Plan Commission gives green light to auto parts store

March 13, 2012

An O'Reilly Auto Parts may not rank as the preferred business to fill the building that formerly housed Blockbuster in East Tosa from the neighborhood residents' standpoint. However, it's a better option than a vacant building, the Plan Commission decided Monday,

After nearly four hours of discussion, the commission unanimously recommended the city grant conditional use to operate the auto parts store at 61st Street and North Avenue.

"I don't think it fits the vision of the community," Commissioner John Albert said. "But it's clearly better than an empty building."

The commission's support came with a few conditions aimed at helping the business better fit the neighborhood. For instance, there was a desire to see more green space by possibly taking out a few of the 40-plus parking spots. Auto repair in the parking lot would be prohibited.

Other conditions suggested by city staff were dropped, namely requirements to put security cameras on site and share its parking lot with neighboring businesses.

The approval process continues tonight as the conditional-use request moves on to the Community Development Committee.

At the heart of the debate is building owner Dan Cohen's decision to enter into a 15-year lease with national auto parts dealer O'Reilly, which neighbors say doesn't fit with the master plan - which was adopted by the city last year - for the East Tosa commercial district,

Resident Mary Perry said an auto-parts store didn't fit into the "walkable community."

She counted among the many residents who got involved in developing the plan. As a taxpayer Perry would "be appalled" if after all the time and money invested that the plan wouldn't be implemented, she said.

"Some of us really put our passion and a lot of effort into that plan," Perry said.

She and many others that spoke against O'Reilly asked for some patience to find the right tenant, citing examples like Sendik's for the former Kohl's grocery store; Juniper 61 for the former's Jake's; and the numerous businesses including Yo Mama! at the former Drew's Variety Store building; as good fits that took some time to make happen.

People opposed to O'Reilly cited instances of crime at its other stores, a number of similar businesses in proximity and a concern that customers and employees will be performing auto maintenance in the parking lot.

Attorney Brian Randall, who represents Cohen and O'Reilly for the project, argued the project did fit with the plan, which lists automotive parts sale as an underserved market in the district.

The plan identified the Blockbuster building as a potential redevelopment site as well as on of four subdistrict centers for the corridor based on the struggles of the video rental industry and the fact that it took up an entire block at the gateway to the city. A mixed use development with a neighborhood commons including a splash pad on southwest corner of site and a redesign of 61st Street was outlined in the plan.

Alderman Peter Donegan, who represents one of two districts that make up East Tosa, called the pretty drawings in the plan unrealistic.

"That's not going to happen," he said. "That picture is a fantasy if you expect this owner to do that."

The business will add economic viability and allow the city to focus on sites where there are bigger problems, Donegan added.

He also suggested denying O'Reilly could open the city up to a lawsuit.

Cohen said he never intended to develop the site, only put new tenants into an existing building and provide a few exterior upgrades.

In 2010, he came up with plans to subdivide the building to provide up to three spaces and shopped it to coffee, ice cream, fitness, health care and physical therapy businesses, among others.

He said he was "shocked" that there was no interest during a nine-month period.

"There should be retailers interested in this building but there weren't. That's the bottom line," Cohen said.

Last summer, O'Reilly entered the picture and provided "a very rational, logical way to go with the property at this point," he said, adding that it would serve as an anchor to the east end of the corridor.

The O'Reilly proposal received nearly 30 emails in support from neighbors following a door-to-door campaign by project applicants and owners of neighboring businesses Ted's Restaurant and Bond Laundromat said they'd welcome the auto parts store to East Tosa.

Next step

WHAT: The Community Development Committee will take up a request to operate an O'Reilly Auto Parts at the former Blockbuster building, 6102 W. North Ave.

WHERE: City Hall, 7725 W. North Ave.

WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight


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