How can a business make or break the safety of a neighborhood? Do 24-hour operations make it more or less safe?
Cedar Hill neighbors are confronting those questions at the intersection of Ferry and State streets.
A longtime gas station at that intersection is on the cusp of undergoing a transformation. Having purchased the property in July 2017 for $1.55 million, new owners PMG Petroleum want to reconfigure the 21,654 square-foot lot by tearing down an existing 624 square-foot convenience store and a 384 square-foot masonry building. In its place, PMG seeks to build a new 2,450 square-foot convenience store on the eastern property line that will be operated as either a 7-Eleven or a Circle K.
The new owners seek to relocate the existing eight fuel pumps and add four more under a new canopy in the center of the site, which will allow for 11 on-site parking spaces and better traffic flow through the site.
To do that, PMG needs a variance from zoning regulations that require five feet of side yard, and a special exception for the expansion of the gas station by four additional pumps.
Neighbors and members of the Cedar Hill Merchants Association were on board for these requests. But an additional request for a special exception to permit the new store to operate 24/7 has created heartburn for some neighbors and the police. The current gas station operates 24 hours a day, but because of the proposed expansion with a convenience store, the new owners needed a zoning exception to maintain those hours.
The Board of Zoning Appeals Tuesday night sided with neighbors who opposed the 24/7 operations. The board’s vote not to approve that part of the request might now upend the whole deal.
Attorneys and engineers testified before the BZA that a bigger well-lit convenience store with at least two employees on site 24/7 keeping up the property would help make the difference in the neighborhood’s ongoing battle against drugs, prostitution, and violence. They said they’d heard the concerns of the community and the police, making sure to provide adequate lighting and a security system with video cameras in their plan that looked beyond the property, and eliminating opportunities for people to conduct nefarious activities in secret.
But being able to do that is contingent upon being able to operate all day, every day.
PMG attorney Meaghan Miles argued that shutting down the business at around 11 p.m. each night would invite the very activity that neighbors don’t want because the site will be vacant for long stretches of time.
Beleaguered neighbors like Mamie Gardner said Cedar Hill has already had to deal with a gas station that is operating 24/7 and doing so badly. She told BZA members “it’s enough.” She’s lived in the neighborhood since 1968. She has seen a number of businesses come into the neighborhood and promise big things and not follow through.
“How much more can we take?” she asked.
Kenya Adams-Martin said having a bigger store that’s open 24 hours every day will only invite more people to congregate in a part of the neighborhood that already doesn’t sleep. She said that in addition to prostitution occurring on the premises, a person who was homeless lived behind the store for part of last year.
Camille Ansley, who owns property in the neighborhood, put it more bluntly. She said that the new store owners would be good neighbors if they closed at 11 p.m.
“Say goodnight and close your doors,” she said.
East Rock/Cedar Hill Alder Anna Festa said that sentiment of having the store shut down each night was supported by the former top cop for the area, Lt. Renee Dominguez. Festa read a letter from her urging the BZA to reject the special exception for 24/7 operations.
Miles said if the store isn’t open 24/7 the burden remains on the police to keep an eye on the site. With the upgrades that PMG has planned, some of that would be reduced, she said. She said PMG is committed to being part of the community and would be a dues-paying member of the Cedar Hill Merchant Association. PMG also has agreed to share its video-camera footage with police. It promises not to sell K2 or loosies.
“This redevelopment would be a great opportunity to revitalize an area that desperately needs it,” Miles said.
After hearing both sides Monday night, the BZA voted in support of a certificate of approval of location, a variance for the side yard, and a special exception for the gas station expansion. But it sided with neighbors on the hours of operation, denying the request for 24/7 operations.
The debate continued in the hall of 200 Orange St. after the vote as PMG tried unsuccessfully to convince neighbors that operating 24/7 was the safer option.
Camille Ansley challenged the PMG team to make it work under the 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. operating guidelines and then revisit in a year or two when the neighborhood is healthier.
“I can tell you now it’s going to be worse,” Armand Keurian, PMG director of development said.
“I disagree,” Ansley said.
Keurian said after the vote the inability to operate 24/7 could mean that PMG can’t go forward with the development of the site. He said it wasn’t just a business problem but a safety problem. He said it’s unclear at this point if the project will go forward.