The piece of land might be small, but the battle over the plot at the prominent corner of Penn and Negley avenues is headed to court.
Almost a month after the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected plans to turn the site into an AutoZone, the developer — Lawrence Gumberg and LG Realty Advisors — has filed an appeal.
According to the zoning board's decision dated Oct. 16, the developers' plan "did not describe any specific efforts to adapt the proposed building to the context of the Subject Property and its vicinity."
The appeal appeared in online court records today and calls the board's decision "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary to law," and argues there are "unique physical characteristics and conditions" that create "an unnecessary hardship in utilizing the property."
The appeal also argues "there is no manner in which the site could be designed to comply with the [zoning code] and the [Americans With Disabilities Act] requirements," a claim previewed at a contentious hearing over the summer.
The site, which is in Friendship, is zoned as "Local Neighborhood Commercial", which according to the zoning code, is intended to "maintain the small scale and rich diversity of neighborhood-serving commercial districts, promote and enhance the quality of life in adjacent residential areas."
Community groups including the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC) have argued the proposed development is essentially a big box store that wouldn't integrate into the cityscape. "It's about a developer who wants to have complete control over how they utilize their land," says Rick Swartz, executive director of BGC. "We have someone trying to pound a square peg into a round hole."
The contest isn't over the right to build an AutoZone on that property; the zoning code does not preclude that sort of development. The battle is over the nuances of the developers' plans.
The store's design, for example, features what city planners call a "long, flat façade"; the code requires a more varied design. The store interior would also be hidden behind walls and dark glass; the zoning code requires that 60 percent of the ground floor be visible from outside. Those were some of the components of the plan the zoning board rejected — for an exhaustive list, here are the supporting documents.
Jonathan Kamin, a lawyer representing the developers, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Still, even though the city will represent the zoning board's decision in court, "Generally speaking, the City and the court are in favor of objectors (assuming they have standing) participating in the case," mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty wrote in an email. "It can help foster a settlement in the case that the applicant, City and community can live with."
But it will also mean BGC will have to raise around $10,000 for legal fees, Swartz says. The community groups' crowdfunding campaign, which raised $5,000, only has about $3,500 left (after the group commissioned a traffic study of the site and the first round of legal fees are subtracted).
Swartz says it is not clear how that money will be raised, but notes the developers could still come up with a plan that better aligns with the code.
"It doesn't prevent them from building a structure on that site that will do a better job of accommodating the zoning ordinances that are on the books," Swartz says. "I think they need to take it as a design challenge and meet it."