Déjà Vu For Land Off Exit 56

Branford Review The recent public hearing on the proposed Costco development was reminiscent of the hearing held for a proposed supermall at the same location off Exit 56 on June 26, 1979.

The supermall was described in the June 14, 1979, edition of the Branford Review as what may be “the second biggest mall in the world.”

Even some of the property holders are the same, albeit a generation later. In 1979, the Cooke family – Nelson and Irving – expected to sell approximately 30 acres. This time, current property owner Wayne Cooke, their son and nephew, is looking at selling 21 acres, where the proposed Costco would be built.

The supermall developers also had options on a 37-acre parcel owned by Daniel Cosgrove, Sr. who earlier had sold adjoining property on which the TA Truck Stop was built. His grandson, First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, ran for office on a promise to bring Costco to Branford.  Click here to read about the recent hearing.

Then & Now

Interestingly, a couple of those who spoke out at an April 2 public hearing before the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) had ties to the opposition of the supermall in ’79. They will be back for the second P&Z Costco hearing to be held this Thursday, April 16, at Branford High School at 7 p.m.

Janet Riesman’s mother Margaret opposed the supermall; since 1946, the Riesman family has owned about 40 acres abutting the supermall/Costco property, which includes the 1685 Frisbie House, one of oldest in town. At the hearing Janet Riesman reminded the audience of the Cooke-Cosgrove effort nearly 36 years ago to construct a supermall that would contain a Sears, a Macy’s and a Bloomingdale’s.

Penny Bellamy, a former town counsel, spoke out at both the 1979 and April 2 public hearings.

Mall boundaries 1979. As with the current proposal, the 1979 supermall developers were seeking a zone change from general industrial to a Planned Development District (PDD). Valued at $150 million to $200 million (approximately two-thirds of the total assessed value of Branford’s property at the time), the supermall would have encompassed 180 acres. It was reported that the likes of Lord & Taylor was also being wooed, along with five theaters and perhaps a motel. People would travel as far as 50 miles to visit the mall, and 6,000 jobs were promised.

Rowdy Crowds Back Then

Thus far, however, the Costco hearing hasn’t matched the supermall hearings of summer 1979, when crowds were rowdy enough to require police presence.

And there were twists and turns to the development that made it akin to a soap opera.

When the copyrighted story broke in the Branford Review on June 14, 1979, Ron Pasqualino, executive vice president for developer S. Rudy Gatto Associates Development Corp. of Southbury, denied that the company had definite plans for the mall, though he acknowledged that the company was optioning off land in Branford.

Pasqualino was also involved in a controversy about whether a traffic study had been done in the area. The traffic issue is also a concern in the current Costco effort.  Less than a month later, Pasqualino severed ties with Gatto.

Landowners Irving Cooke and Nelson Cooke were also in the news at the time. At one point the P&Z chairman was told that the Cookes did not want to sell their property (Branford Review, July 26, 1979).  However, in a lengthy explanation the following week (Aug. 2, 1979), Nelson Cooke said that no mention of a mall was made when they were first approached by Gatto, so they declined the option to sell. However, they reconsidered once the four adjoining landowners were approached and plans for the mall were announced, stating that the sale was in the best interest of himself and his family.

Under terms of the options, the Cookes were offered $900,000 for the 30-acre parcel if the option was exercised within the first year and $1 million the second year. (Recently 21 acres of the Cooke land was appraised at $3 million.)

Daniel Cosgrove, who had previously sold adjoining property for the 76 (now TA) Truck Stop for $360,000, said he planned to sign an option for about $2.5 million for 37 acres adjoining that property. He called the project “a tremendous thing for Branford, the biggest and the best.”

Two other parcels were also involved, one with a single story home owned by Eileen Stober on Leetes Island Road and another with 130 acres on East Main Street to be acquired from Henry Labov and the William Ball estate, the price of which was not disclosed.

Hot and Cold Reaction

At the first public hearing in 1979, opponents cited many of the same concerns as those speaking against Costco: increased traffic, lack of real tax benefit or jobs, environmental concerns. As with today’s concerns, some expressed the opinion that such development would be better off at Cherry Hill (where Walmart is now located), an area that was in decline in 1979 since several stores there had gone out of business; even today the area begs for some kind of constructive development.

As with today’s grassroots organization, Branford Citizens for Responsible Development, a petition opposing the supermall was presented by Townwide Coalition for Reform; that group was created in response to a lack of faith in the Planning & Zoning Commission.

Through attorney Barry Cox, Margaret Riesman cited traffic problems, devaluation of her property, which abuts the proposed development, lack of standards in guiding the commission in establishing a special development area, and the possibility of such a development being open-ended.

In speaking at the zone change hearing for Costco, Janet Riesman, Margaret’s daughter, reiterated that the Cooke-Cosgrove alliance had attempted to develop the property over the years. In a letter to the P&Z, Janet wrote, “The truth is nothing has changed on the property since 1979 and since the first request to put retail on the same site – neither the wetlands, nor the zoning, although the traffic has undeniably become more dense with each year.”

