The has extended its review of two separate plans from and proposing to build new service center facilities on West Putnam Avenue and Old Track Road, respectively, until January.
More than a dozen residents attended Tuesday’s Planning & Zoning Commission public hearing to oppose the two controversial projects, which are similar in that both dealerships are seeking to consolidate their current service operations into single new facilities that abut residential neighborhoods. Many of the residents who attended also expressed their opposition to the Mercedes-Benz project during the commission’s meeting on Nov. 15.
Last year the commission approved Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich’s plan to expand its combined service center and showroom at 261 W. Putnam Ave. by about 7,500 square feet, bringing that facility to about 30,000 square feet. Construction of that facility is already underway — however the dealership recently returned to the commission with another application requesting to convert the building’s 16 service bays into showroom space, as part of a larger plan involving its other facility at 217 W. Putnam. In addition, the dealership seeks to add a 1,800 square foot second floor employee break room and training room, utilizing the high ceilings of the service center area — a proposal for which it must appear before the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The dealership moved its service operations to the building located at 217 W. Putnam Avenue (formerly an Infiniti dealership), just down the street, last fall in order to accommodate construction of the new showroom. Recently Mercedes-Benz filed another application seeking to raze that facility and build an all-new, 30-bay service center in its place, once the facility located at 261 W. Putnam is complete.
Providing it gets approval, once the new 30-bay service center at 217 W. Putnam is complete, Mercedes-Benz would then convert the 16 bays at 261 W. Putnam to showroom and sales office space and add the employee break room. As a result it will end up with two facilities: One for showroom and sales, the other for service.
The Planning & Zoning Commission last year granted a special parking agreement to Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich allowing it to share parking between the two lots, a special provision enabling it to sidestep regulations pertaining to parking, with the lot at 261 W. Putnam offering a disproportionately higher number of spaces compared to 217 W. Putnam.
During Tuesday’s meeting, several of the commissioners said they had a problem with approving a project that inexorably joins two non-contiguous lots for a single use. They said they were particularly concerned that if the projects were approved, and that should Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich vacate the buildings at some point in the future, the facility at 217 W. Putnam would no longer be “stand alone” due to its lack of parking.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich has temporarily withdrawn its application for 217 W. Putnam Avenue in order to accommodate the commission’s request that it be allowed to give final review and approval for both projects in connection with each other. The commission has requested that it be allowed to approve both projects at the same time since they are going to be operationally integrated.
Neighbors who oppose the plan, however, say Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich, which was acquired in July by Penske Automotive Group, is seeking to build a "regional service center" for the purpose of attracting more out-of-town customers. They say the service center will have an adverse impact on the abutting residential neighborhood because it is too large for the site (nearly double the size of the current building) and will generate increased traffic in the area, exacerbating what is already a dangerous traffic situation on Edgewood Road.
Mike Patchen of Edgewood Drive said by expanding Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich is attempting to build a regional service center designed to bring in customers from throughout the tri-state area. He said when the building at 261 W. Putnam is completed it will be “dramatically bigger than any other dealership on West Putnam Avenue — two, three, four times bigger,” and with it will come increased traffic from out of towners. He asserted that the commission, and the neighbors, were “fooled” by the original application because “it made it seem like it was going to be a mix of sales and service,” when in fact the dealership had planned to have two separate facilities all along.
“They’re promoting their new sales center, as they should, but their advertisements show they’re trying to pull in people from Westchester,” Patchen said, showing their ad in the New York Times. “And who suffers from this? The whole town suffers from this. It’s completely without purpose and the P&Z tonight should outright reject this.”
“This is against the town’s mandate of no regional businesses and no regional expansion,” Patchen added, referring to the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which states that commercial facilities are to serve the needs of the town and its residents, and are not to become regional service centers.
Bill Finnegan of Edgewood Drive said ever since Mercedes-Benz moved its service operations into the building at 217 W. Putnam and installed a new, automated car wash “there have been cars darting across Edgewood Drive” between the two facilities, increasing traffic congestion and raising safety concerns.
“As I said at the last meeting, how much more can a residential neighborhood endure?” Finnegan said. “This is simply too much volume for a residential street, adjacent to a busy intersection.”
As part of the plan, Mercedes-Benz proposes using a narrow driveway that runs behind the facility at 261 W. Putnam and the dealership next door, and which exits onto Edgewood Drive, in order to valet cars from that facility to the service facility at 217 W. Putnam. In fact, as neighbors have testified, the dealership started making use of that narrow driveway immediately after it moved its service operations into the building at 217 W. Putnam.
Finnegan warned that anyone not expecting the traffic cutting across Edgewood between the two facilities “could easily have an accident.”
Mason Sleeper of 30 Edgewood Dr. said Mercedes-Benz’s claim that they won’t be increasing the number of cars crossing Edgewood when they expand the facility is false; they started that practice after they moved in the 217 facility and never got approval from P&Z to do so.
“Now they are arguing that they should be allowed to do that, since they’ve been doing it all along,” Sleeper said, adding that the use of Edgewood Road was never approved when the commission gave the green light to the new car wash that was installed at 217 W. Putnam in the spring. He argued that because neighbors were not made aware of the new cross-traffic pattern, as part of that application, they never had the opportunity to oppose the application in public hearings.
“We were denied this right,” Sleeper said. “Therefore, the approval is invalid and Mercedes-Benz should be forced to cease the cross traffic pattern until it is properly reviewed and approved.”
Sleeper also pointed out that three traffic studies presented on behalf of the applicant, the town and the neighbors are all “moot” because they are based on traffic patterns and increased volume that Mercedes-Benz created after it moved into the facility last year.
