Cedar Hill neighbors didn’t want a 24-hour convenience store. And they’re not going to get one. Instead, they will keep a plain gas station at the corner of Ferry and State Street — one that still stays open 24 hours.
That was the outcome of a public hearing Tuesday at the Hall of Records, where the Board of Zoning Appeals sided with neighbors who were open to the redevelopment of a gas station in the neighborhood known for attracting homeless loiterers, panhandlers, drug dealers, and prostitutes into a bigger convenience store— but were against it operating there 24-hours a day.
Board members voted unanimously to deny the new owners of the station Petroleum Marketing Group, or PMG, a special exception that would have allowed them to operate a new convenience store on the site 24 hours.
The vote put an apparent end to months of wrangling between people who saw a plan to improve Cedar Hill and others who saw a plan to increase late-night crime.
The existing gas station already operates 24 hours a day, But because the owners want to build a new, bigger convenience store and ditch the small kiosk on the site, they had to come before the BZA for a special exception. It was the second time that PMG had received a denial from the BZA over the hours of operation. (Read more about that here.)
PMG’s quest to run a 24-hour operation pit longtime Cedar Hill business owners like Marie Gallo and Bill Russo against longtime neighborhood residents like Mamie Gardner and Kenya Adams-Martin. Supporters like Gallo and Russo argued that a 7-Eleven would be a better, more legitimate draw for the neighborhood than the bodegas down the block known for their illegal activities. Neighbors like Gardner argued that a 24-hour convenience store would be another reason for people to further linger at the site and cause late-night trouble.
A site and convenience security expert, Ken Barnes testified at the hearing that he reviewed two years of police data for the gas station. It amounted to only six reports, three of which had nothing to do with the store.
But it was the testimony of Newhallville/East Rock/Cedar Hill’s top cop Lt. Manmeet Colon that swayed board members most.
PMG has promised to provide streaming access to security camera footage once the new store is built. But, Colon testified, she’s having trouble getting access to current camera footage to help solve more recent crimes such as a day time shooting that happened in the area. She also suggested that a 24-hour operation would simply invite more people to hang out at the store in the early hours of the morning.
East Rock/Cedar Hill Alder Anna Festa said with the neighborhood struggling under the weight of a high crime rate and homelessness, she wasn’t certain it can handle a 24-hour convenience store right now.
“Until we can get things tamed and calmed down, I don’t know if a 24-hour operation is the right answer,” she said. “We’re in dire straits.”
Festa was willing to compromise, suggesting to the BZA that PMG could be allowed to operate the gas station as it currently does, but the convenience store would close at 11 p.m. or midnight and reopen at 5 a.m.
Sensing their plans for bringing in an international convenience store like 7-Eleven slipping away, PMG was willing to agree to such a compromise, with a caveat: They would live under the arrangement for about a year with the opportunity to revisit it if the crime rate went down with the increased cooperation with police and the improvements to the site.
But ultimately the BZA chose to deny the application.
“I don’t feel that we have enough evidence from the applicant to approve this at this time,” said Mildred Melendez, who served as acting BZA chair during Tuesday’s meeting.
Armand Keurian, PMG’s director of development, said the failure to receive the approval to operate a convenience store either 24 hours or at least until midnight scuttles the plan for redeveloping a larger store. He said he would continue to operate it as it is now.
“There’s no reason to do anything else,” he said.