Developers seek zoning waiver for proposed Starbucks
MANCHESTER -- A pair of developers seeking to bring a Starbucks coffee shop to town have opted to seek a waiver from the local zoning ordinances on parking restrictions as part of a change-of-use permit application.
Peter Keelan and Ed DuBlois, the principal partners in Equinox Square Associates, are hoping to install a Starbucks in the 2,000-square-foot location that formerly housed Take Five, a daycare center in the shopping plaza along Depot Street and bordered by Center Hill Street. The proposed location for Starbucks was also formerly a branch office for Berkshire Bank, and has a drive through window is already in place. That makes it an attractive location for Starbucks, a nationally known chain of coffee shops.
However, a drive thru automatically qualifies a restaurant as a "fast food" restaurant under the town's zoning bylaws, and sharply ratchets up the number of required parking spaces. In the case of Starbucks, that would have worked out to about 50 parking spaces based on the square footage of the proposed restaurant, calculated at one parking space per 40 square-feet.
Keelan and DuBlois are seeking a waiver that would only require seven parking spaces directly associated with Starbucks, contending that the existing drive thru will soak up a major portion of the vehicle traffic, which would then be able to exit out onto Center Hill.
There are a total of about 67 parking spaces in the current Equinox Square Plaza parking lot, with an additional 42 associated with the former Friendly's restaurant next door. That building is being refurbished by its new owner, Saronis LLC, and will be reopened at some point later this year.
At the Development Review Board's meeting Wednesday, March 19, Keelan and DuBlois said they had an agreement with Saronis to share parking spaces. Both Saronis LLC and Equinox Square Associates had until recently been locked in a legal struggle over a Subway restaurant proposed for another part of Equinox Plaza, but that has been settled now, both Keelan and DuBlois told the DRB Wednesday night.
"We have the right to use each other's parking spots -- we have a shared parking agreement," Keelan said during his opening presentation to the DRB. "Our customers can use his lot; his customers can use ours. From that standpoint, we think we have plenty of parking on the site."
DuBlois and Keelan's first option was not to seek a waiver on the parking requirements, and tried to make the case that Starbucks should be considered as a retail business which sold specialty coffees, not a restaurant. That would have required less than the 50 spaces they would have had to set aside for Starbucks.
They also contended that the entire Equinox Plaza parcel should be considered comparable to the overhaul and expansion of the Dunkin Donuts property on Main Street, which also features a drive thru window but is not considered a fast food restaurant.
However, neither argument appeared to gain much traction with the members of the DRB board.
"For us a restaurant is something that serves food and drink," said Alan Benoit, one of the DRB members. Just because Starbucks describes themselves as a retail business on their Web site didn't make them conform to that classification as spelled out in the town's bylaws, he added.
"If you serve food and drink as your principle business, then that classifies you as a restaurant," he said. "We're going by that definition."
Comparing the proposed Starbucks and considering it as part of an overall package as the DRB did with Dunkin Donuts, which has a gasoline, retail, food and drink, and car wash segments, along with a new drive thru window, didn't find favor either. The key factor is the "principle business" -- which element provides a business with at least 50 percent of its sales. In the case of Dunkin Donuts, the majority of their business was not food and drink, and therefore they received a permit even though they only had 12 parking spaces on their lot, according to several members of the DRB.
David Shelburne, the general manager of MTA Associates, which will operate the new Dunkin Donuts when it reopens, was attending the meeting, and told members of the DRB that the overwhelming majority of their business came from non-food sources, which includes their convenience store, gas pumps and car wash.
"The problem that I think we're struggling with is the drive thru (at Starbucks), which is kicking you into fast food," said John Watanabe, another member of the DRB, in response to Keelan and DuBlois contention that both sites should be viewed in terms of their entire businesses.
"I think for me that makes a big difference," said Greg Cutler, another DRB member, speaking later on about whether Starbucks was a retail business, a restaurant, or a "fast food" restaurant. "I don't think the board can get past the fast food designation based on the (town's ) bylaws."
Keelan and DuBlois received support for their application for several members of the audience. Lawrence Zupan said the arrival of a Starbucks would be a boost for the town's economy.
"I think Starbucks is a destination that enhances the town," he said. "We are looking forward to it.... it would be a wonderful addition."
After more than an hour of discussion, however, DuBlois and Keelan opted to smooth the way for their permit application by instead seeking a waiver to the parking regulations, which the DRB can authorize in cases when all the required parking is not actually need for the stated purpose.
Keelan and DuBlois contended that the peak hours when traffic would likely be flowing through Starbucks both for walk-in customers and those using the drive thru would be early in the morning before most of the other retail operations opened. The staggered hours of peak traffic were another reason that made sense for a waiver to be issued, they said.
After more than 90 minutes of discussion, the DRB closed the hearing Wednesday night and began their deliberative process. The board has 45 days to come up with its decision on the change of use permit.
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