PITTSFIELD — The Zoning Board of Appeals has unanimously rejected a zoning variance requested to allow a Dunkin' Donuts restaurant and drive-thru on the campus of the former St. Mary the Morning Star Church on Tyler Street.
The change, which would have extended a business zone by 50 feet to accommodate the drive-thru operation, was rejected after board members agreed with a consultant's report that such a business would have a detrimental effect on the Tyler Street area and failed to meet the city's economic revitalization goals.
The decision leaves unclear how the developer, Cafua Realty Trust, will proceed concerning the 2.6-acre former church campus, which also includes a former school and two other buildings. The company has a sales agreement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield for the parcel, but the current restaurant proposal apparently now is the second one for the parcel to be rejected.
An initial plan, submitted in the fall of 2014, called for razing the former church, but that was soon withdrawn after a public outcry and petition drive to save the vacant former church for reuse. Friends of St. Mary, which formed to lobby to save the towering brick structure, has said other potential developers have emerged with proposals, but they are unwilling to step forward because the diocese has an agreement with Cafua.
Several members of the citizen group spoke against the restaurant plan Wednesday, and later burst into applause after the board voted unanimously to reject the variance.
James Scalise, of SK Design Inc., which prepared the project plans for Cafua, told board members he believed he now had enough information to address traffic and stormwater runoff issues that also were raised during a June ZBA, based on reports from consultants hired by the city with funding from Cafua.
Concerning a report from John Mullin, a planning consultant with Mullin Associates Inc., of Pelham, that a Dunkin' Donuts with drive-thru would "change the character of the neighborhood" in a negative manner, Scalise said his firm could likely hire another consultant who would deliver a different opinion.
The concept itself "is very subjective" and involves complicated issues, Scalise said.
However, Mullin, who attended the meeting, said the subject of the effects of development on an area is not subjective and is one he has studied over a 30-year career.
He reiterated the main points of his report, which stated in part, "It is my professional opinion that this project will be detrimental to the character of the neighborhood."
He added that "The creation of a restaurant and drive-thru would represent a fundamental change to the retail pattern" and "would be oriented to automobile customers 'passing through' the neighborhood rather than local residents."
The project also "emphasizes auto dependent uses," Mullin said, which is inconsistent with the city's economic revival master plan for the area. That calls for an emphasis on pedestrian-friendly development.
In addition, he said a Dunkin' Donuts with drive-thru would destroy the "iconic character" of the historic St. Mary's campus and would divide the Tyler Street business district because of the traffic patterns created.
He also cited the state Transformational District Initiative designation the area has received, along with a state-funded planning consultant working in Pittsfield to advise on an overall revitalization strategy and on specific proposals.
In his remarks, Scalise said the current plan is a revision of the first Cafua proposal and designed to keep the former church intact and create a small subdivision around it, while still allowing a 2,100-square-foot restaurant and drive-thru. The company also has said it would donate the church to the city or a reuse developer.
He added that the company would agree to maintain the former church for a time while other development or reuse plans were considered, and said it is possible the former elementary school would be suitable for renovation for housing.
Mullin and others said, however, that a Dunkin' Donuts on the church campus would likely discourage any redevelopment of St. Mary's as a community center, performance venue or similar reuse.
"I enjoy Dunkin' Donuts," Mullin said, "but when I am on the highway, not here. You have to ask yourself if this emphasizes pedestrian activity. The answer is, it does not."
The restaurant proposal seems "very, very out of place at that location," said board member Miriam Maduro.
Board member John Fitzgerald said Tyler Street is an area of small businesses and shops, "where people are kind of looking and driving slowly, and maybe stopping. I don't think this fits the neighborhood."
He added that other Dunkin' Donuts he has observed with drive-thru operations tend to create traffic congestion when the line grows long and vehicles are entering and exiting the parking lot.
The church was completed in 1943 and was closed by the diocese in 2008. It has been on the market since 2010. In addition to the former school, which closed during the early 1970s, the parcel contains a former rectory building and a convent.
Even if the ZBA had granted a variance to extend the commercial zone by 50 feet, Cafua also would require a special permit from the City Council for the drive-thru operation.
A request from Cafua for a Dunkin' Donuts for a drive-thru special permit at First and Fenn streets was rejected in 2013 by the council, based largely on the traffic impact on the intersection, and the company's appeal of that decision to Massachusetts Land Court was rejected this year.
However, the developer has begun construction of a Dunkin' Donuts without a drive-thru at the site of the former Plunkett School at First and Fenn streets, which Cafua has purchased and razed.
A restaurant with no drive-thru is a by-right permitted use at the site.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.