Know Your Neighbors

Talking to players in the community can help a new site's chances.

Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations

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The convenience operator had everything in order: renderings, legal, responses to potential questions about storm-water runoff, traffic, noise. All looked good. But another local zoning board, another surprise.

Neighbors in this Philadelphia-area community came out, and they were angry. This store sells adults magazines, one resident pointed out. Another accused it of marketing drug paraphernalia. Though completely unsubstantiated, the charges were more than enough to derail the most buttoned-up of projects.

The zoning chairman then advised departing locals that another c-store proposal was on the docket. Sitting toward the rear, folks representing Wawa grew nervous.

 However, the crowd was fine with that proposal: “ ‘That’s OK—that’s Wawa,’ ” Joe Viscuso says, recalling the scene.

With four decades of site-engineering experience, Viscuso has worked with hundreds of retailers and thousands of local representatives, aiming to marry the business desires of his clients with the needs of the neighborhoods.

Now vice president for Stantec, one of North America’s most dominant design and planning consultancies with 160 offices in the United States and Canada, Viscuso says breaking ground has never been more daunting or fraught with nuances. “One of the toughest things and biggest misconceptions I see with anybody doing a ground-up or a significant remodel is their non-understanding of the entitlement process: storm water, traffic, neighborhood issues,” he says. “The entitlement process gets exponentially tougher every year.”

Setting your sights on building a site can take minimally two and as many as five years, and can run from $150,000 to $1 million in soft costs alone, depending on the scale, complexity and neighborhood reaction. And whether you’re a mom-and-pop or a global chain, Viscuso offers some of the same advice.

“I always tell a client to drive 5 miles in any direction, because every municipality is different and the rules are going to change from one to the other,” he says. “So, yes, there are advantages to being consistent and having [a template], but you can’t extrapolate based on that consistency of design.” Specifically, Viscuso advises retailers to:

  • Do your homework: Prepare an environmental-impact study, and know the traffic patterns and neighboring businesses, and recent local concerns.
  • Think local: Before you go before the zoning or planning commission, meet with the zoning inspector and town manager; talk in advance to local advocates and neighborhood groups that potentially could become obstacles. In other words, Viscuso says, “You need to know the players in that community.”
  • Assess your reputation: Aside from tax generation and job creation, he says, community leaders will review your proposal, in large part, based on your past. Like Wawa in the earlier example, “retailers want to have an exemplary image. That will help you in the process.

“Corporate image has become more and more important,” says Viscuso. “They want you to be a good corporate citizen. Sustainability is cropping up more these days; they want to have businesses that believe in sustainability and going green, so the more you can promote sustainable practices, the better.”

For c-stores, the biggest challenges confronting them are 24-7 operations, fuel and c-store stereotypes. That means addressing loitering, noise, environmental concerns from underground storage tanks, traffic and physical aesthetics.

“If you’re a convenience store coming into a new neighborhood, you have to understand what I called the ‘stakeholders,’ the people who are going to be important to get your project passed,” he says. “You have to know that what works in one neighborhood isn’t necessarily going to work in another.

“It’s a drawn-out process, but the more you do upfront, the better your chances are.”  

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