The Zoning Board of Adjustment unanimously approved an application Monday night for a Wawa convenience store and gas station on the site of the former Power & Fitness Health Club on St. Georges Avenue.
The applicant, 280 St. Georges Avenue, LLC, still needs approval from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) since St. Georges Avenue is a state highway (Route 27). Once that approval is gained, construction is expected to take about 6 to 8 months, according to attorney Tim Prime. In response to a question from Board Chairman William Hering after the hearing, Prime estimated construction costs at $4 million to $5 million.
The 7-0 vote came after about 2 1/2 hours of testimony and questioning the applicant’s witnesses, with brief remarks from some board members.
The site had been for sale by Giacobbe and Sons Contractors since Power and Fitness closed at the end of 2014 after about five years in operation. The board granted preliminary major site plan and final major site plan approvals with use “d” variance and bulk “c” variance and conditional use. The conditions included:
- Designating five parking spaces for employees in the rear of the site closest to residential;
- Reducing the sidewalk on each side of the building from 8.3 feet to 7 feet, to meet buffer requirements;
- Review the lighting plan with engineering and planning to ensure elimination of light spillage; and,
- A “lollipop sign” on Murray Street instead of a monument sign.
Board member Jorge Casalins, who put forth the motion to approve the application, did so without a condition to lower the landscaping buffer adjacent to City Line Auto Sales. He was unconvinced that a landscaping buffer would block the view of cars for sale.
Joseph Moran, owner of City Line Auto Sales, was among three neighbors to speak on the application. He posed several questions about the location of fencing and size of shrubs and trees. He was concerned about reducing the visibility of his cars, which could encourage theft or vandalism. Prime, the applicant’s attorney, said the applicant was amenable to eliminating or lower plantings.
The 2.26-acre site is made up of two parcels (Block 6, Lots 3 and 4) and is partially located in two zones: B-2 (Regional Business) and R-2 (Single Family Residential). The appliction detailed a 5,051-square foot convenience store and 5,280-square foot canopy over six fuel pumps. Traffic, signage and lighting seemed to be the most consistent concerns from board members given that the site abuts some residential homes and Wawa operates 24 hours a day.
The previous use as a gym was granted variances in 1993 and included vacating Remsen Street, according to testimony. Planner Paul Ricci said Remsen is clearly the line for the zone and was approved for retail, otherwise, it would encourage single-family residential closer to the commercial zone.
Based on previous use and zoning, Ricci anticipates some commercial use on this site, which could be an auto body shop or car repair service under current zoning. The Wawa application is moving the site to a cleaner use, he argued, and the application was changed as best as it could be to meet planning requirements. Once Remsen Street was vacated, Ricci argued that it was opened to commercial use. “It’s not likely to return to residential use,” he said, but the current application “harmonizes” the existing situation.
At 98,000 square feet, the lot is oversized for the area and more than the minimum 40,000 required for a service station. The back of the site, in the R-2 zone, could accommodate 5,000-square-foot lots in the single-family zone.
The application reduces nonconforming uses and takes up about 9,600 square feet in total, equivalent to about two residential lots, Ricci said, adding that 83 percent of convenience stores are associated with sale of gas nationally. While some trees will be removed, 600 plantings and other landscaping will make some 37 percent of the site green, he testified.
Among the changes that were discussed since the original application was filed, was a reduction in the signage, particularly on Murray Street. A “lollipop” sign with a Wawa logo will serve only as a directional sign and not be bright, beyond identifying the driveway entrance, Prime said.
The site is accessed by two driveways. The one on St. Georges Avenue will be restricted only to right turns into and out of the property while the second on Murray Street will be full access. Motorists will be unable to access the site site via Remsen Street; the Fire Department requested gated access at that point.
Queues for the traffic signal at Murray Street and St. Georges Avenue don’t reach the site’s Murray Street driveway to the site, according to Elizabeth Dolan of Dolan & Dean Consulting Engineers, who testified for the applicant about traffic. There typically were one to three cars waiting on the signal with room for about four cars before the driveway, she said.
In studying the traffic, the busiest one-hour intervals were founded to be weekdays from 7:45 to 8:45 a.m. (about 200 to 225 vehicles) and 4:15 to 5:15 p.m. (about 190 vehicles). Traffic to the site would already is passing the site, according to Dolan, with estimates based on nationwide data that about 80 percent of visitors to Wawa for gas or goods would already be on the road.
Prisca Anuforo of Remsen Street questioned the need for a gas station and convenience store. She expressed raised a variety of concerns about health issues, traffic, trespassing, crime and noise. Commercial uses may have been at the site previously but were not a concern to health, she said. Anuforo urged the board to confer with the state Department of Health about the impact on local health before approving the application.