Augusta councilors reject large self-storage business proposal at former Kmart site

Augusta councilors have rejected a proposal to turn the vacant former Kmart space on Western Avenue into a self-storage facility. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — City councilors have rejected a controversial proposal to redevelop the vacant and run down former Kmart site as a large self-storage business.

Councilors and residents said the proposed new use wouldn’t be a good fit with what they and neighbors want to see that part of Western Avenue become.

Representatives of the would-be developer, Las Vegas-based Patriot Holdings, said the plan to convert the vacant former Kmart building into a self-storage building would follow a nationwide trend of dying retail shopping plazas being converted into “Class A” climate-controlled self-storage facilities to meet the growing demand for storage space. When that storage facility filled up, the developer had planned to build a new three-story building in the parking lot that would also house storage units.

Brandon Mitchell of Malone Commercial Brokers, a firm representing Patriot Holdings in the proposal, said the use would fit with the rest of the heavily-commercial Western Avenue. He noted while driving to the site from the interstate that he passed numerous retail businesses such as Lowe’s, Target, fast food restaurants, Planet Fitness, Applebees, and added the UHaul site directly across Western Avenue from the former Kmart Plaza has self-storage units already.

“Every business under the sun is on that strip, and this is why we feel this plaza right there, this Class A facility, would work well with this retail location,” Mitchell told city councilors Thursday night. “We’re seeing these types of facilities now being built throughout the country and, honestly, these old shopping centers that can’t be full, this is the trend, nationally. This location is great for a commercial use like this.”

Councilors acknowledged much of Western Avenue is highly developed with other commercial uses but said the end where the Kmart site is located is surrounded on both sides by traditional residential neighborhoods. And, some councilors said, they and neighbors have hopes for a better, more walkable future for that end of Western Avenue. They said Western Avenue was first developed commercially before the city had zoning, and was, before that development, lined with trees and elegant estates.

“The history in Augusta with Western Avenue is, we all hate it with a passion, so you’re up against that,” At-Large Councilor Heather Pouliot said. “It was done before we had zoning in the city and we’ve been making a concerted effort to go back to having a more beautiful Western Avenue, especially in this area. I just don’t think (the self-storage proposal) fits in the area.”

A self-storage business is not an allowed use in that zone, so the business needed councilors to approve a contract zone to allow it as a conditional use there.

The developer revised the proposal, replacing the first-proposed, garage-style exterior storage units planned to be built in the former Kmart parking lot after councilors criticized its aesthetics for such a prominent spot. New plans called for a three-story building that looked more like an office building, with interior storage units. Councilors said the revised proposal was an improvement but postponed the proposal after neighbors to the site expressed concerns about it last month.

City councilors then rejected the proposed contract zone in a 6-2 vote Thursday night, likely killing the project.

Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud, who with Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins were the only supporters of the proposal on the council, said the developer had addressed councilors’ concerns about the aesthetics of the first proposal. Michaud and Judkins said the developer deserved a chance to redevelop the vacant Kmart building and revitalize the property, which he fears will now remain in its run-down state. The property is located in Ward 1.

“Cleaning that property up and investing in that property, we have someone willing to do that now, and I think it would be a big mistake to let this property go any longer because these strip malls, brick-and-mortar stores, are phasing out,” Michaud said. “I think we need to move along with the times and I’m very much in favor of Patriot Holdings doing what they want to do at this facility. I think when they’re done it will be a beautiful site and not un-enhancing to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Resident Bruce Holmes, owner of Century 21 Venture Ltd. real estate in Augusta who said a firm he owned used to manage the Kmart plaza, urged city officials to seek a higher and better use for the site. He said the property offers spectacular views of the state capitol complex from the second floor of the Kmart building, which is currently vacant office space. He said Western Avenue is a significant gateway into Augusta and the city has an obligation not just to its residents but also to the state to help respect and promote the integrity of the area around the state capitol complex, and a self-storage facility so close to the complex would not do that.

Instead, he suggested the city take a leadership role to work with the property owner and promote the development of 20 to 40 apartment units on the site where the Kmart building is now. Having such clientele could draw in new retail businesses such as coffee shops, restaurants and health-related businesses, as well as for existing businesses such as a laundromat at the site now, Holmes said.

“Augusta needs housing and housing could be the economic solution and the answer to the problem the developers are currently having with a dying plaza,” Holmes said. “There is a great opportunity, this is a fabulous site.”

However Richard McGoldrick, owner of the property for the last two decades, said they’ve spent the last three years trying to attract new retail tenants to the plaza and a Massachusetts housing developer studied the potential to redevelop the site with housing. But they found it would be so costly to do so that the rents wouldn’t be affordable.

“It’s totally unrealistic to make that apartments,” McGoldrick said. “We’ve tried, believe me, we’ve tried very hard to make something happen there.”

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