Work could perhaps begin on a new Dillons store on south Massachusetts Street within 60 to 90 days, after city commissioners largely approved of the store’s plans Tuesday night.
Lawrence city commissioners at their weekly meeting approved a site plan for a project to replace the existing Dillons at 1740 Mass. with a larger store but also told the company to come back with a new design for the west facade of the building that is more architecturally interesting.
“I like the north end of the building, but it loses its appeal the farther south you go,” City Commissioner Bob Schumm said of the side of the building that will face Massachusetts Street. “As you slide to the south, it becomes more of a warehouse look.”
But commissioners did approve the most controversial element of the plan — a drive-thru pharmacy along New Hampshire street. Several neighbors urged commissioners to reject that part of the plan, saying it would place store traffic too close to existing residences.
But a majority of commissioners said a pharmacy drive-thru wouldn’t be nearly as disruptive to neighbors as a fast-food drive thru — for instance — and commissioners said they wanted to work with Dillons to make redevelopment of the existing site feasible.
“I don’t mean any offense to the people who work there, but this is one of the worst retail centers we have in the city currently,” City Commissioner Mike Dever said. “It is just horrible. It is an island of concrete. The look there is nothing we want to preserve. The value of these proposed improvements to the community will be tremendous.”
Commissioners approved the drive-thru portion of the plans on a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Aron Cromwell, who lives about a block from the site, opposed.
Brian Folmer, director of real estate for Dillons, said the company would work with the city’s Architectural Review Committee to try to make the west facade more appealing to commissioners. Adding windows to the design is a possibility, although Dillons believes that will make the building less energy efficient and could create some safety concerns by allowing light to shine into areas where meat-cutting and other similar work will take place. Adding ivy to the side of the building also will be up for discussion.
The city’s Architectural Review Committee previously had suggested adding murals to the side of the building — done by community artists — but Folmer said Dillons had experienced problems with graffiti at other sites that featured murals.
Folmer said he hoped that design changes could be approved by the city in 30 to 60 days, which would allow construction to begin shortly thereafter. The existing store will be closed and razed during the construction process. The new store likely will take nine to 12 months to construct, Folmer said.
Several neighbors told commissioners that they supported the idea of a new Dillons on the site but believed the company was asking for too many concessions from the city. The company already has received variances that reduced the amount of parking required and eliminated some of the building setbacks on the site.
“It is a bigger store and a taller store, and it is going to be 25 feet closer to our homes,” said Mary Wharff, president of the Barker Neighborhood Association, who opposed the drive-thru. “It seems like Dillons is getting what it wants again and again. Is it too much to tell Dillons that we have given enough?"