The public hearing on a proposed Grocery Outlet in Astoria closed Thursday night amid concerns by neighbors and supporters of the nearby Astoria Co+op’s new store that the location presents a danger to pedestrians and a hassle for drivers.
Developers want to build a 16,000-square-foot building for the discount grocer on a triangle-shaped lot where Commercial Street runs into Marine Drive. The back of the store would face 23rd Street, across from the new co-op slated to open in December.
Retail is an outright use where Grocery Outlet wants to build. City staff, while acknowledging the difficulty of developing the site within city guidelines, has recommended approval with conditions.
Neighbors and supporters of the co-op testified before the Design Review Commission on Thursday that Grocery Outlet would exacerbate traffic and cause danger for pedestrians on Marine Drive.
The city’s Gateway Overlay discourages new or existing driveways along Marine Drive to promote more pedestrian use, said Carrie Richter, a land use attorney hired by the co-op to fight Grocery Outlet. The landscaping and pedestrian access through a parking lot at the proposed store would also put pedestrians in danger, she said.
Matt Stanley, the general manager of the co-op, said the co-op’s new location has made more of an effort to fit in with the vision of the Gateway zone, with outdoor seating, edible gardens and exclusive pedestrian access not through a parking lot.
“We were instructed by city staff that no Marine Drive access would be permitted,” he said. “That would have been a boon to us as a retailer, but that was a ‘no’ right out of the gate.”
Rosemary Johnson, a city planning consultant, said staff has advised the Grocery Outlet developers that access off Marine Drive is discouraged and would need to be justified. “We didn’t tell the co-op something completely different,” she said.
Michael Robinson, an attorney for Grocery Outlet, and Dan Dover, a representative of developer Main & Main Capital Group, argued that the retailer has responded to people’s design concerns, added a pedestrian lane through the parking lot and narrowed its proposed driveway off Marine Drive. The developers are in agreement with all the city’s conditions of approval.
The Gateway standards are not a criteria of approval, Robinson said in closing remarks. The city and state Department of Transportation would not have provided tentative approval if it was obvious access along Marine Drive would be dangerous, he said.
Dover relayed comments by William Heestand, a representative of the property owner, who in a recent guest column in The Astorian argued that Grocery Outlet would replace an ancient truck terminal and improve what he called “a sore thumb.”
If the project fails, Heestand wrote, “we as owners will have no choice but to lease the building to any business wanting the space. Any retailer. Of any type. The land has automatic rights for retail and that is what you’ll get.”
City staff asked the Design Review Commission on Thursday to make comments on the proposed Grocery Outlet while not deliberating toward a decision. Commissioners stated their appreciation for the developer’s responsiveness to community concerns and city recommendations.
But the co-op and Grocery Outlet, if it is approved, have created a huge problem with traffic at 23rd Street and Marine Drive and the need for a traffic signal, Commissioner Bob Levine said.
Commissioner Hilarie Phelps wondered whether the project would move forward without access directly off Marine Drive.
While not a criteria of approval, Marine Drive access plays into the region’s master planning that city code is designed to help implement, said Commissioner Ian Sisson, a county planner.
“Marine Drive access is an issue, and I don’t think a case has been made that justifies it adequately,” Sisson said. “I think what I would need to see is an argument that the project would not be feasible without that access point.”
Commissioner Sarah Jane Bardy clarified previous comments about the unsuitability of the site for such a development.
“It’s not that I don’t think this lot can be developed,” she said. “I just don’t know that it can be developed with good design for a 16,000-square-foot grocery store.”
Developers have a week of final rebuttal to respond to comments. The Design Review Commission will likely make a decision on Grocery Outlet at its Oct. 3 meeting.