Ali Enterprises, LLC has been granted a use variance to construct an 1,800-square foot convenience store at the 18,000-square-foot Shell service station site on Parker Avenue and Valley Street — across the street from Columbia High School.
The special meeting of the Maplewood Zoning Board of Adjustment was called to hear public comments prior to deliberation, after testimony from traffic engineers for both sides took up most of the May 2 meeting.
The meeting began with Board Chairman Larry Seltzer asking if any member of the public would like to comment in favor of the proposed 7-Eleven, but those who came to speak were there to oppose the issue.
The opposition was primarily comprised of area residents surrounding the proposed construction. Speaker after speaker asked for the application to be denied.
Several people spoke about “quality of life” issues. Many residents voiced their concerns for both increased foot traffic from Columbia High School to the 7-Eleven, and the safety of the students who would presumably frequent the store. Residents already concerned about previous traffic accidents in the area said this would only exacerbate the problem.
Resident David Acevedo called the improvements “a fatality waiting to happen.”
Part of the proposed plan for the convenience store includes hardwiring security cameras in the store directly to the police station.
Ian Flamm voiced his concerns about what this would do to an already overburdened Maplewood Police Department.
Virginia Kurshan, chairwoman of the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission, told the board, “This is an early suburban commuter town. This is not a town that is full of franchised stores – in fact the township committee has made every effort to keep franchises out of this community. In the context of this community, this is totally out of character.”
Multiple residents referred to testimony given by . McKenzie argued the benefits of this project would include the ability pick up milk while getting gas, or stopping for a late-night cup of coffee.
“Maplewood is four square miles. You could walk to a cup of coffee and a quart of milk on your hands and knees,” said Bruce Connolly, a zoning board member from 1988 to 1994.
Connolly listed several places in and around Maplewood where locals may pick up “a cup of coffee and a quart of milk,” in order to make his point the town does not need the convenience of a 7-Eleven.
After public commenting was complete, Louis Rago, the applicant’s attorney responded to the comments.
In response to concerns over the safety of CHS students, he said “these are high school students, these are not children.”
He also said, “This is more than just a 7-Eleven,” and says the project will bring improvements to the neighborhood – such as enhanced landscaping and a chain link fence to prevent loitering. Rago asked the board to approve the variance request and said “please don’t visit the evils of this part of Maplewood on a 7-Eleven, it’s not that big a deal.”
During deliberation, board member Deanne Wilson Landress finalized the details of the store’s hours, saying if Rago’s client did not agree to hold the same hours of operation as the gas station, that could be a dealbreaker. Rago agreed to the terms and the store will operate from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
When it became time to vote, Larrier said, “I’m torn as a member of this community.” He ultimately voted ‘no.’
Ultimately McKenzie's arguments from March 7 prevailed. McKenzie had noted that both service stations and convenience stores are allowed by the current neighborhood business zoning for the lot. She also argued Maplewood code requires a 10,000-square-foot lot for service stations and a 5,000-square-foot lot for convenience stores. At 18,000 square feet, McKenzie said the current lot location would be more than adequate for both uses if it were subdivided.
McKenzie had also argued on March 7 a variance must be granted if the applicant can show no substantial impairment to the public good.
The board members and residents who appeared to comment at last night’s meeting disagreed on this point.
Just before the vote was taken, a woman in the gallery rose and screamed at the board for what she called rewarding "slumlord behavior." The board could not silence her, so they began their vote while she was still yelling at them.
The motion carried 5-2, with board members Gussen, Landress, Dybner, Seltzer, and Kaloyanides voting yes, and Larrier and Kashtan voting no.