Middletown grants zoning change for $22 million, 52,000-square-foot Big Y project

MIDDLETOWN — A local developer was recently granted a special zoning exception to build a 51,892-square-foot store at 502 and 550 Highland Ave. in Middletown, the site of a future Big Y supermarket.

The new address and main customer entrance will be 850 S. Main St., or Route 17, where the vacant former SNET, and, later, Frontier Communications fleet maintenance facility is located.

The store will sit on 7.31 acres of land.

The national retailer was founded in 1936 by the grandfather of Big Y co-owner Matt Demore. The company has 65 stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts, plus 13 “express” stores. It has nearly 11,000 employees, and routinely donates to food banks and area nonprofit organizations, Demore said.

Once opened, it is expected to add $2 million to the grand list of taxable properties, according to a presentation.

Mike Stone, who runs Stone Point Properties, has overseen a number of projects over the last 16 years, including Main Street Market, the old Capitol Theater, and designed and developed the Wesleyan RJ Julia Booksellers building on Main Street, he told Planning and Zoning Commission officials at the Sept. 14 meetings.

The family-owned grocery store, based in Springfield, Mass., is expected to generate 150 new full-time positions as well as construction jobs, the presentation said.

While the Land Use department received 14 letters supporting the store, many area residents, including those on Highland Avenue and the surrounding area, spoke out during a public session about their concerns pedestrian and motorist safety, an increase in traffic and the impact on homeowners.

Linda Bardwell, accompanied by Andrew Evans, both of whom are blind, said it’s already very difficult to access and walk to public transportation.

The plan includes demolishing a house at 502 Highland Ave., something Paul Fazio, and Alison Young, who lives across the street and whose family owns three homes there, said she’d like to see it remain standing.

In 2021, the city appraised that property at $189,830. It was sold to South Main Investors in July for $315,000, according to the assessor’s office.

Stone said his team has met with nearly all homeowners over the past few weeks. “Predictively, traffic was the main concern,” he said.

Some who spoke, however, such as Young and Fazio as well as Noah Baerman, said they were not approached for feedback on the plan.

“People like us are going to be turned upside down,” said Young, who is particularly concerned about noise coming from trucks and during the construction process. When the site was operational, trucks entered the lot as early as 4 or 5 am, she added. “Are we going to be waking up to the beeping sound of trucks every day?”

Baerman said he had concerns about safety and access to the “troublesome corner” where South Main intersects with Highland. Travelers going north often have to wait for heavy traffic to the south where there is a flashing yellow traffic light.

“Because it’s a long wait, people get impatient,” Baerman said. Motorists traveling north have to make a sharp turn onto Highland at an “awkward angle,” he added.

“While we recognize not all Highland Avenue residents support the project,” Stone said, “we want the commission to know that we made an effort to communicate with them and to address their concerns.

Baerman and others requested that sidewalks, now located on only a very small stretch between Randolph Road and South Main, be put in. “It’s already somewhat sketchy walking up and down the block,” he explained.

“The reality is, most of our neighbors realize that the alternative of an active fleet maintenance facility operating 24 hours a day, exclusively using Highland Avenue for access, would be much more disruptive than our proposed use,” Stone said.

Kate Wiltse said she was worried about the “creep of development pushing south. A busy grocery store is really infringing on these residential neighborhoods of the South Farms farms area and south end.”

“You’re changing the whole neighborhood into something completely different without asking any people,” Molly Mazzata told commissioners. “Is that what you want?”

Stone described the vacant building as “unsightly.”

“We will be proud to see it become a new and productive asset in the community despite its industrial past,” he told commissioners.

The main entrance was moved to South Main as a practical measure. “It was obvious that we made our best efforts to mitigate the traffic impact to our neighbors,” Stone explained. Trucks used to enter the parking lot on Highland Avenue, but now would use the South Main Street driveway, he said.

The South Main entrance will be enlarged, and the plan is to have the state Department of Transportation install a traffic light. The property will be “generously” landscaped, Stone said.

Commissioner Catherine Johnson asked about light pollution from overhead lights to be installed in the parking area facing the cemetery across the street. “Those people are not going to complain about the lights,” she joked, “but everybody else’s life is going to be ruined in the other direction.”

Commissioner Sebastian Giuliano talked about the blinking light at Highland and South Main, which has been a long-term problem, he said. “I’m hoping this project will be the impetus for the DOT to do something about that, which for years, they have not seen fit to do anything about,” he said.

“Every time I come across two vehicles making a left turn from South Main onto Highland Avenue and Highland extension it’s like your heart’s in your mouth,” he said.[Drivers] I don’t know what to do. I learned you turn in front of the car making the left, but the other car doesn’t necessarily know that. They’ll try to turn behind you. It’s a mess.”

Director of Land Use Marek Kozikowski amended the site plan on a conditional approval that sidewalks be installed, the height of parking lot lighting be reduced and the length of the service driveway be redone, among others.

“This site was identified as a great opportunity for redevelopment from an old, defunct fleet service facility into a world-class grocery store,” he said Thursday.

“Big Y will repurpose the site in a way that will serve Middletown residents in the nearby neighborhoods, as well as be a draw for people in Durham and other nearby towns.”

The measure was passed 6-1, with Commissioner Hillary Thompkins the lone no vote.

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