The Planning & Zoning Commission will be reviewing plans for two controversial proposed car dealership service center expansions later this month, providing the applicants do not withdraw or postpone.
The commission continued its review of a proposal by Lexus of Greenwich to build a 24,000 square foot, 24-bay regional service center on Old Track Road, at its Oct. 25 meeting. The plan has and town officials who are concerned about the potential impact on traffic, parking and the character of the neighborhood.
During the pre-application hearing, First Selectman Peter Tesei, an ex-officio member of the P&Z Commission, said he had “concerns about the impact this particular use, in this particular neighborhood, will have on the residential communities and adjoining businesses.”
“This is a departure from what is presently situated,” Tesei said. “It is of a size and scale that raises concerns. We see some of the unintended consequences businesses have had on residential parking zones [in the neighborhood]. This comes from an inability to accommodate employees on site.”
Several people expressed concern for the potential impact on traffic and pedestrian safety.
“There’s a lot of pedestrian traffic in that area,” said Arlene Lomazzo, RTM District 6 and head of the Pedestrian Safety Commission. “Any increase in traffic on Hamilton Avenue is going to increase the risk for pedestrians throughout that entire neighborhood. It’s densely populated and there is a great number of people who walk.”
Originally, Lexus of Greenwich had applied for a larger, 30-bay facility, however after initial review by the commission and concerns regarding the building size, the plan was scaled back to 24 bays.
When asked by Commissioner Richard Maitland why Lexus was pushing for as many bays as possible, attorney John Tesei (no relation to Peter), representing Lexus of Greenwich, explained that the dealership is trying to consolidate all of its customer service in one location.
Currently customer service is spread between two facilities — the current, 12-bay service center at 19 Railroad Ave. and another 11-bay service center in Port Chester, he explained. Some customers, he said, drop their cars off at the Port Chester facility, while others are drop their cars off at Railroad Avenue and then dealership personnel shuttle the cars to and from the Port Chester facility.
Should the plan be approved, Lexus would convert the current service center at 19 Railroad Ave. into all showroom space and consolidate all of its customer service at the new service center on Old Track Road. This, Tesei said, would reduce traffic on Greenwich roads by eliminating the need to shuttle cars back and forth.
The 11-bay Port Chester facility would then be designated for new and used “vehicle prep” (i.e. preparing cars for display and delivery to customers), Tesei explained. This work, he said, is currently done at the Lexus of Greenwich facility at 30 Old Field Point Rd. By shifting that service over to the Port Chester facility, where the new and used cars are delivered via transport, traffic on Greenwich neighborhood roads would be further reduced, he said.
Sam Scatterday, president and co-owner of Lexus of Greenwich, explained that the number of lifts needed is dictated by the manufacturer. “Lexus looks at numbers of lifts needed based on current sales, units in operation and future projections,” he said, adding that the 24 bays “may not be used right away.”
Scatterday said he has another Lexus dealership in Mount Kisco with 40 bays, “but not all are being used — it’s for future anticipation — the manufacturer dictates what is a reasonable amount of lifts.”
When asked if the dealership would be willing to curtail the hours of operation for the service center (currently 6:30 a.m. to midnight), as a condition for approval, Scatterday said “it wouldn’t work for us” because customers need to be able to “drop their cars off in the morning, take the train into the city and get them back at night after they come home.”
The commission was specifically concerned with the potential traffic impact on Old Track Road, which is narrow and has very little parking.
John Collins, a traffic engineer hired by the dealership, said the increase in traffic on Old Track will be minimal and “not enough to warrant any upgrades in traffic systems.” Traffic from the shuttling of the vehicles from 30 Old Field Point Road (at the corner of Old Track) will essentially be offset by traffic from customers dropping off and picking up their cars, he said.
On Nov. 15 the commission is scheduled to review a similar proposal from Mercedes/Penske to build a 30,000 square foot, 30-bay regional service center on the Post Road at Edgewood Drive.
Together the proposals have elicited a somewhat philosophical debate, both in the public and among town officials, over whether the concept of a “regional service center” is in keeping with the Town Plan of Development, since such centers draw traffic into the area without providing any benefit to the community in return.
Mike Patchen, of Edgewood Drive, who attended last Tuesday’s meeting prepared to speak on the Mercedes/Penske application, only to learn it had been postponed, said from a town planning perspective, “these two projects are inexorably tied together.”
“It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that just a few months after Lexus proposed to [originally] build a 30,000 square foot regional service center, Mercedes followed suit with similar plans of their own,” Patchen said. “Look at the similarities … both centers will be open until midnight, both will have car washes, both will be appending traffic to no end, and most importantly both would replace current service centers that are appropriately sized to meet town needs. These projects are completely without a local need.”
“The town needs to wrest control and follow its own mandate of adding commerce that is proportionate to the surroundings, has minimal impact on the neighborhood, and provides a local interest,” Patchen added. “On all three counts, this project is grossly inadequate.”
Patchen warned that should P&Z approve the two regional service centers, it would set a precedent for other car dealerships in town “BMW, Acura, Volkswagen, and on and on, to come forward with their own plans for regional service centers.”
“This project, as it stands, would forever change the Hamilton district,” Patchen said. “And very soon, we risk turning Putnam, from Brookside all the way to the Port Chester border, into an unsightly, outsized industrial auto strip mall.”
Patchen said there is no doubt in his mind that the intended purpose of the regional service centers is to draw more people in from out of town — adding that the growth in the number of new Lexus owners in Greenwich “is benign at best.”
RTM member Peter Berg said there used to be small mom-and-pop car dealerships dotted across the region, “and they were the pillars of the community,” but now there is a trend toward regional centers.
But regional centers are not in keeping with the town plan, he said, because they don’t serve just the town. The town plan, he said, “calls for keeping facilities in scale with the needs of the community.”
Bill Griffin, co-owner of Lexus of Greenwich, said that’s exactly why his family had to close the Griffin Ford dealership in Greenwich years ago, “that model no longer works today.” Having a bunch of smaller dealers all competing against each other means some of them will end up struggling and possibly closing when the economy goes south, and that inefficient model no longer cuts it with the manufacturers, he explained.
The commission’s review of the Lexus of Greenwich application was set to be continued on Nov. 15, however it has since been postponed to its meeting on either Nov. 29 or December 13.
As mentioned, the Mercedes/Penske application to expand its service center on the Post Road to 30,000 square feet is scheduled for review on Nov. 15.