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East Lyme - The Zoning Commission voted Thursday to grant the developers' request to revise the master development plan for Gateway Commons, a proposed commercial and residential village near Interstate 95.
The developers now have the town's approval to build the entrance to the development's retail component 375 feet south of the originally planned location and closer to Interstate 95's Exit 74 ramps.
The Zoning Commission concluded Thursday that the requested change did not substantially alter the developers' original master development plan, which the town approved in 2008.
The developers, Simon Konover Co. of West Hartford and KGI Properties of Providence, will still need to submit a final site plan to the Zoning Commission before construction on the commercial phase begins.
The overall project comprises 425,000 square feet of retail space, including one anchor store near Exit 74; roadway infrastructure improvements; and a residential component of 280 rental units, which is currently under construction near Exit 73.
On Thursday, attorney Theodore Harris, a representative for the developers, said the relocation of the Route 161 entrance road would allow the developers to move forward with signing a lease with a big box store. The developers have a letter of intent from Costco, he said at the last meeting.
It is not economically feasible at this point for the developers to purchase the land where the road was originally located, he has said. That 28-acre parcel is owned by 296 Flanders, a Stonington limited liability company, according to town records.
The developers said they prefer the new location because it will allow for better use of the land and will not impact traffic any differently than the original location would have.
Harris said the developers will build the commercial area in stages and want to build the anchor store first because its presence will generate momentum for the rest of the project.
"That anchor store is really a central factor in this site because it is the traffic generator and brings people to the site," he said on Thursday.
As the developers work on the anchor store, they will undergo the permitting for improved southbound I-95 Exit 74 on and off ramps. The permitting could take up to a year and a half, according to Thursday's presentation.
In the interim period before the improved Exit 74 South off-ramp is built, the developers plan to build a temporary portion of a ramp that would direct traffic onto the entrance road, said John Mancini of BL Companies, the project's engineering firm. Mancini said the state Department of Transportation will require the developers to follow through with building the permanent, improved ramps.
The developers are negotiating with the DOT - which is planning to make improvements to the Exit 74 overpass, to also widen the bridge to include additional lanes, proper sidewalks and bike lanes - changes that could boost development along Route 161, said Mancini.
However, if the bridge is not widened, the DOT could later mandate construction of a new access road for Gateway Commons, at the original location, once other retail stores are added to the development. The mandate would move the road farther away from the highway ramps to lessen any congestion from the additional stores.
One of the concerns raised by the Zoning Commission was that moving the road would allow the developers to only bring in a big box store and not further develop the parcel with junior anchor and other shops. The master development proposes some of the retail stores on land not owned by the developers.
At the end of Thursday's discussion, commission Chairman Marc Salerno said his concern seemed to be alleviated. He said whoever develops the land will need to follow the requirements of the master development plan, and building the access road would be key to bringing development to the property.
"... Once that main road is there, I doubt that land will sit there," said Salerno. "It will be pretty valuable."