MERIDEN — The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously Tuesday night to allow the owners of Centennial Plaza to build a climate-controlled self-storage facility, despite the overwhelming objection of local residents.
During the nearly three-hour meeting, city staff read more than 70 comments opposed to DealPoint Merrill’s request to build the self-storage facility in the former Stop & Shop and vacant Railroad Salvage buildings.
While the ZBA members, several who shopped in the plaza, said they would have preferred another grocery store on the west side, they had to evaluate the variance request based on the information before them.
“This is obviously one of the most difficult decisions in the eyes of the public in the close to 20 years that I’ve been around,” said ZBA vice chairman Mark Dupuis. “What’s before us is not what we want to have before us.”
The vote came after a discussion on the state of the retail and grocery industry, and a market research study showing storage to be among the only sustainable uses for the 1960s-era plaza.
“If you look at that plaza, it’s not dead, but it’s not thriving,” Dupuis continued. “The Railroad Salvage store, that building has been empty for 25 years. Now the other building is empty.”
ZBA Chairman Victor Matias and the other four members agreed with Dupuis that the testimony showed there was a good faith effort to find another supermarket and fill the vacancy.
“What we have here is a new attempt or approach of a mixed use,” Dupuis said. “We’re not the ones to determine what’s going in there. It meets the legal standards for granting a use variance. Self-storage is not mentioned anywhere in Meriden’s zoning (rules), which creates the hardship. I’m not sure we would prevail on a legal challenge after we approved essentially the same use across the street.”
The variance was granted with conditions restricting vehicles on the property and hours of operation. The plan calls for interior storage only.
Earlier in the evening, City Planning Director Paul Dickson read each comment from the public to members.
Residents rejected the request by Centennial LLC and DealPoint Merril to allow self-storage and wanted the owners to try harder to find a supermarket arguing retail uses are what is called for in the zone.
The site is currently C-2, which allows for large retail and commercial uses but not storage units.
City residents discussed the hardship to the west side neighbors who now travel farther to a supermarket, the lack of traffic they feel self storage will bring to area businesses, the negative impact they feel self storage will have on property values and the loss of tax revenue to the city. The hardship is particularly difficult for seniors who lack transportation, speakers said.
“Stop & Shop’s abandonment has left a huge hole in the west side,” wrote resident David Katz. “They (storage units) are as cold as it gets. Please don’t lose the opportunity to do what’s right even if it takes more time and effort. This is of no benefit to anyone who lives here.”
Holly Wills, president of the Council of Neighborhoods, was among those who opposed the storage units.
“I am asking that you deny the request,” Wills wrote. “It will have a definite negative impact on the quality of life.”
Wills and others mentioned the availability of storage units in three nearby locations, the traffic and noise, and potential for criminal activity. The owner of the Beverage Mart in the plaza was the only commenter in favor of the zone change.
Land use attorney Dennis Ceneviva represented DealPoint Merrill. He expressed empathy for the residents’ concerns but defended the owners’ efforts to bring in new tenants.
“They would have loved to have Stop & Shop to stay,” Ceneviva said. “But that decision was made years ago. Shop Rite said no. Big Y, Aldi said no. Trader Joe’s said no. There isn’t a lack of effort on the part of the owners.”
Stop & Shop also has a store in Meriden on the east side.
The applicant needed to prove a hardship to receive a variance. Ceneviva reminded ZBA members that it approved seven out of seven variances for self-storage units in the city since 1977.
“This application is consistent with every application for storage units brought before the ZBA,” Ceneviva said. “The hardship arises from the fact that self storage is not permitted in any zone. In order to be consistent with every application brought before you since 1977. This is an opportunity to take a plaza that is vacant and hopefully won’t become blighted.”
Sterling McGregor, of DealPoint Merrill, told the board the company is investing $13 million in the mixed-use project that will also include commercial tenants.