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NRDC eager to continue

By Michelle Symington

MetroWest Reminder Assistant Editor

AGAWAM Although the voters of Agawam shot down the ballot questions that would have changed the city's zoning by-laws to allow National Realty and Development Corporation (NRDC) to move forward with the Agawam Pavilion project, the battle is not yet over.

Residents of the city voted against Question 1, with 5,739 "no" votes to 3,719 "yes" votes. Question one would have amended the city's zoning by-law by adding language of permitted uses, such as "retail shopping centers comprising of more that one building, planned as a total entity ... designed to serve an area larger than the immediate surrounding neighborhood" in Business B districts.

Question 2 yielded similar results with 5,635 "no" votes and 3,764 "yes" votes. Question 2 would have changed the zoning of the land off of Tennis Road where NRDC is looking to build a large shopping center to all Business B.

Portions of the land is currently zoned Agricultural, Residential A3, Business B and combinations of the three.

The results of the election did not discourage the company from wanting to move forward with the project.

Mark Robbins, managing director for NRDC, said that the company is "very eager" to continue with the project and it is "always a process that takes time."

"I think what occurred with the city showed that we have at least 3,700 supporters," he said. "We found it very encouraging."

He explained that NRDC is interested in 94 acres of land that is under contract and the tenants remain "very interested in the community."

He added that that the additional "good news" is that the city's Planning Board is working with the City Council to create a zoning amendment and advance their by-law so it is clearly defined so that a developer can make an application for a shopping center in the city.

"It is always a process and they're working hard to come up with mending their zoning by-laws so it would make the process for applying more transparent and clearly defined," Robbins said.

He added that he hopes NRDC will be invited to participate in workshop sessions with the Planning Board and City Council to "help them craft that language."

"Unfortunately, the current language in the zoning text does not allow us to make an application," he said.

He added that NRDC has not had the opportunity to share with the public the architecture and landscaping that it has planned for the proposed shopping center.

He said that he believes if people saw the plans, they would see that it is "elegant" and would be a "trophy project.

"I hope everyone would appreciate the fiscal benefit," Robbins said, which he added would be about $1 million a year in fresh real estate tax revenue.

He added that NRDC is also interested in creating a trust fund that would provide funding to different community groups.

He also said that the project would have a $50 million construction budget that would create a number of jobs and once complete there will be an additional 350 retail jobs.

Robbins described the Agawam Pavilion project as "unique" and said that people have not had enough time to digest it.

He also said that an enormous amount of work has gone into the project thus far and that he sees it as a true "win-win."

According to Robbins, Agawam would have the convenience of shopping in their own city, would have additional revenue and little impact on traffic. He said all traffic would be isolated off of Route 57.

"I have never seen such a well planned project," he said. "It is a wonderful opportunity for us to present it because the town would capture all of the fiscal benefits."

Robbins said that he believes the people who voted "no" were not saying that they did not want tax revenue, a Panera Bread or a Target, but were saying they were concerned and did not understand the specific legal ramifications of potential zoning changes.

"I think is was more of a fear of change or a fear of the unknown," he said.

He added that he would like to receive some direction from the city about what they can do to collaborate in a productive way.

The Agawam Planning Board is currently working to amend the city's zoning by-laws in regards to large shopping centers.

A public hearing about the Board's proposed amendments took place during a City Council meeting last Wednesday.

Dennis Hopkins, chair of the Planning Board, explained that the Board began to revise the city's zoning by-law when they were approached by a developer who was interested in building a large shopping center.

He said that Agawam is now a "grown up" community.

"It is much more appropriate for the town to come up with our own [zoning by-laws]," he said.

He said that the proposed amendments would allow for the construction of a shopping center with restrictions defined by the city. He added that the proposed amendment need refinement to make it acceptable to the City Council.

He also said that a zoning amendment may create the opportunity for Agawam to have retail by a quality developer, which may then result in other developments in the city rising to a higher standard.

Travis Ward, member of the Planning Board, explained that the Board's amendment allows for a much smaller entity than the proposed Tennis Road 563,000 square foot or more project.

He said that the Board's amendment would allow for a 140,000 square foot shopping center, which is about one-fourth of proposed project.

"We are trying to take the word 'regional' out of it," he said. "The intent is to have something that fits the community."

He added that the idea is to have something that benefits the city but does not overwhelm it.

Rick Zini, Planning Board member, explained that retail zoning in Agawam currently is non-existent.

"The Planning Board feels it is time to work on what planning is, helping the town revise the zoning and provide regulations," he said.

He said that the Board broke into two sub-committees and worked together on what the goal would be as a group.

He explained that the Board members looked at Agawam, neighboring communities, Worcester, Boston and towns just over the border in Connecticut.

He added that they contacted many zoning officials in communities such as East Longmeadow, West Springfield, Longmeadow, Westfield, and Suffield and Granby, Conn.

"It is a lot of information to digest," Zini said.

He added that Agawam's zoning amendment needs to come from the input of a number of people.

He said that the Planning Board, City Council and the public need to come up with something that is in the best interest of the city.

"The current zoning does not regulate anything," he said.

According to Zini, the amendment may scare some retailers away if the regulations are too strict and large developers would take advantage if the zoning is too loose.

He explained that the Food Mart and Ames buildings together equal about 140,000 square feet, which is the proposed amount in the zoning amendment.

He added that another example of a 140,000 square foot shopping center includes the Longmeadow Shops, and the Granby and Simsbury Shops in Connecticut.

He said that as an Agawam taxpayer, he is in favor of retail, but he does not want to see a Riverdale Street in his city.

The proposed amendment would add the following "permitted uses" to the city's zoning by-laws:

"Retail shopping centers comprising of only one building with on-site common parking, planned as a total entity with on-site common parking areas for customer and employee parking provided so as to comprise an efficient and architecturally integrated shopping area, designed to serve an area larger than the immediate surrounding neighborhood.

"Retail shopping centers may include department stores, variety stores, supermarkets, furniture stores, household appliance stores, home improvement stores, lawn equipment stores, gift shops, restaurants, including drive-in and drive-through restaurants, drugstores, barbershops, beauty shops, office supply stores, food stores, optical stores, clothing stores, financial institutions (with or without drive-thru windows), health clubs, movie theaters, doctor's offices, dentist offices and other professional offices open to the public, children's day care and activity centers. Only one principal building per lot is allowed.

"These stores will not include, as principal of accessory use, motor vehicle services, such as new or used motor vehicle sales, freestanding tire, brake and muffler shops, automobile repair shops and gasoline stations, No accessory use or building is permitted under this zoning."

The proposed zoning amendment also addresses application procedures, parking, traffic reports, streets and drives, buffers and greenspace, lighting, storage, building facades, noise, and maintenance.

The proposed zoning amendment would require that a minimum lot size be 20 acres, with a maximum 140,000 square foot facility (overall single building size).

City Councilor Gina Lettellier, a member of the Council's zoning sub-committee, explained that the Committee met with the Planning Board prior to the Council meeting to raise issues about the Board's proposed amendment.

She said that the committee raised concerns such as the language and how specific words such as "preferred" would be defined, delivery routes, and who would grant the special permit.

"We all agree it was a heck of a job by the Planning Board," she said, adding that she would like to hear more input from the public, both pro and con.

City Councilor George Bitzas thanked the Planning Board for their "good work" and said, "It is a good first step in the right direction."

The City Council and the Planning Board plan to host workshops about the proposed zoning amendment.

The Council voted to continue the public hearing about the amendment and decided to table the item.