An even better Aldi for Saranac Lake

The village of Saranac Lake Development Board is reviewing a proposal from Aldi to construct a new, larger grocery store to replace its current building on Lake Flower Avenue.

Let’s be clear. Everyone loves Aldi. Unfortunately, Aldi has proposed a project that is not in keeping with village goals and design standards, and which requires several variances. It looks like Aldi designed the project first and then looked at the Development Code just long enough to understand what standards it would have to get around. Meanwhile, in the aisles of Aldi and on Facebook, rumors surfaced that the village “has already denied their [Aldi] first proposal” and that if the village does not approve the proposal, “Aldi WILL CLOSE ITS DOORS.”

This is a convenient story for Aldi because it causes understandable concern among its employees and its many customers who depend on the store for quality, affordable groceries. There is no doubt its closure would cause hardship. However, this story, that the store could close and it would be the village’s fault, distracts everyone from the facts — the facts being that Aldi knows what the village standards are and has chosen to largely ignore them. Instead of designing a project that meets Aldi goals AND village goals, the company has printed posters, passed out misleading flyers and encouraged nervous customers to sign a vague petition supporting the company.

Now the Development Board finds itself on the defensive before the review process has even really started. Concerned customers and employees, without the benefit of the facts, will show up at a public hearing to support the project because they are worried about their grocery bills and paychecks (and who can blame them) and with little interest in or patience for a substantive discussion between the company and the board about the finer points of sound land use planning and appropriate architectural design.

It is a good strategy. Frame the entire review process as a choice between food and jobs and seemingly trivial project details like stormwater, parking and building color so that anyone who focuses on those details comes across as insensitive or out of touch.

Just to reiterate. Everyone loves Aldi. Everyone wants it to build a larger store while keeping the current store open during construction. But we should want the project to meet village goals and standards, too. These standards are in place because improving the physical design of the village is key to its economic success.

Fortunately, there is a solution. With a little work, Aldi and the Development Board can design a project that meets the goals of the company AND the village, and which reduces or eliminates the need for variances. Here are three specific design changes that Aldi can make:

¯ Locate the new building at the front of the lot at the corner of Will Rogers Drive and Lake Flower Avenue. The resulting project would be sensitive to and greatly enhance the streetscape of the village, be convenient and safe for cyclists and pedestrians without sacrificing driver convenience, and would eliminate the need for one of the requested variances. This design would also be a tremendous business move for the company. Think about it! Instead of a store tucked partially into a hill at the back of the lot, Aldi would get a brand-new store front and center at the entrance to the village on the busiest road in the Adirondack Park. You can’t ask for better exposure for a business!

¯ Reduce the number of parking spaces and the total paved area to a minimum. The proposed project includes 96 parking spaces. The current store has 82 parking spaces, and many spaces remain empty even on the busiest days. The dimensions of the parking spaces and width of access drives are also excessive. By reducing the number of parking spaces and minimizing the size of parking spaces and access drives, the applicant could reduce the amount of paved area by thousands of square feet and require a smaller variance. Parking lots and associated stormwater management systems are expensive to install and maintain, and those costs are passed through to us, the customers. Parking lots do not create jobs or generate tax revenue. They are unattractive and detrimental to the environment.

¯ Propose an architectural design that fulfills the design objectives of the village and which is sensitive to our Saranac Lake and Adirondack heritage. The Development Code states that corporate franchise architectural styles are prohibited. But that is exactly what Aldi has proposed. Since the corporate franchise style is expressly prohibited by the code, it is unclear how the Development Board could even consider approving the current design without yet another variance. Corporations can and will customize architectural designs to meet community goals. Price Chopper and Family Dollar in Lake Placid provide local examples of corporations that have been sensitive to local architectural styles.

These changes are achievable and no more complicated to implement than anything in the current proposal.

It’s unfortunate that Aldi didn’t make much effort to design a project with the goals of the village in mind from the start, but it is not too late for the company to adjust its course. Let’s tell Aldi and the Development Board to design an even better Aldi for Saranac Lake!

Jeremy Evans lives in Saranac Lake, is a former community development director for the village and currently works as chief executive officer of the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency.