The quintessential New England community of Winchester is suffering growing pains, torn between the desire to preserve its small-town charm and the need to expand its commercial tax base.
The angst is palpable, seen on bright red yard signs and heard in the voices of residents who have trudged out to planning and zoning board meetings to make their feelings known. The clamor is over a proposal to place a 12,000-square-foot CVS on the corner of Washington and Swanton streets, in a vibrant residential neighborhood where many children walk to school.
A specialty real estate firm, Indianapolis-based Gershman Brown Crowley, Inc., one of the nation’s largest CVS developers, is seeking site plan approval for what would be the town’s second store in the pharmacy chain. If the plans get the green light from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the new store would be within walking distance of the first, a fixture in Winchester’s Town Center.
The proposal has been divisive. In letters to local officials, proponents of the second CVS say it would be “a natural progression of our growth and success as a community” that “would be an asset to Winchester” and “provide a major upgrade to the site,” while opponents say the store would threaten the economic viability of downtown businesses.
“This enterprise is sure to bleed business away from the center, as it will establish a new shopping site which will be in direct competition” with the town center businesses, many of which are mom-and-pop operations, argued Washington Street resident Joseph Scotti in a letter to the Winchester Chamber of Commerce.
A Globe review of Town Hall correspondence reveals antipathy for the proposal has been fierce, far outweighing notes of support, with petitions and letters of opposition flooding both the local Chamber of Commerce and Town Hall offices.
One citizens group, Neighbors for Rational Growth, is planting dozens of the red yard signs around town, emblazoned with the words “No Mega CVS.” The grass-roots organization has gone so far as to hire an attorney and collect contributions that organizers hope will help fund a war chest to cover legal expenses, should it come to that.
It may not.
Late last week, the Planning Board voted unanimously — twice — to recommend the Zoning Board of Appeals take unfavorable action on the latest iteration of the developer’s proposal. The appeals board could act on the CVS proposal as early as April 2.
On Oct. 9, the developers filed a request for a special permit for a 13,158-square-foot store with a mezzanine to house offices and an employee lounge, said town planner Elizabeth Ware. That plan has been revised several times, reduced both in size and scope, to address neighborhood concerns and the town’s parking requirements, she said, noting that the scaled-back plans eliminated the need for a special permit.
While acknowledging that the latest plans are a “significant improvement over the first submission for the project,” the Planning Board on March 14 suggested the developer return to the drawing board and scale back even further.
“It’s still a big box in a small neighborhood,” Planning Board member Mary E. McKenna said at last week’s meeting.
The Planning Board also noted the project was not in accordance with the spirit and intent of the town’s master plan for the area, which promotes neighborhood businesses that are compatible with their residential surroundings.
Ultimately, the Planning Board based its first recommendation for unfavorable action on the fact that the CVS proposal does not meet the town’s criteria for site plan approval, which requires that the project “minimize unreasonable departure from the character, materials, and scale of buildings within the vicinity.” The second unfavorable recommendation was made because there are still unresolved legal and technical issues, ranging from lighting and drainage to traffic and parking.
The Planning Board has lingering questions about the traffic impact the store would have on Washington Street and is pressing for a town version of the traffic study that the developer submitted, Ware said.
Washington Street is a major corridor, heavily traveled by parents picking up and dropping off their children at four nearby schools and by local residents heading to the transfer station. In Winchester, the station is a frequent pit stop because there is no curbside trash pickup. Washington Street is also the main route for emergency vehicles traveling to Winchester Hospital.
Residents also have voiced concern about a decline in property values and a surge in cut-through traffic on what are now sleepy side streets. More than 150 residents have signed petitions that detail their concerns.
“In the morning, as I back out of my driveway, cars make a quick turn to cut through, which is very scary, as they are not expecting a car to be backing out of the driveway,” Jill Sawa, a Lincoln Street resident, wrote in a letter to the Zoning Board of Appeals. “This doesn’t happen often, but I shudder to think how it would increase with the CVS store.”
In a March 14 memo to the Planning Board, the developer’s attorney, Mary Winstanley O’Connor of Boston, said another traffic study is “unreasonable,” given that the proposed CVS, which would replace seven smaller businesses, adds only 1,000 square feet of retail space to the site.
The property being eyed for the proposed CVS consists of three adjoining parcels, which are now the site of several empty storefronts.
At least one tenant closed up shop in anticipation of the CVS project, which would require razing the buildings now on the site.
O’Connor did not return a telephone message seeking comment. The architect for the project, Kevin Paton of BKA Architects Inc. in Brockton, directed questions to O’Connor.