RICHBORO >>  Plans to improve the 81,000 square foot Richboro Plaza with a 50,000 square foot Giant Supermarket cleared a major hurdle Thursday night with the zoning hearing board granting relief for the redevelopment of the shopping center.

New Jersey-based Metro Commercial, which manages the nine acre shopping center at 2nd Street Pike and Route 332, asked for and received zoning relief for parking, impervious surface coverage and replacement of a nonconforming sign with a pylon sign.

Metro wants to build the new supermarket on the site of the former Murray’s Richboro Market whose owner ironically had fought to keep the Central Pennsylvania-based grocery store chain out of the township several years ago.

In 2018, then independent store owner Murray Battleman successfully rallied the community against plans to build a Giant just down the road at Addisville Common, the former site of Davis Pontiac . Instead, Wawa built its new store at the location.

Metro needed the variances to move forward with its plans to build the new supermarket, which will nearly double the size of the former grocery store at the south end of the center and expand the store’s facade up to the Rite Aid.

In making its case for relief, Metro’s Attorney Marc Kaplin presented five witnesses who addressed traffic, parking, engineering and the design of the redevelopment project.

Testifying on behalf of the applicant were Dan Hughes, chair of Metro Commercial Real Estate; John Hornick, site engineer; Eric Ostimchuk, an engineer with Traffic Planning and Design; John McGillin, project architect; and Kerry Eck, the manager of real estate development for the Giant Company.

“Our goal is to position the center for the long term with a quality design and securing high quality tenants,” Hughes testified before the board. “The closing of Murray’s Market has given us and the residents of Richboro the opportunity to achieve this goal by making the center a high quality amenity and something the residents can be proud of for years to come.”

Hughes said since Murray’s closing, Metro had been contacted by a number of discount and ethnic supermarkets “which could possibly operate in the former Murray’s space. That would be better than having a vacant anchor space, but it would cause us to forever miss the opportunity to get it right and provide the highest and best shopping experience for the residents of Richboro.”

Hughes also testified that without a quality anchor like Giant, a community shopping center like the Richboro Plaza would eventually fail.

During his testimony, Hornick explained that the entrance to the Plaza will be simplified with the elimination of the two side movements directly off of 2nd Street Pike. That will improve safety and also allow for an expansion of parking spaces within the center’s parking lot, said the engineer.

Regarding the relief being sought, Hornick testified that while the plan seeks a two percent increase in impervious surface coverage, plans by the developer to improve the site with below ground basin and storm water management system would offset the increase.

He also testified that parking at the center would be reconfigured to expand the number of stalls by 36, which is below the required additional number of 69. That would equate to 4 1/2 spaces per 1,000 square feet of space where the township requires 5 1/2.

Hornick also testified that there are no other configurations of the site that would come close to meeting the township’s parking requirement without eliminating what little green space is on the plan.

Ostimchuk later testified that a parking analysis conducted by his firm showed a maximum parking lot usage of 310, which is 111 less than the 411 being proposed. “When fully occupied, you will see a surplus of 111 parking spaces,” he said.

Ostimchuk said typically today municipalities are requiring 4 to 4 1/2 spaces per 1,000 square feet of space due to the increasing popularity of online grocery purchasing, which has impacted in person visits.

According to Hornick, the planned expansion will add 12,376 square feet to the Plaza, boosting the center’s overall square footage to more than 93,000 square feet.

The expansion and construction of the new Giant will displace three existing tenants - Philly Pretzel Factory, Happy Nails and the Carriage Shop - which Metro said have been offered space in another part of the center. It will also incorporate the former bank space at the south end and a retail space formerly occupied by a jewelry store.

Eck said the new store proposed by Giant will be fresh and modern with an updated decor, beer and wine offerings, Giant Direct and the latest in grocery store innovations, including new frictionless shopping.

When asked by Kaplin what Giant’s commitment would be to the community, Eck said the store will be here “as long as the community will have us. We’ve been eager to service Richboro for quite some time.”

Giant’s nearest stores are located in Warminster, Southampton and Middletown Township (Summit Square).

Speaking in favor of the zoning application was Northampton Township Solicitor Joseph Pizzo who attended the hearing at the direction of the board of supervisors.

“It’s important to the board of supervisors that downtown Richboro remain a thriving and dynamic commercial destination,” said Pizzo. “The Richboro Plaza, the addition of the Giant, the facelift to the facility that will come with it are all of great importance to the future of the community and the sustained viability of the downtown Richboro district.

“The supervisors are very much in support of the concept of a Giant coming in to backfill the vacant market,” Pizzo continued. “Everyone obviously was disappointed when that closed, but it is no benefit to the township for that space to remain vacant for an extended period of time. The supervisors believe that the variances necessary to help bring the supermarket into the shopping center certainly are the minimum that would be required. To that end, the township is supportive of the application.”

During public comment, a number of residents living in the Village of Northampton, located just to the east of the center, raised concerns with increased noise and truck traffic as a result of the expanded use.

According to Hornick, an existing thick tree and vegetative buffer between the back of the center and Thrush Court would remain, providing more than adequate shielding from the shopping center.

Others said they would rather see another type of grocery store occupying the space, an opinion the zoning board said was not within its purview to address.

Zoning hearing board chairman John Fenningham used a baseball analogy to describe the approvals process going forward.

“This is first base,” he said. “Next is second base and then third base as the applicant hopes to get home with the redevelopment of this shopping center,” he said, referring to the zoning approvals, the upcoming land development process and an eventual vote by the board of supervisors.

Giant is hoping to begin construction of the new supermarket later this year with an anticipated opening sometime in the second half of 2021. The new store will bring more than 100 jobs to the local community.

“We are excited to bring GIANT to Richboro and we are looking forward to the opportunity to serve this vibrant community,” said Nicholas Bertram, president, The GIANT Company. “As a Pennsylvania-based company for more than 97 years, this new store is the latest example of The GIANT Company’s ongoing investment in the Commonwealth.”

The GIANT Company currently operates 19 stores in Bucks County, employing approximately 3,500 team members.

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