If there’s something in between a mock trial and a real courtroom, that’s what the auditorium of Cranston East turned into during February’s planning commission meeting last Tuesday. But there weren’t any students involved, and a real proposal to put a Cumberland Farms at the intersection of Warwick Avenue and Park Avenue was on the docket.
The planning commission, which will make a recommendation to the City Council on whether or not the proposal would work for that intersection, decided to hold off on their recommendation until the March meeting.
A similar Cumberland Farms proposal was voted down, 6-3, by the City Council in 2015. Councilman Steve Stycos, who presides over Ward 1 in Edgewood and Eastern Cranston, voted against it then and is still opposed to it now, prompting him to testify against it before the commission last week.
“The project is too large,” he said in a later phone interview. “It’s a huge gas station in the middle of a residential neighborhood…We have zoning and a comprehensive plan for a reason and that’s to protect the people who live in the area. To protect everybody who is there from development that is inappropriate.”
Stycos also cited values from the tax assessor’s office, stating that the assessed value of the current buildings on the land is $803,800 while the assessed value of the Cumberland Farms on Reservoir Avenue, which is similar to the gas station being proposed at this site, is $793,100. Stycos argued that the proposal wouldn’t enhance the city’s tax base because of this.
During the Planning meeting, representatives from both sides of the issue made sure the commission heard their opinions on the site from a planner’s perspective.
The proposal includes a zone change from C2 to C3, which would allow a dual fueling station/mini-mart to go in. The current C2 zone allows for one or the other to be put in, but not both, according to Cumberland Farm’s lawyer and Cranston’s Municipal Court Associate Judge John Bolton.
In arguing his point, which is that the zone change would allow for comprehensive planning, which would be better for that intersection, Bolton brought forth Cumberland Farm’s civic engineer, traffic engineer, and planning consultant to testify on behalf of the zone change and eventual gas station/mini-mart being put in.
Phil Henry, who works for Civil Design Group and is the gas station’s civic engineer on the project, told the commission that the site would be more pedestrian friendly than it is now because curb cuts, and a sidewalk through the station, would allow for easier walking. This is an especially contentious point over the proposal because many students walk through that area to get to school, particularly the middle schoolers at Park View.
Maureen Chlebek, of McMahon Associates, was pegged as the traffic consultant for Cumberland Farms. She said that their study began in June and tracked traffic from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. then again from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. She said they also took into account the schools nearby by tracking traffic during the after school hours of 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., but found the peak driving time to be from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m.
Chlebek’s takeaway: “An increase in delay [with the Cumberland Farms] will not be discernible by the average driver.”
Joseph Lombardo, hired by Cumberland Farms as their planning “expert,” said that 88% of the site is already designated for commercial land use. He also said about the potential gas station/mini-mart that neighbors in this area “should expect these services in dense, high population areas.”
The neighbors in this area also took to the podium to voice their concerns and opposition to the proposal. The Edgewood Preservation Society, a resident-led group, hired their own real estate, traffic, and planning “experts” to argue against the proposal.
Pamela Hanson-Carbone, a realtor who lives nearby in Warwick, focused on the impact the gas station would have on houses nearby. She cited the Federal Housing Association (FHA) guidelines for the housing loans they give out, which she said state that loans can’t be given to houses within 300 feet of a 1,000 gallon gas tank. She said that in this case, that encompasses 38 homes.
Hanson-Carbone said that 21% of Edgewood homes were bought with FHA loans. Her point was that putting this gas station in would make it harder for people to buy homes in the area, and therefore drive down the market in the area.
John Shelvin was brought in by the Society as their own traffic “expert,” and he said that they conducted their own study of the “busy intersection.” In a letter to the Planning Department, Shelvin said that his study was "in agreement with the overall methodology taken to complete the study" and that "the data collected and analyzed [in Chlebek's study] appear to be accurate." He added, however, that more study is needed into the insersection that takes into account the amount of pedestrians in the area and the overall traffics that exists.
His study showed that there are already significant delays to the intersection, but the Cumberland Farms wouldn't necessarily make it worse or better.
Ashley Sweet, a planning consultant, focused her testimony on the specific aspects of the proposal that the planning commission would be looking at when they give their recommendation.
Sweet said that city planning is guided largely by overall visions, and a major theme in the current comprehensive plan is to protect the neighborhoods of Cranston as best as possible. She said that this proposal does not adhere to the “wanted uses” policies of the plan and would alter the “character of the neighborhood” in an unwanted way.
She also argued that the gas station would impact pedestrians and sidewalks negatively and she also said that the zone change to a C3 would allow for some unwanted businesses to come in, such as a nightclub.
“Just because there’s a lack of vision for the site now doesn’t mean we have to take the first or second or third thing that comes along,” she said about the Cumberland Farms proposal.
Jason Pezzullo, who will officially be named the city Planning Director on March 2, said that it wouldn’t have been good policy to make their recommendation in a “bleary-eyed, midnight” decision during the meeting last week. He said the he is compiling all of his information and thoughts on the proposal now, and the commission will, barring something unexpected, present that at the March 6 meeting and make their recommendation then.
As for this recent meeting, Pezzullo said that although they’ve never had one go “quite like that,” in terms of its “marathon-like” nature, but he thought everyone was able to get their points across on the proposal.