“Traffic will only get worse if the facility is expanded,” he said. “We don’t have to speculate how bad it’s going to get, we already know.”
Sleeper also said the dealership has not been sensitive to the concerns of the neighbors, as it claims. He said he contacted officials from the dealership after the ZBA meeting last month to see if they were willing to meet with neighbors to discuss the project. He said at first they accepted, “but the next day they declined, giving no reason. And we have heard nothing from them since.”
Sleeper also accused the dealership of “getting two of the abutters [neighbors] onboard by paying them off and bribing them — Mercedes has agreed to buy these abutters new driveways and gates for their properties.”
“Mercedes-Benz continues to play a shell game with its application process,” Sleeper said. “It is filled with fallacies and subterfuge, all in an effort to build a mega regional facility, and we sincerely hope you put an end to it.”
Jane Hogeman, a local attorney representing neighbors on Edgewood Drive, told the commissioners that they should deny the request to proceed to final and prevent the applicant from proceeding to the ZBA. She argued that the ZBA should be reviewing both projects together, since they are being combined into a single use, just the same as the P&Z Commission is looking to review both final plans simultaneously.
Several commissioners later agreed that they should recommend that the ZBA consider both applications in order to render its decision.
During the review segment of the meeting, Commissioner Fred Brooks raised the issue of how Edgewood Drive is being used by various dealerships in the area as a location for parking car carriers to make deliveries and pick-ups.
Several residents previously testified that the car carriers, which park on the west side of the street, end up blocking the southbound lane of travel and block sight lines when attempting to turn onto West Putnam Avenue.
When Brooks asked what could be done about the problem, attorney Thomas Heagney, representing Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich, explained that it is other dealers’ car carriers that are using Edgewood Drive, as all of Mercedes-Benz’s cars are delivered on nearby Old Track Road. He pointed out that Edgewood was designated as a drop off and pick up area for the carrier by the Board of Selectmen and Greenwich Police years ago as a way to centralize and control car carrier activity.
“The drop-off idea, I think, is a good idea gone bad,” Heagney said. “The car dealers were looking to do drop off and the police were looking for a centralized place where they thought the road was wide enough to do it. And it has turned into a monster. And it has had a significant impact on the neighborhood.”
Brooks asserted that it’s not just the car carriers that are causing a problem alone, “it’s the mix of traffic that causes the serious dangers” — however Heagney said he was “not so sure that’s true.” Heagney later added that Mercedes-Benz would prefer to see the carriers eliminated from Edgewood altogether.
Heagney said the police had at one time proposed creating a drop off area by taking a long sliver of the property at 217 W. Putnam, on the east side of the road, to create a special lane for carrier drop offs. This would allow both lanes of Edgewood Drive to remain open.
Brooks asked Heagney if the property owners would consider giving up a slice of the property in order to create the drop off area as a condition for approval. Heagney said the owners would likely agree to giving up the land — but he was reluctant to agree to it as a condition, “as it would have to be a decision of the Board of Selectmen, acting in its capacity as town traffic authority, and the police,” he said.
With regard to the traffic counts, Heagney pointed out that cars are already being driven back and forth between the two facilities now and that the traffic studies show the dealership is not adding significantly to existing traffic on Edgewood Drive by expanding the facilities at 261 and 217 W. Putnam. (The road already gets an “F” rating from the traffic consultants due to its high traffic volume, poor sight lines and excessively long traffic light, and will still get an “F” following the expansion, he said).
Joe Balskus of Tighe and Bond, the traffic consultant representing the applicant, said currently a total of 396 cars turn out of the driveway at 261 Edgewood Dr. per day, peak. Of those, about 40 turn left and head north on Edgewood, while the rest turn right toward the Post Road and the driveway at 217 W. Putnam (they can and do cut across at an angle, between the two driveways, and that has been a source of concern for the commission). Blaskus said based on his assessment the project will have a minimal impact on traffic congestion and patterns.
Heagney said, as explained in earlier meetings, that all cars will get dropped off at 261 W. Putnam and will then be driven by valets to 217 W. Putnam for servicing and/or washing. On this route the valets use a rear driveway that terminates on Edgewood Drive. The cars are then driven back to 261 W. Putnam for customer pick up by way of Edgewood and West Putnam.
Lou Liodori, the dealership’s general manager, said he recently asked his valets to take note of who was going on test drives on the residential roads “and I even moved my desk so that its facing Edgewood.” He said he also instructed all his sales people to never take customers for test rives on residential streets.
Liodori said the cars his valets saw going on test drives on the neighborhood roads were “fancy sports cars… I saw a Bugatti go up that way the other day.” He told his sales people to only use the Post Road and I-95 for test drives — not local streets.
Liodori said addressing the problem of test drives through residential streets is going to require coordination between all the dealerships in the area.
Brooks also asked Heagney to clarify figures for the amount of forecasted growth in the service department that would be expected as a result of the expansion. He said there was a “serious disconnect between” the increased size of the facility and the dealership’s anticipated short-term growth of 5 percent in the service part of the business. He said this doesn’t jibe with growth figures of 14 to 16 percent for sales, provided by dealership officials.
Should the application for a variance for the proposed employee break room come before the ZBA — and should the ZBA approve it — Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich would then return to the P&Z Commission in January or February with a final application. It is also expected to resubmit its plans for 217 W. Putnam Avenue at a commission meeting in January or February, with an ultimate goal of having the commission vote on both projects at a single meeting this winter.