Development Board works toward approving Aldi plan
SARANAC LAKE — Aldi’s plan to build a new supermarket and tear down the current one went before the village’s Development Board Tuesday night. Although the plan will require several variances from village zoning requirements, a straw poll showed the board is leaning toward approving it with relatively few changes.
However, Chair Leslie Karasin cautioned the crowd of about 30 people who showed up for the public hearing that the plan is under review by Essex County planners as well, so nothing is yet finalized. She also noted that citizens can appeal the board’s decision to the state Supreme Court.
Upholding the Land Use Code
Karasin opened the public hearing with an explanation of the role and purpose of the Development Board.
“The Development Board is an appointed board of volunteers. Our job is to represent the community’s interest, as defined in our village code,” said Karasin. The board is charged with reviewing building projects’ compliance with the 2016 Land Use Code, which grew out of the Comprehensive Plan of 2015. A Comprehensive Plan is a document arrived at through democratic processes — such as public hearings, surveys and written comments — that steers the future development of a municipality toward goals residents find desirable.
Karasin noted that the Aldi is placed in “a highly visible gateway” at the entrance to the village, and that the Land Use Code pays particular attention to this corridor.
“It’s not the village versus Aldi,” she said. “It’s what’s the best project for everybody.”
Lew Kibling, director of real estate development for Aldi, said the plan is to build a bigger store: “The plan is to replace the store in a way we can accommodate new product lines, a new refrigeration system and use sustainable building materials and LED lighting.
“We have no idea of closing,” said Kibling. “We don’t want to lay people off.”
Kibling said there was no way to remodel the current building, which was itself remodeled from a car dealership 10 years ago, when Aldi first opened on Lake Flower Avenue.
Kurt Charland of Bergman & Associates civil engineers, which is working for Aldi on the project, said, “We kind of wanted to keep the existing building open as long as possible.”
The plan, as explained by Kibling, is to build the new Aldi next to the current one, so that for a short time the new building can share the mechanicals and one wall. He estimated the time off for employees as about three weeks — if the village accepts this plan.
To accomplish a total tear-down and new construction without the variances, he said the store might be closed six months. One plan to do that would move the store to the southwest corner of the lot (closer to Lake Flower Avenue and McDonald’s), eliminating parking between the store and Lake Flower Avenue and moving parking to the side by McDonald’s. That plan is not under consideration.
Aldi is requesting variances from requirements that parking be moved to the back or side of the store, and that the amount of impervious surface be smaller.
“These are existing-condition-type variances,” said Charland. “Even though we’re reducing the parking lot size by 5 percent, we are over the impervious cover limit by 5 percent.”
Charland said about 34 parking spaces will be eliminated, as the store would like to offer a corner lot as a building site for another store.
The new plan includes a 10-foot-wide strip of grass next to Lake Flower Avenue, a sidewalk from the corner by McDonald’s and a brown brick-and-glass building with the Aldi sign on a tower over the entryway.
No plans to close
More than a dozen members of the public aired their preferences for the project. Many said the low prices of Aldi are important to them, as well as Aldi’s reputation for paying decent wages. In addition, many people said the aesthetic effect is important to preserving the character of the village.
Mark Kurtz, who has a photography business in the village, urged the board to enforce the law.
“I would urge the board to adhere closely to the Master Plan because that is what this village has said they want,” said Kurtz. “The village has gone through the extensive process of establishing a Master Plan, with a lot of public meetings and public hearings.”
Kurtz said the plan addresses important aesthetic issues, which “determine what our village looks and feels like as you come into town.”
Jamie Whidden, director of the nearby Saranac Village at Will Rogers, agreed. “Dunkin’ Donuts built a building that fits into the look of our town. We will get what we hold people to.”
Resident Hugh Law said, “It comes down to affordability, are people going to leave the area to shop? The bottom line is the people. Overall, economics should be the concern.”
Wendy Foley, who owns the Christian Bookstore on Broadway, said she misses all the little stores downtown. “We can’t keep losing what we have,” she said.
After a few more comments on the store closing, Karasin stepped in to clarify: “Aldi believes they can keep the business open. If anyone believes this board is asking them to shut down, that is not the case.”
Former village community development director Jeremy Evans said the goals of the village and the goals of Aldi are not quite congruent, but they’re getting there. “I don’t think we’ve hit the sweet spot.”
Evans said approving a major special use permit and two variances is something that the village should take time to do, possibly extending the public comment period. “This country is full of places that are meaningless. Saranac Lake’s best days are ahead of us because it’s an authentic place.”
“We need to make sure the gateway reflects the positive change going on in this community,” said village Trustee Paul Van Cott. “The code we adopted doesn’t favor corporate cookie-cutter architecture.”
Charland said the code is vague on the definition of “corporate architecture.” However, Kibling said Aldi produced the building plan in response to the increasing number of similar experiences the corporation is having during its expansion phase. Many towns are putting zoning in place to reduce the depersonalizing effects of big-box stores and indifferent development. Aldi plans to renovate or rebuild 1,600 stores in the next two years, as well as adding 400 new stores.
Although the new plan is more compatible with the village’s code, Kibling admitted that within five years, 90 percent of Aldis will look like this one. Kibling said he has little power to make changes, and even changing the metal trim on the design will require approval from Aldi’s U.S. headquarters.
Board member Bill Domenico said, “I don’t know if it’s realistic to ask Aldi to have 1,600 different buildings.”
“They certainly won’t give it to us if we don’t ask for it,” said Karasin. She recalled that the new McDonald’s had also been billed as more compatible with the village’s zoning, and that the board had approved it on that basis.
“Six months later, it looked like every other McDonald’s in the country,” she said. “If 90 percent of the 1,600 stores are going to look like this five years from now, it’s not what we want.”
Karasin said that in her opinion, it would be worth waiting for a new design, even if that meant the new store wouldn’t be built until 2019. In an informal straw poll, however, a majority of the board expressed approval of the store’s plan, with a few tweaks to its appearance.