” he said. “They don’t want competition.”
Star Gilliams (pictured in the photo at the top of the story, in the green sweater), who lives around the corner, would rather see zero convenience stores on her block. Like many of the neighbors who spoke at the meeting, she said the stores serve as hang-out spots for drug dealers and gang members.
“As long as the stores are open, people feel like they have the right to be on those corners,” she said.
Gilliams paused when asked what kind of tenants she’d prefer to see move into the space. After a moment, she thought of an answer.
“A police substation.”