Rite Aid zoning agreement violations debated at Planning Board

Representatives of Rite Aid, at the corner of Raritan and Fourth Avenues, appeared before the Highland Park Planning Board on Aug. 13, 2015, seeking relief from conditions of a 2007 site plan approval – conditions which they acknowledged have already been violated in the recent renovation of the store. In spite of the violations, Rite Aid apparently was able to obtain building permits from the borough and go forward with the renovations. Rite Aid representatives said they were unaware that their plans for renovation were in violation of any prior agreement.

No one from the town testified how this misunderstanding occurred, and Rite Aid officials were unable to answer the question when asked by members of the public. No decision by the planning board was made at the Aug. 13 meeting, and testimony and deliberation will continue at the Sept. 10, 2015 planning board meeting.

The specific actions sought by Rite Aid were the following:

  1. Relief from conditions agreed to as part of the previously approved site plan documents identified as Resolution #2007-06 dated September 17, 2007 restricts store hours of operation. Rite Aid requests that the store be allowed to operate for 24 hours a day.
  2. Relief from conditions agreed to as part of the previously approved site plan documents identified as Resolution #2007-06 dated September 17, 2007 that prohibit the placement or construction of shelving units to exceed window sill height. Any structure exceeding window sill height effectively eliminates the windows on Fourth Avenue – and the maintenance of the windows was a goal of the 2007 agreement.
  3. Requests “C” variances from Land Development Ordinance to allow for signage in violation of our current signage regulations.

Testimony was given by both the corporate vice president /regional store manager, and the corporate vice president of construction. Both acknowledged that Rite Aid is seeking relief from conditions put forth in the 2007 agreement and that these conditions have already been violated in the recently completed renovation of the store. Mr. David Mahan, vice president of Rite Aid and regional manager, testified that he was unaware that the renovation plans violated any previous agreement between the Borough of Highland Park and Rite Aid – until a stop work order was issued in May of 2015.

In addition, Rite Aid has been operating a 24-hour store for almost two years. Mr. Mahan testified that he also was unaware that this was in violation with any agreement between Rite Aid and the town.

Rite Aid’s vice president of construction admitted that Rite Aid made a significant error during the pre-design process of the redevelopment. Typically any restrictions on the property would have been discovered in the Lease Review Process but somehow the original agreement between the borough and Rite Aid allowing site plan approval was overlooked during design. The borough authorities issued a building permit for the renovation that included the elements in violation of the original agreement.

Testimony indicated that Rite Aid corporate had identified Highland Park as a viable market for its health and wellness model store. Such a model includes expansion of organic foods as well a “Ready Clinic” which includes on-site examination rooms and on-site health professionals, capable of providing sports physicals, vaccinations, health screening, diabetes testing and more. This health care/retail model has proven successful for Rite Aid in other states, including Texas. Eight stores in New Jersey have been tagged as potential venues for this market, including Highland Park. The configuration of the renovation of the Highland Park store was driven by this model, with plans to locate the health clinic in the southeast corner of the store, where the walk-in refrigerator section was located previously. This location reportedly allows convenient access to the clinic from the universally accessible entry as well as easy access between the pharmacy and the proposed clinic.

To this end, prior to the work stop order issued by the borough in May, a larger walk-in refrigeration unit was fabricated and installed along the entire east wall, extending above the window sills and completely covering the store front windows.

Community member Randall Solomon, who is a  member of the Highland Park Redevelopment Agency and publisher of the Highland Park Planet, asked how Rite Aid received a building permit, since the plans submitted for the permit violated the terms of agreement. Mr. Mahan replied that again, they were unaware of the original agreement and resulting violations. Borough officials did not raise any concerns during the plan review and building permitting process.

Roger Thomas, Planning Board Attorney asked if the clinic was currently built out and up and running. Mr. Mahan replied that the space is roughed out. However, the corporation is awaiting approvals before finishing out the space to an operational level. It was then revealed that there are no Ready Clinics operational or approved in New Jersey. It was unclear where the delay in approvals lay, at a corporate level or at the level of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and the New Jersey Department of Health. Mr. Thomas asked if Rite Aid would be open to returning the space to its original layout if the Ready Clinic were not approved. Mr. Mahan would not commit to this, but did indicate that they would be open to this.

Windows and signage are a well-documented and important part of a downtown’s economic development, according to Main Street Highland Park, which is tasked with, among other things, the beautification and visual appeal of the downtown. “A few weeks ago, Main Street, in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, sponsored a workshop to educate municipal leaders from around the state on how important windows and window design are to a downtown’s economic success,” said James Nichols, local architect and chair of the Main Street Highland Park Design Committee. “Closing up any windows in downtown businesses runs counter to these proven downtown economic development strategies. We are also worried about the precedent that this sets as we continue to encourage the Borough to enforce these rules with the rest of the downtown businesses.”

To resolve the issue, Rite Aid is proposing to create “art boxes” in the windows blocked by the refrigeration units, these include all windows on the Fourth Avenue east facade, as well as one window on the Raritan Avenue facade in the northeast corner. Rite Aid provided construction details of the art boxes and testimony that they are in discussion with Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts to utilize these art boxes as a satellite gallery for student art work. Planning Board Chairwoman Kim Hammond indicated that while she may be persuaded to consider the art boxes for the blocked windows along Fourth Avenue, she would be less inclined to accept this proposal for the blocked window on Raritan Avenue, which should be uncovered and returned to function as a true store front window. Testimony from the Rite Aid head of construction indicated that the walk-in unit is a self-contained unit that would be complex and costly to reconfigure; it would not be as simple as moving a wall or eliminating one or two cooler units.

Cassandra Oliveras-Moreno, senior administrative assistant at the Mason Gross School of Arts and Highland Park resident, provided testimony that the deans of the Mason Gross School have approved the satellite gallery concept. She said she was confident that a written agreement stating terms of the relationship could be provided. Testimony however revealed a number of areas in this proposal require further development, including review of any risk assessment or insurance issues by Rutgers University, as well as the likely-hood that Mason Gross School can or will make a long term commitment to populate and maintain the art boxes. A number of members of the planning board expressed desire to have local art rotated into the gallery periodically. Issues such as how this would work, who would be responsible and how this would be paid for were not delineated.

During public comment members of the community questioned again, how such violations of original terms of agreement gained approval by borough authorities, a question the Rite Aid representatives could not answer. Further concerns included the proposed single awning on the Raritan Avenue facade, construction noise, garbage pick up at 5:30 a.m., violation of terms of agreement, and insuring that the proposed clinic space is universally accessible. Representatives from Rite Aid expressed intent to address all of the concerns raised by the community.

Given the late hour, testimony was continued to Thursday Sept. 10, 2015.

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