The Stony Creek Association (SCA) was also opposed to the supermall in 1979. Fast forward to 2015 and the SCA says it is taking no position, though many of its members are speaking out against the proposed Costco Plaza.

Local Business Owners React

The response to the supermall from the business community was mixed (Branford Review, June 21, 1979). Downtown merchants mostly agreed that if they were offered a spot in the supermall, they would prefer to keep their Main Street businesses. Today’s business community has yet to weigh in on the effect of Costco on downtown and Branford businesses in general.

Bob Esposito of Branford Book and Card, which has been on Main Street for 40 years, said in 1979 that he would have problems being able to compete with the likes of Walden Books and Hallmark. Regarding Costco, Esposito said in an interview this week that small businesses are a “dying breed … there’s no way to compete with Costco.” He added that he relies on customers they’ve had throughout the years. 

William Ward of Towne Pharmacy (his daughter, Karen, now owns the business) believed the mall “would ruin Branford as a community,” but he had no intention of moving and thought his clients, and other downtown customers, would remain loyal.

Branhaven’s district manager at the time, William March, believed that the plaza would not be affected, adding that such malls often have a high number of stores, then go down.

Realtors believed the supermall would have a “fantastic” impact (Branford Review, June 21, 1979) on the town due to the tax benefit, job creation, increased value of real estate, and encouraging more people to move to town.

As with the Costco zone change proposal, a second public hearing for the supermall was scheduled for July 25, based on the need to clarify information and to give proponents a chance to present their views (Branford Review, July 5, 1979).

That public hearing lasted nearly five hours. About 60 people spoke, with about a dozen in favor and nearly five dozen opposed.

Dan Cosgrove, in response to several people stating that Branford was going downhill, said, “There’s nothing rotten about Branford,” and defended the Democrats’ record in improving the town’s finances.

He added, “I want my property zoned for the highest and best use, and if that’s selfish, so be it.” He said that one acre of his property is assessed for more than the average house in Branford.

Photographer Earl Colter, a self-described “fence-sitter,” expressed concern that the matter was becoming a political issue, stating that a “heavy cloud of suspicion” had been created.

The Decision Is Made

The decision was made quickly at the end of that lengthy meeting. The Planning & Zoning Commission approved an overlay on just 33 acres (owned primarily by Dan Cosgrove) out of the original 180 acres by a vote of 5-0, which “precluded construction of any major mall there,” reported the Branford Review on July 26, 1979. Cosgrove later expressed an interest in selling the property to a foreign company.

Then P&Z Chair Gene Bontatibus said that one of the landowners – it turns out it was the Cookes – decided not to sell their parcel, a parcel that was crucial for the construction of the mall. “The mall is dead,” he proclaimed.

An appeal subsequently filed on Aug. 15, 1979 (Branford Review, Aug. 16, 1979) in New Haven Superior Court against the P&Z by supermall opponents was primarily directed at the P&Z and cited conflict of interest on the part of chair Bontatibus and the commission, favoritism and legal issues regarding meetings.

That’s where the trail grows cold. Penny Bellamy, who was among those involved in the appeal, believes the matter simply fizzled out.

However, the spectre of a shopping mall at Exit 56 refused to die. Wayne Cooke’s attempt to work with Rhode Island developers in 2008 also failed.

In recent years, shopping malls, as we have known them, have changed significantly. No new shopping malls in America have been built since 2006 and many of the anchor stores that made malls popular have closed. 

It remains to be seen how this current fight for a Costco Plaza will turn out. Other landowners, including Charles E. Weber, a longtime friend and associate of the Cosgrove family, are involved in the overall 44-acre plan now before the P&Z.

The principals of Orchard Hill Partners, LLC, who are identified in state records as Weber and Al Secondino, filed notice with the town recently that they have an option to purchase the 21 acres of Cooke family land that is part of the PDD and the proposed location of the Costco. The option is in effect until March 29, 2017. The land has been appraised at $3,010,800 according to town records.

Dan Cosgrove was at one time one of the largest property owners in Branford, especially in the exit 56 area.  Now, at age 97, he no longer owns the large amount of land he once owned. Todds Hill Road Circle, LLC, which takes its name from his address at 99 Todds Hill Road, is now owned by his children, Susan Cosgrove Barnes and his sons, Dan and Mark.   

Dan is First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove’s father. The address of the Todd Hill Road LLC is 164 North Main, the address of the Cosgrove Construction Co, which Dan, Sr., ran for many decades and was most recently supervised by Jamie Cosgrove before he was elected first selectman in 2013. 
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Note: The Blackstone Memorial Library has an extensive digital library of back issues of the Branford Review, which were used for this story, as well as older Branford newspapers and other archival publications.

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