In a much-anticipated decision for community groups stretching from Friendship to Highland Park, the Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected a developer's current plan to construct an AutoZone store at Penn and Negley Aves — the prominent former Babyland site.
The decision came after a contentious July hearing where dozens of residents showed up to tell the board the proposed 6,787-square-foot store with 16 parking spaces would jeopardize years of progress on the Penn Avenue arts-corridor.
The plan, from Lawrence Gumberg and LG Realty Advisors, which bought the property in 2012, "did not describe any specific efforts to adapt the proposed building to the context of the Subject Property and its vicinity," the Zoning Board's decision reads.
That's partly based on its "Local Neighborhood Commercial" (LNC) zoning designation, 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 used similar language to argue the developer's plan was based on suburban architectural principles and would not be well-integrated into the cityscape. The case went before the Zoning Board because the developers sought a handful of variances — or exceptions — to the zoning code.
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.
The board ruled the developers "did not demonstrate that its retail store design was the only possible way of configuring a building and parking on the Subject Property, in a manner compatible with the LNC District."
"We appreciate the fact that [the board] saw the validity of that argument," says Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, one of the community groups fighting the proposed development. "By the same token, we’re hopeful there will be a point in time when the community can sit down with the developers and formulate a more appealing design plan for that site." (In the past, cooperation has proved elusive).
The board's decision isn't final, though, and Swartz predicts the likelihood Gumberg will appeal to Common Pleas court is "about 100 percent."
Neither Gumberg nor his attorney returned calls seeking comment.
Swartz says the city will defend the board's decision in the event of the appeal, but that neighborhood groups are often part of the legal process. He says their crowdfunding campaign could support about $3,000 in legal fees.
Swartz stressed that he and other community groups aren't trying to hold the property hostage — and says it's well within Gumberg's rights to build an AutoZone.
The property could even be multi-story with room for other businesses and "If they wanted an architect in the community to design the building for them, we would try to accommodate that," Swartz says.
"A lot of folks will try to use the zoning code to purposefully frustrate development. We’re open to a lot of ideas — we’re not zoning Jihadists."