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City council approves CVS site plan: Question of highway access falls to MnDOT

The updated CVS site plan shown here was approved by the City Council Monday evening. The access on Vermillion Street is subject to MnDOT approval. Image courtesy of the City of Hastings

This week, Hastings Gift, Garden and Floral shut its doors for the time being. It’s one of the most visible effects of a proposal from CVS Pharmacy to build a store there that would take up the entire block.

On Monday evening, CVS representatives from Velmeir Companies presented a site plan to the Hastings City Council and asked the city’s approval to move forward on the project. They got the approval, but there’s still some uncertainty about the development’s future.

There’s been plenty of discussion about the project already, starting with a neighborhood meeting in May. Two issues have been demanding a little more attention than the rest, though. The first has to do with the city’s Vermillion Street Corridor Guidelines, a document that outlines things the city would like to see as Vermillion Street changes with new developments. The second has to do with an access from the store’s parking lot directly onto Vermillion Street.

Vermillion Street ­Corridor Guidelines

The Vermillion Street Corridor Guidelines were developed in 2008 by a group of city staffers, business people and the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce. It deals with business viability, visual image, transportation and pedestrian safety from 11th Street to 33rd Street.

One of the guidelines is that, whenever possible, it was preferred that new buildings be built right up against the street, with parking located behind them. The CVS plan places its store away from the highway, with the parking lot in front. Hastings city staff proposed an alternate site plan that placed the store at the corner of 14th and Vermillion streets, much like how the NAPA building is positioned just south of the site.

CVS representatives defended their plan Monday, saying that the layout of the site would allow them to design the interior in a way that’s proven to work and would also provide better visibility and accessibility to customers. The building would also serve as the most effective noise, light and visual screen for homes along Sibley Street, they said.

One of the homeowners located along Sibley Street voiced his preference for the CVS plan over city staff’s alternative, as did Christine Schaffer, owner of Hastings Gift, Garden and Floral and Gerald Fair, owner of Fair Office World and the Great Clips property.

Mayor Paul Hicks said that he favored the alternative plan when the process first started, but comments from the public and business owners have since convinced him that the CVS plan is better.

The council voted unanimously to approve the CVS site plan.

Vermillion Street access

The main discussion Monday was about a proposed access on Vermillion Street.

Currently, there are two access points on Vermillion Street. One enters the Great Clips parking lot and the other is for Hastings Gift, Garden and Floral. There is also a short section of on-street parking.

The site plan proposed three access points into the parking lot: one on 15th Street, one on 14th Street and one in the middle of the block on Vermillion Street. The 14th and 15th street accesses would be full access, while the Vermillion Street access would allow only right turns in and right turns out.

The big question, however, is whether or not MnDOT will allow any access to the highway, and so far, it looks like they won’t. For CVS, it’s a critical piece of the project, said Peter Coyle of Larkin Hoffman, Attorneys at law, representing CVS.

“It’s the most direct access to the site,” Coyle said. “… We’ve explained that to MnDOT. They disagree.”

MnDOT’s position is that the access points on 14th and 15th streets are adequate, and that a highway access isn’t necessary, said Community Development Director John Hinzman. So far, he added, MnDOT has been “steadfast” in keeping their standard of closing direct access to Highway 61.

Some council members agreed with the idea of closing the access, saying it was unsafe. Councilmember Danna Elling Schultz pointed to other suburbs, where virtually no business has direct access to a main thoroughfare.

“I think it’s time to start making it safer,” she said of Vermillion Street.

Councilmember Joe Balsanek was also concerned about traffic safety and agreed with MnDOT’s assessment.

“I think there’s plenty of access off 14th and 15th streets,” he said.

Hicks wanted the council to send its support of the access to MnDOT. He pointed to other developments where accesses were closed, including the NAPA building, which lost two accesses, and Las Margaritas, which was allowed to keep one. He was concerned that by not allowing traffic to get into the parking lot from the highway, it would clog 15th Street.

“I don’t want to dump all the traffic on 15th Street,” he said.

The site plan the council ultimately approved does include the mid-block access on Vermillion Street, but with an understanding that it will be removed should MnDOT officially reject it. CVS representatives intend to continue discussions with MnDOT with the hopes of convincing the state to allow the access.

Balsanek asked CVS representatives if denial from MnDOT could put a stop to development. Kevin McGhee of Velmeir Companies said that denial would require him to go back to CVS and wait for their decision.

“I have been told that this very well could be a deal-breaker,” McGhee said, but added that he hasn’t gotten a firm answer from CVS yet.

Other discussion

One of the issues the city had asked CVS to address was screening between the store and the homes to the east. The updated site plan reflects that by adding fencing and more vegetation to the buffer area on the west side of Sibley Street. Hicks also requested that the signage on the east side of the store not be lit out of deference to the homeowners. CVS representatives appeared to agree with the suggestion.

The council questioned what traffic impact the store would have on the area. Hinzman said that, based on traffic studies, improvements to the streets in the area should not be necessary.

Do we need another pharmacy?

Council members noted that several of their constituents have asked why they’re allowing CVS development when there are already several pharmacies in Hastings. Councilmember Tony Alongi addressed that concern. It’s not the government’s job to determine what land is specifically used for, he said. Rather, it’s the council’s job to set guidelines and standards. When it comes to the type of business being proposed, “I don’t believe this body should have an opinion,” he said.

Balsanek agreed.

“We can’t discriminate,” and denying CVS based on its type of business would be discriminatory, he said.