After eight months, two appearances before the City Council and a couple court appeals on the subject, the owners of a South Peabody commercial plaza will get another shot at convincing councilors that bringing in a Dunkin’ Donuts is a good idea.
A public hearing will likely be held next month for a Dunkin’s (without a drive-through) in vacant commercial space at the plaza at 79 Lynnfield St., which is owned by Linear Retail. The plaza is anchored by CVS.
The latest development comes despite staunch opposition from Ward 2 Councilor Arthur Athas, in whose ward the plaza sits. Athas also lives just down the street.
He argues that existing traffic problems make the plaza and the stretch of Lynnfield Street leading up to the four-way intersection with Summit and County streets, extremely dangerous.
He doesn’t see a high-volume coffee shop making that situation any safer, and for that reason and several others, doesn’t believe the council should have let Linear make its case again.
The Police Department originally opposed the project over traffic safety as well, saying that area had one of the highest accident rates in the city, but that was before police, city officials and the property owners hashed out some potential traffic improvements.
“This is going to be the nightmare on Lynnfield Street…all these traffic accidents are occurring without any business occupying that space, so imagine how that will increase with a Dunkin’ Donuts,” Athas said earlier this month.
Councilors voted 9-2 on Jan. 12 to allow the proposal to come back for another special permit hearing, however, and that decision was not without another bitter round of debate that saw some councilors questioning the integrity of their colleagues.
The second hearing was ultimately allowed after enough councilors agreed that “specific and material changes” now exist from the original application. That determination, which the Planning Board also made back in October, is up to the discretion of the council and is allowed under state law.
Essentially, it provides an avenue for both sides to work out agreeable conditions so the applicant doesn’t have to wait two years to reapply or fight it out in court.
Linear’s original petition for the donut shop failed to get enough support from councilors last summer, a lawsuit was then filed – councilors had argued traffic safety but no study was done – and the petition came back before the council in December on the same grounds of “specific and material changes.”
The council denied there were significant changes to the application and another lawsuit was filed.
Councilor-at-Large David Gravel, who lives near the plaza, filed for reconsideration of the council’s vote, however, arguing there were significant changes in relation to traffic. The matter of reconsideration was likewise heatedly debated before the council approved the measure and moved on to consider if there were significant changes.
City attorneys assured the council the petitioners were well within their rights in their request and there was established legal precedent for the council to decide whether to hold another public hearing.
The proposed traffic changes are as follows:
- Add a pedestrian crosswalk across Lynnfield Street at the corner of the Land & Sea restaurant over to Norfolk Avenue with bright yellow signage and arrows.
- Make it clear Lynnfield Street is only a single lane until the plaza driveway with “fog line” striping from Land & Sea into the driveway. Two lanes would then be striped from that point to the intersection.
- Install a median in the driveway to clearly separate entering and exiting lanes.
- Create a more clearly defined right-turn only exit on the Summit Street side with bright yellow signage, arrows and striping.
- Create employee-only parking spaces with proper signage adjacent to that exit.
- Erect other signage as needed.
Athas, however, did not agree that such changes were significant in light of the potential traffic the coffee shop could generate. He said the upgrades would not solve the main problem – safety for motorists and pedestrians.
He also argued the traffic plan wasn’t really a material change because it wasn’t specifically outlined for the council last summer.
A key vote on Jan. 12 in allowing the proposal to go forward came from Ward 4 Councilor Robert Driscoll, who reversed his original stance.
Driscoll said he didn’t “do his due diligence” before and merely supported a fellow ward councilor, which he always does because it’s that person’s neighborhood.
But now, using “better judgment” and reviewing the exact traffic changes being offered and speaking with the police and Community Development, Driscoll felt confident traffic would be greatly improved, he said. He also indicated that the new business, of course, would fill space at the plaza that has been empty for a few years.
“They say that time heals all wounds. It seems in Peabody that time opens the wounds,” Athas said, chastising his colleagues for what he viewed as most of them putting the possibility of new tax revenues over personal safety and reneging on past promises. He referred to apparent promises made by councilors at the time the plaza was built that no food establishments would be allowed in.
The original special permit issued for the plaza contains no prohibitions on food uses.
“I’m a free market guy…just lower your price until someone meets it,” Athas said, arguing the real reason for vacancies at the plaza was due to high rents, despite the fact that the council has turned away a handful of proposals in the past 15 years.
“You know, you can say the same thing a hundred times, but that doesn’t make it the truth, Arthur,” Gravel said. “I live there too… To say we don’t care about safety is wrong. We all care about safety.”
Both Gravel and Driscoll pointed out that Police Capt. John DeRosa, the area commander for South Peabody, believes the traffic changes will greatly increase safety for pedestrians and motorists alike.
“Ghost towns are not safe places. If we followed your logic, the Northshore Mall wouldn’t be…there wouldn’t be a commercial tax rate,” Driscoll told Athas. “[Our] job is to protect the community and also grow the community…come up with valuable compromise.”
Councilor-at-Large Michael Garabedian said after the meeting that a full plaza of active businesses should actually help slow traffic down and make it safer – having multiple vacancies just encourages people to speed through the plaza or use it as a cut-through.
Garabedian voted down the project last summer but now wanted to have another hearing in light of the changes.
Ultimately, only Ward 3 Councilor Rico Mello continued to side with Athas in not wanting to allow the petitioners another hearing.
Mello said that allowing the proposal to come up for a third time “bends the rules” and basically shows no faith in the council’s role in such cases.
“If this prevails, any person that gets denied a special permit will come back for any reason whatsoever. I have seen this before,” Mello said. “This is not right; this is not the way to do business… People will say anything to get a special permit.”
“Whenever there’s a minority vote that prevails, it seems the majority figures out a way to change that…and that’s bothersome to me,” Mello added.
Council President James Liacos was irked at Mello’s suggestion.
“What you’re witnessing here is democracy,” Liacos said. “The rules allow [the] majority or supermajority to act. Nothing has been done here in secrecy; everything is out in the open.”
City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski suggested the council ask the petitioners to dismiss the lawsuit as a condition of allowing them to come back for a special permit hearing. John Keilty, who is representing Linear Realty, said the owners could agree to that.
The City Clerk’s office received notification last week that the suit had been dismissed.