Drugstore application is denied; auto garage to remain

West Windsor zoning board’s vote on Eckerd plan falls short of approval.

By: Shanay Cadette
   WEST WINDSOR — Al’s Auto Repair garage will stay — for now.
   The third time didn’t prove to be the charm for a proposal to raze the garage and build an Eckerd drugstore on Princeton-Hightstown Road in its place.
   The application was effectively rejected Thursday by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
   Midland Development Group has been before the board three times in the last few months proposing to build a 16,357-square-foot drugstore at the corner of Route 571 and Cranbury Road complete with a drive-through window. The developer proposed to create a shared parking lot with existing businesses, refurbish the strip mall, improve landscaping, provide sidewalks along the streets bordering the site and inside the lot and purchase the adjacent lot.
   The board voted 4-3 to grant the variance Thursday, but the vote fell short of the five needed for approval. Board Vice Chairwoman Phyllis Stoolmacher voted in favor of the application, along with members Louise Costas, Henry Jacobsohn and Shawki Salem. Members Thomas Crane, Susan Abbey and John Roeder dissented, with the building’s design a major concern. Board Chairman Michael Mastro was absent.
   The developer initially requested an increase beyond the 18 percent permitted floor area ratio. Midland maintained that the requested FAR — which ranged between 24 and 26.6 percent — would not be detrimental at that site.
   Township consultants have said the proposed store would improve the area and have a negligible impact on traffic, but they did not like the proposed look of the drugstore. The main complaint was the drugstore’s design did not honor the township’s vision of creating a traditional downtown area along Princeton-Hightstown Road as described in its Master Plan.
   Although that Master Plan has been approved by the township, zoning requirements to adhere to that plan have not.
   "Is the vision of the Princeton Junction village consistent with a drive-through proposal of this large drugstore?" asked resident Nantanee Koppstein at Thursday’s meeting. "This is not the picture of West Windsor you want to have for downtown."
   The developer’s attorney, Alan Frank, cautioned board members that design issues are addressed at the site plan level and no site plans had been submitted to the Planning Board. The zoning board’s job is to determine whether the size of the proposed Eckerd project would be detrimental to the community. He stressed the application was for a permitted use.
   The drive-through would be used only to distribute pharmaceuticals, Mr. Frank continued. And in a nod to the Master Plan, the proposed Eckerd would incorporate elements of that plan by renewing or recycling an area, providing sidewalks and incorporating special architectural features. It would also be a major improvement over the garage, he said.
   "It can’t be something you enjoy looking at," Mr. Frank said, referring to the garage. "It’s not an attractive property."
   As for residents, the opponents far outweighed the supporters of the plan Thursday.
   Many residents contended the drugstore would increase traffic. The proposal also did not comply with the Master Plan or incorporate the idea of a mixed-used development, they said. That development combines offices, retail, housing and parking in a concentrated area.
   "It’s not that the residents are against development, but it has to be the right kind of development," said Susan Conlon.
   Resident Hemi Nae pointed out there are more than enough pharmacies within a five-mile radius of the proposed Eckerd. "The Eckerd store will be the 17th, if I counted correctly. Are we really so sick that we need 17 pharmacies?" he asked.
   Former Mayor Carole Carson, who owns Lucar Hardware across the street from Al’s Garage, was the lone resident who spoke in favor of the drugstore. She said no matter what ends up at the garage site, the traffic problems at Route 571will not go away. She added that while a village-type downtown is a good idea, it’s still just that — an idea, not a reality.
   "I don’t think we can make decisions today based on things that never come to fruition," Ms. Carson said. "We’re waiting while buildings deteriorate. We need to work with what we do have, not with what we wish was here."
   Most of the board members who approved the application said the request was a permitted use, pointing out the design issues had to be resolved before the Planning Board. The dissenting members said they could not support the proposal without seeing a site plan to allay their concerns about design.