WORCESTER — The developer of a proposed gas station, convenience store and car wash on Park Avenue abruptly withdrew its plans midway through a contentious Zoning Board of Appeals hearing Wednesday night.
Chelmsford-based Prayosha Realty Trust, which is seeking to develop the parcels at 360-370 Park Ave. next to Austin Liquors, sought a special permit from the ZBA to construct and develop a new automobile refueling station, including six stacked fuel dispensing islands and an approximately 4,048-square-foot overhead canopy and a car wash building.
But when ZBA Chair Joseph Wanat interrupted the public comment section of the hearing for the special permit to announce he had to leave to attend another meeting, Joshua Lee Smith, the lawyer representing Prayosha before the ZBA, requested a leave to withdraw without prejudice.
A special permit in Worcester requires at least four votes to be approved. Two ZBA members — Jordan Berg Powers and Nate Sabo — had expressed concerns about the project at a hearing earlier this year, and had indicated they would not vote to approve a gas station at that location.
Both members of the five-member board indicated their minds were not changed after another presentation Wednesday night.
ZBA approved Smith’s request
The ZBA approved Smith’s request for withdrawal without prejudice, which means it could be resubmitted at some point. But the halt to the proceedings came after residents and neighbors told the ZBA they did not think a gas station was the best use of the property.
They also had concerns about the environmental impact, both in the immediate vicinity of the proposed station and in the context of the city’s pledge to shift away from fossil fuels.
Natalie Turner of Parker Street, who said she is an eighth generation resident of the historically BIPOC neighborhood, said the developers asked her what types of uses she would like to see on the site, which includes a dilapidated old red building but does not include the vast parcel next door, vacant land owned by members of the Krock family. Turner said when she gave them ideas, they said they were not viable and told her a gas station, a car wash, and the liquor store would be what was going in.
Turner read a letter on behalf of her mother, Gertrude, expressing concerns about traffic congestion and line-of-sight issues that could arise from the development.
Members previously had concerns
Smith told the ZBA earlier in the meeting that members previously expressed concerns about a saturation of gas stations in the area were unfounded. He said the closest gas station, at the corner of Chandler Street and Park Avenue, was 850 feet away, and the next-closest station was more than 1,700 feet away, at the corner of Park and Pleasant.
If anything, Smith said, the area is underserved by refueling stations, considering the high number of car trips in each direction every day along Park Avenue.
Smith also pointed out that competition is the way the free market works, and it’s not unusual to have businesses locate near other similar businesses, like Walgreens and CVS pharmacies. They feed each other, he said.
An engineer on the project said Beaver Brook is more than 900 feet away, and said the refueling station would comply with strict standards for leakage and the release of vapors.
Smith told the ZBA that the current site has sat vacant for more than 10 years, during which time a better use could not be found. He said other potential uses that meet the BG-4 zoning requirements are just not a good fit. He said the Prayosha development is coming in “on a silver platter” and will improve the landscape.
District 5 Councilor Matthew Wally
District 5 Councilor Matthew Wally spoke in support of the project; he said the parcel is one of four in his district that he hears constant complaints about. He said residents also often ask about what could be done to develop them.
Wally said he respected Turner’s view, but said the development would add to the tax base, provide jobs, and would install a new storm water management system that could help alleviate flooding issues in the Beaver Brook area. He said councilors are often asked what the city is doing about economic development outside the downtown area; he said this is an opportunity to revitalize a blighted area.
Berg Powers Wednesday disagreed with Smith and Wally. He said Smith’s characterization of 850 feet to the next gas station as far away was disingenuous, and he said he has never waited in a queue at a gas station in the neighborhood.
As someone who lives nearby and walks in the area frequently, Powers said his experience was at odds with Smith’s framing. Powers said he found the developers’ approach to be adversarial and frustrating, and Sabo agreed.
Etel Haxhiaj, incoming city councilor
Etel Haxhiaj, the incoming District 5 city councilor who lives near the project, took issue with the other characterization of distance — the 900 feet to Beaver Brook. She said it’s not that far at all.
Haxhiaj said the proposal before the ZBA goes against the goals of the city’s Green Worcester Plan, and conflicts with the city’s declaration of a climate emergency. She said we are not building a city for the 1950s — there is a commitment to move away from fossil fuels.
She said she found the dismissal of alternative development ideas at the site offensive. Haxhiaj added that during her campaign, she talked with thousands of district residents, and nobody said they were dreaming of another gas station and car wash on Park Avenue.
She said the city should be looking at planning and zoning through an environmental lens and with consideration of neighborhood residents’ input.