(Editor's Note and Disclosure: The following story's Planning Board meeting coverage is entirely sourced from comments made on a New Castle Community Media Center broadcast of the meeting. The exception is coverage of a Town Board work session held the same night).
Despite doing a presentation for its retail and grocery store plan, Chappaqua Crossing owner Summit/Greenfield was not able to convince New Castle's Planning Board members to change their skepticism.
The presentation, given at the board's Tuesday meeting, led to a recap of older board concerns with the concept for the former Reader's Digest site, such as possible competition with existing merchants and whether there is a need for the idea. It also included newer ones, including about if the three proposed uses for the 114-acre property - they are office, retail and residential - are integrated enough with each other. The board members made their concerns known during work session held in October and November.
Summit/Greenfield's proposal would include housing the main grocery store - it could range from 36,000 to 66,000 square feet, depending on the needs of the tenant - taking up the first two stories of the rotunda structure and with the floor between them removed. It would be extended to two floor of a multi-story replacement structure for the 1-story building 100, which would be demolished, and have four ancillary tenants.
The developer, while submitted its plan to the town in October, did so in response to a similar proposal from the Town Board that calls for a grocery store of 50,000 to 60,000 square feet, with ancillary retail tenants of 5,000 square feet each. Residents and merchants have criticized the idea, feeling that it could cause traffic problems, be an out-of-place strip mall or compete with existing shops.
Both plans would requiring creating a retail overlay zone to cover a portion of the existing commercial zone that is intended for office use.
Among the most skeptical is board members is Tom Curley, who questioned the economic viability of a grocery store being able to afford moving into the property or deal with one that is not as visible from an arterial roadway.
Curley remarked by saying that it “just doesn't pass the smell test, if you know what I mean.”
“I agree with you. This is not a traditional site," said Andrew Tung, an engineer who is working with Summit/Greenfield and presented the project. However, Tung felt that the property itself is an asset for the grocer, and that the building it would be housed in is“an automatic recognition throughout northern Westchester.”
Curley was pretty overt in his opposition to the project as proposed, feeling that the configuration considered may be redundant to existing retail, including the Route 117 corridor between Mount Kisco and Bedford Hills. He also felt that using the rotunda building for a grocery store would be a "big mistake", favoring a more insitutional use such as office space.
“This I think is for something else, and if we haven't figured out what it's for then maybe we need to," Curley said. "But I'm just concerned that we're doing the wrong thing here.”
Curley's comments came after Tung described hypoethetical tenant mixes, which would depend on whom the grocer is. Hypothetical examples of ancillary could include national chains such as Chipotle, Five Guys, or an alternative "junior anchor" scenario, which would have space in the five digits for square footage. Examples of the later that Tung raised could be Staples and Petco, both of which have locations in Mount Kisco.
Members of the Planning Board based their feedback partially to a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) that Summit/Greenfield has submitted for the project, which the town is currently reviewing.
Board member Sheila Crepsi also questioned whether more retail was needed and if New Castle is underserved, given the proximity of town residents to business districts in places such as Mount Kisco, Thornwood and Ossining.
“It's a zero-sum game at some point. There's only a finite number of shoppers in Westchester,” she said. Crespi also noted that whether the town is underserved is not backed by specific studies.
Board members raised concern as to whether the tenant mix could create competition with existing merchants in downtowns of Chappaqua and Millwood. One related item stemmed from Tung disclosing that Summit/Greenfield would like to deviate from the earlier version of the proposal made by the Town Board, which would call for retail spaces of 5,000 square feet each, a measure meant to limit competition. Instead, the developer wants the flexibility to have between 1,500 to 5,000 square feet for four ancillary tenants.
“When you get to the end, you're sometimes left with a number of smaller spaces," Tung said about remaining space aside from a grocery store.
Whether there would be a collection of small ancillary tenants of the junior anchor would depend on the grocery company, as Tung noted a company would “have a group of smaller tenants that kind of follow it around.”
Summit/Greenfield heard form four to five companies, Tung said, “who have expressed great interest in this site.”
Crespi noted that the claim about the the proposal not being competitive is not supported by a study, either. Curley worried that national chains such as Staples could be "category killers," which through their size would discourage local competition in their sectors.
At the same time, board members questioned whether the concept should be considered without doing a broader study of the town's commercial situation, if not doing the Town Board's proposed master plan update.
“We got it backwards at the moment," said Planning Board Chair Richard Brownell.
“Instead of reacting to a proposal there should first be a thought process about what the possibilities are for this site and then a determination about what the best uses for this site might be,” said Crespi.
The board was also concerned about the planning impact of the lower level for the grocery store, at roughly 27,000 square feet below for storage, and how it relates to the proposal in general.
I never heard of one that big underneath, with that much square footage as opposed to footprint," said Brownell.
Tung also disclosed a significant item to the board: Summit/Greenfield intends to subdivide the property with eventual plans to have it owned by as many as three separate entities. The campus would be divided according to zoning uses: retail, office and residentail, the later of which being zoned for 111 housing units that the Town Board approved in April 2011 after a review process of a more ambitious proposal that went on for years. The town and Summit/Greenfield are in federal and state court because the developer is suing over how the residential rezoning proposal was reviewed.
Based on what Tung explained, the residential part would be held by a homeowners' association, while the retail and office areas would likely each be held by different landlords. Tung said that each section would have cross easements so that all three would have common access to the campus infrastructure.
Curley asked Tung if Summit/Greenfield intends to keep an ownership role for either of the three parts.
“I really can't speak for the partnership," Tung said, but added that he thinks their intention is “still to be determined.” However, Summit/Greenfield still intends to develop the property.
Board member Gerard Curran wondering if, under the three-owner scenario, if they would maintain their properties “at equal levels.”
The topic of separate uses drew criticism from some members, including Crespi and Curley, that the site as a whole would not be cohesive. One such example was the fact that a main roadway would have a view of the backsides of supporting retail buildings. Curley suggested that the three uses would be better off with integration similar to that of a downtown center. Crespi, building on the topic, reiterated her support for the idea that the concept in general needs to be studied, with Curley sympathized with.
Planning Board members, who are merely in an advisory role for both proposals, will have concerns summarized in a memo, which will be presented to the Town Board. The board has requested a deadline of Dec. 21 to turn in its memo because of Hurricane Sandy disrupted the initial review deadline.
At a work session held by the Town Board, down the hallway from the Planning Board, members considered the extension request and appeared receptive to the idea. Meanwhile, Town Attorney Clinton Smith noted that the town continues to review Summit/Greenfield's SEIS for whether there is enough information in it to hold a public hearing on it. The Town Board could decide later this month, he noted, whether or not there are enough details yet or if more are needed.