SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 15, 2014

Developer: No rezoning, no Whole Foods

Landowner says he would build plaza without grocery store

BY PAUL LEIGHTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — The developer of a proposed shopping plaza on Brimbal Avenue said yesterday that the plaza will still be built if voters overturn a rezoning measure in next month’s special election, but it won’t include a Whole Foods Market.

CEA Group President Steven Cohen said defeating the rezoning would negate a land swap between him and the state and force him to build on a smaller, adjacent piece of land where having a Whole Foods Market as a tenant would be too costly for him.

“We need the plaza to be bigger to make it economically feasible,” he said.

Cohen made his comments yesterday in his first interview in advance of a Feb. 8 special election that will determine whether a $5.2 million road improvement project can proceed.

Cohen has an agreement with the state to swap adjacent parcels of land that would enable the state to move the Route 128 connector road as part of the project. Cohen would then build a $20 million shopping plaza on the land now owned by the state.

The land swap and road project will not go ahead, however, if voters overturn a decision by the City Council to rezone the state-owned parcel to allow for retail uses.

Cohen said yesterday he wants voters to understand that a ‘no’ vote means they will still get a shopping plaza and the accompanying traffic, but without the state-funded road improvements and without a Whole Foods Market.

“The development is happening anyway. The traffic is coming anyway,” he said.

Residents opposed to the rezoning gathered more than 3,500 signatures to force a special election on Feb. 8 at Beverly High School. A ‘no’ vote would overturn the rezoning.

Opponents say the road project is out of scale for the area, and the shopping plaza would create too much traffic on already busy Brimbal Avenue. The project includes moving the Route 128 connector road and installing roundabouts on both ends to eliminate the existing left-hand turns, which the state says rank “F” in terms of safety.

Neighbors have said defeating the rezoning at the polls would allow time to come up with a more appropriate traffic project with more public input.

Cohen has been mostly silent about the controversy since he spoke at a public hearing at the high school in September. He said he finally agreed to an interview after listening to what he called “inaccurate and misleading” information spread by the North Beverly Neighborhood Association.

Cohen said it is not true that taxpayers will have to pay to clean up the former landfill that is part of the land swap. Cohen said he has agreed to pay for any environmental costs associated with the land.

“I still own most of the landfill (even with the land swap),” he said. “To the extent that environmental issues cause them to go over budget, I’m responsible.”

Dan DeAngelis of the North Beverly Neighborhood Association said he was under the impression that taxpayers would have to pay for any environmental cleanup. When informed of Cohen’s assertion that he would pay, DeAngelis said, “That’s news, and it’s generous, I guess. It’s not anything that I was aware of.”

Cohen said he has spent four years working with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to test and clean up the land. He said he bought the land in 2005 in part because he wanted to be involved in cleaning up a former landfill.

“I was really motivated to do something that was ‘green,’ to improve the environment,” he said. “This seemed like a great way to do that.”

Cohen said a Whole Foods Market would not work on his current land, which is about 1 acre smaller than the land he would obtain in the swap. He said anchor stores like Whole Foods pay lower rent because they attract other retail stores to a shopping plaza.

Cohen said he would need a larger plaza to attract more stores in order to make up for the lower rent paid by Whole Foods. A smaller plaza without a Whole Foods would probably include office space on the second and third floors above the retail stores, he said.

DeAngelis said he would be fine with a shopping plaza without a Whole Foods because it would draw less traffic.

“Anything that reduces the traffic in that area makes sense,” DeAngelis said. “I don’t know what could be more of a draw than a shopping center with a Whole Foods.”

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.