Council OKs Kroger despite outcry from neighbors
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Sep 11, 2013, 12:42
COLONIAL HEIGHTS -- City Council unanimously approved a deal that would bring a Kroger grocery store to Temple Avenue despite complaints from some neighbors that the location will add too much traffic, noise and pollution.
On top of that, neighbors are frustrated by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plan to construct a giant roundabout nearby to replace the current traffic signal leading from the Interstate 95 exit. While city officials say it is fortuitous to have the construction projects come together, some residents predict years of headaches.
The plan for the city to sell the old courthouse was announced Friday, but still had to be officially approved by council at a public hearing so that City Manager Thomas Mattis could finalize the agreement with Kroger. They will have until March to close the deal.
The old courthouse location is being vacated as a new courthouse is set to open on the southern end of the Boulevard next month.
On Tuesday night, Mattis went over details of the Kroger proposal in depth.
Mattis said the old court building and about 9 acres along Temple Avenue will be sold for $2.6 million but Kroger is paying for numerous other improvements, such as a necessary traffic study, lights, sidewalks, drainage, and possible water and sewer improvements.
The new store would be at 401 Temple Ave., between the Interstate 95 exit ramp and Hamilton Avenue, which leads into a residential neighborhood.
Kroger has committed to paying for signals at the intersection of Temple and Hamilton, which could cost $300,000 by themselves, Mattis said.
Mattis said VDOT already is planning to add lanes on Temple Avenue and creating the I-95 exit roundabout, so the timing is good for the Kroger. But he said the VDOT plan may have to change to add a second left turn lane at Hamilton and Temple. VDOT is holding an informational hearing on the Temple Avenue changes from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
The Kroger is expected to be at least 86,000 square feet, which is larger that the next closest store in Chester, but if could grow further once a survey is done to see exactly how much land they have to work with. There is a discrepancy between tax records and a survey that could make the property closer to 13 acres.
The store will have a pharmacy, bakery, organic food section and even a fuel center with nine pumps. The sale agreement would stipulate that the store can be open from 5 a.m. to midnight.
Mattis said the city and Kroger hope to build “as big a store as they can fit in this footprint.”
The store is expected to add about 200 jobs, with at least 40 of them being full-time.
Mattis laid out a timeline for work on the project.
The old courthouse is expected to be demolished in spring 2014. Based on the contract, construction should begin by Dec. 31, 2014, and the store should open by Dec. 31, 2015.
But officials said construction was likely to begin next summer and the store should be open by the summer of 2015.
If Kroger has not started pouring a footer on the building by Dec. 31, 2014, then the city has the option to buy the property back at a reduced price of $2.4 million.
Mattis said the deal is good for the city because it didn’t have to provide any development incentives and the city is set to get substantial tax revenue that can be used for unfunded capital projects. Mattis predicted the tax revenue to reach hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The city currently has a list of about $30 million in various projects that it hopes to complete.
The zoning for the old courthouse site still has to be changed from residential/office to commercial and the city’s comprehensive plan has to be updated.
Kroger plans to have lighting for safety in the parking lot but aims to do it in a way as to not bother neighbors. They also plan to keep the building at least 15 feet away from the property line and build an 8 foot fence on the side facing the residential neighborhood.
With the future Kroger site sitting in a valley, the nearby homes will be significantly higher than the ground level of the store. It is unclear if the fence will be at the bottom or top of the hill or how much of the tree line will be preserved to shield the view of neighbors.
The contract also allows only one sign up to 18 feet tall for the store.
“This project shows great sensitivity to the neighborhood issues,” Mattis said. “... I don’t know that we can come up with a better scenario.”
But more than a dozen people came to Tuesday night’s council meeting to criticize the plan.
Frank McDaniel, who has lived next to the land for more than 40 years, said he has trouble at times now backing out of his driveway on Hamilton Avenue and said this store will make it much worse.
But he acknowledged “there are things that could come to that site that are much worse than a Kroger.”
Mayor Scott Davis said other options were restaurants that could be open until 2 a.m. or a multi-story hotel, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, McDaniel said it could be office space where people go home at 5 p.m.
Henry Beville, who also lives next to the location, said he was worried about gas fumes from the pumps, shoppers’ cars and the trucks that are used to deliver goods to the store. Jean Livingston also said she is worried about the extra traffic and pollution.
Helen Szarama, who lives directly behind the property, said that the public was not given enough input on the project.
“What good is a public hearing after the fact and a done deal?” she said.
Council members fired back, saying the process of dealing with businesses is typically done behind closed doors so they won’t lose negotiating power. Council members also said they have to look at what is best for the city as a whole.
Councilman Joe Green noted that VDOT’s plan for the roundabout is the third proposal.
“The first two were quite insufficient” but he said the state can override the city’s wishes.
He said VDOT is more concerned with preventing traffic from backing up onto the interstate.
Green noted that the VDOT project is separate from the Kroger project.
“If Kroger doesn’t even go in, this interstate exchange is happening,” including changes on Temple and the intersection with Hamilton, he said.
Councilman Milton Freeland said he understands why neighbors may not like the change.
“I don’t think there is a place in the city you can live and not have the same issues that these people are going to have,” he said.
But Freeland said Temple Avenue is not what it was decades ago.
“I think we realize that the Temple Avenue corridor there is not a real residential area. ... It was at one time, but it will never be back like that again,” Freeland said.
He did want to emphasize though that he is very much opposed to VDOT’s roundabout plan.
Councilman Kenneth Frenier said he had gotten many comments from people who wanted a Kroger grocery store in the city long before plans were in the works at this location.
“People wanted a grocery store in the south end [of the city] and there’s not really any property in the south end per se without tearing down residential ... so this is about as south end as you can get,” he said.
He noted that the plan purposefully turned the Kroger sideways so that residents won’t be looking at the back end of the store where trucks unload.
Councilman John Wood said it is important for communities to attract businesses to share the tax burden with residents. He said people want good schools and services, but there is a tradeoff of having to deal with development.
“Unfortunately most of you citizens here bear the brunt of that tradeoff,” he said.
Vice Mayor Diane Yates said she empathizes with the residents next door to the site but the council has to look at the big picture.
“Not only do we represent people that live in that area but we represent the entire city,” she said.
Mayor Davis said that although there were many people at the meeting Tuesday night who oppose the plan, it likely doesn’t represent the wishes of the entire community.
“We very rarely have anyone who comes to a council meeting that speaks in support of anything,” he said.
He reiterated that council must do what is best for the city as a whole. He also noted that many other residential neighborhoods in the city already have large businesses right next door, including grocery stores and 24-hour gas stations.