AUGUSTA — Developers looking to turn the vacant Kmart building on Western Avenue into a self-storage facility are hoping to win approval for the project by adding a playground and dog park to the site instead of a three-story building.
It is not yet clear, however, whether the change will be enough to convince the City Council to approve the zone change required for it.
Councilors have rejected multiple attempts in recent months by Kmart Plaza owner Richard McGoldrick and developer Patriot Holdings to put storage units in or outside the former big-box store that has sat vacant for nearly three years. The plan is not aligned with what local officials and neighbors have said they want to see in that part of Western Avenue — mainly, housing or retail.
With the third iteration of their proposal, McGoldrick and Patriot Holdings are seeking to develop only the existing building on the site as a self-storage building, and have scrapped previous plans to build a stand-alone building in the parking lot that would also contain self-storage units.
Instead, they would create a public park in the parking lot, which they said could draw more people to the site, and make the area more attractive to other retailers considering locating there.
“We’re not going to expand with any self-storage units in the parking lot, but we are proposing a new amenity to help support the use that’s there,” Chris Belanger, an engineer working on the project, told city councilors Thursday. “We still have some retail uses that will remain, and we’re hoping this dog park and public park will help bring people to the area (and) bring residents from the surrounding area there so they can use the retail facilities.”
Some city councilors described the change as a significant improvement, and Mayor Mark O’Brien said the latest proposal is more palatable because of the potential addition of park space in the parking lot instead of a new building containing storage units.
“I think the most objectionable part of the original proposal was the freestanding, three-story storage building in the middle of the parking lot, ” O’Brien said. “That’s why I think this proposal is substantively different than the first, whether you just repave the parking lot or you put in a park — that matters less to me. So to me, that kind of concession is considerable and makes a big difference to the way I view the project, personally.”
McGoldrick said he attempted to to find developers interested in building apartments on the site, after councilors rejected the previous storage proposal and said they would prefer the property be used to help meet the area’s need for housing.
He said he was “rejected outright by six developers,” and that plans by another company that has developed more than 7,000 apartments would be too expensive. He has struggled for four to five years to attract new retail tenants to the site, he said. The Kmart on Western Avenue closed in 2019.
McGoldrick said before investing additional money into the proposal and taking it to the Planning Board for consideration, Patriot Holdings wants to know whether city councilors are open to the new concept.
Some councilors said they support the revised proposal, while others said they could not commit to supporting it without hearing from members of the public to see if they like it. To hear from the public, the proposal would need to move forward so a public hearing could be held.
“This is a chicken-and-egg situation,” Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said. “They want to know what we’re going to do before they put the money into starting the process again, but we want to know what the process reveals from the public before we vote.”
O’Brien said if a city councilor wishes to sponsor a proposal to ask the Planning Board to recommend a zoning ordinance change to allow the project to move forward, the council could get public input as part of that discussion, and then vote on the proposal after getting that input.
As of Thursday, no councilor had offered to sponsor such a motion.
O’Brien said he would not put councilors on the spot about whether they would sponsor such an order, but if a councilor were to sponsor an order, Patriot Holdings would be notified and the matter would be placed on a business meeting agenda.
Some councilors said they liked the concept of green space taking the place of the previously proposed new storage building, which would have been built in the parking lot, but questioned its location in the middle of the parking lot, where it would not fit with its surroundings and where children could be endangered by having a playground surrounded on all sides by cars and traffic.
McGoldrick said the current proposal is a concept, not a firm plan, for how parking lot space can be used. He also said the park could be moved.
Matt Nazar, the director of development services for the city of Augusta, said neither a self-storage facility nor a dog park is an allowed use in that part of Western Avenue. Thus, the City Council would have to approve a contract zone to allow those uses at the site.
Belanger and McGoldrick said if the park were built at the site, Patriot Holdings would maintain and clean the park.