OLD SAYBROOK – Plans to bring popular fast-casual chains to the Max’s Place plaza on Spencer Plain Road could be in jeopardy if the Zoning Commission takes much longer to sort out the town’s drive-thru regulations, the shopping plaza’s owner said.
Starbucks, Chipotle, Panera and Chase Bank all have leases to open new locations in the plaza on the west end of town that’s anchored by Big Y, but all of them want drive-thru windows.
But the town has had a moratorium on drive-thrus since November 2022, and voted on Monday to extend to June 2024.
“The tenants aren’t willing to hang on forever,” Tyler Lyman, the leasing agent for Max’s Place, told CT Examiner. “We spent a lot of money on concept plans and attorneys for the leases, and we were under the impression that this was going to get figured out many months ago. We’ve been hanging in there as long as we could with the moratorium, so it’s been frustrating.”
Initially, the regulations were paused through April this year as the commission held several workshops to talk about trends in drive-thrus, where they fit best in town, and how to move forward. Then the moratorium was extended to December, and now to June.
By approving a zoning change last year to allow drive-thru restaurants in a proposed new shopping plaza just south of I-95 on Spencer Plain Road, then-Zoning Chair Robert Friedmann said at the time that the commission unintentionally opened the door for multiple drive-thru restaurants on neighboring properties.
The commission proceeded to put a pause on drive-thru regulations. Zoning Chair Mark Caldarella said the regulations hadn’t been reviewed in a long time and that the commission thought it was a good time to review where they make sense in Old Saybrook.
Caldarella said the commission is “99 percent” done writing its new regulations, but it didn’t have enough time to set a public hearing before the moratorium expired, so they extended it another six months. He said they still hope to have a public hearing in December and make a decision before the end of the year.
A requirement for new locations
Lyman said the plan is to combine “phase one” of Max’s Place – the Big Y, Ulta, Kohl’s and other stores that are already there – with two adjacent properties on Boston Post Road and have four different “pad” sites close to the road for the new restaurants and bank. There could potentially be more pads within the plaza, but the four are where they’re focusing now, he said.
“The town is, I’m sure, concerned with what happened with the newest Dunkin’ Donuts, where the drive-thru does sometimes spill out onto Boston Post Road,” Lyman said. “Without knowing what the town is going to implement, we’ve set up concept plans where there’s no chance the drive-thru would spill onto Boston Post Road.”
Especially since COVID, customer’s habits have changed drastically to the point where drive-thrus are a requirement for a lot of businesses to open new locations, Lyman said. The leases at Max’s Place are contingent on the drive-thrus for the new stores being approved. Now that the moratorium is extended to June, some of the tenants have the right to end their leases, he said.
“It’s really up to the tenants if they want to continue to wait or if they want to pull the plug on the market altogether,” Lyman said. “We can’t really speak to that, but the longer this takes, the higher the chance they walk away.”
In a letter to the commission, Thomas Howley, president of Howley Bread Group with 25 Panera Bread stores in New England, said they’ve wanted to open a Panera in Old Saybrook for several years, but haven’t been able to because of the drive-thru regulations.
Panera is only building cafes with drive-thrus except in urban areas and hospitals, he said. So they were excited when they heard Old Saybrook was rewriting its drive-thru zoning regulations and signed a lease to open a store in Max’s place.
But he said any more delays could jeopardize their “cafe development requirements and revenue expectations,” and could cause them to look elsewhere.
“We don’t want that to happen,” Howley wrote.
David McLellan, the real estate manager for Chipotle, said they are planning a store within the Max’s Place plaza, where everything is on the interior of the lot and wouldn’t back onto any public road. He said they hoped to have the opportunity to work with the town on managing the flow.
“Chipotle’s window is actually simply a pick up window,” McLellan said. “People order and pay for their food with the app on their phone so our stacks are typically about 2-3 cars.”
Max’s Place owner Ron Lyman urged the commission on Monday to set a target date and work towards being finished by then. The discussions have already carried on for a year, he said.
“I’m not sure how many things you can do with drive-thrus, other than if you just want to eliminate them, which it seems like that’s where we’re heading here,” Lyman told the commission.
Caldarella said the commission had brought in businesses to talk about the future of drive-thrus, and how things had changed since the pandemic.
“Whether they’re for pharmacies or banks or restaurants, all three of them are more heavily dependent on drive-thrus,” Caldarella said. “So we wanted to give it the due diligence to review the market against the regulations and see if there are any necessary refinements.”
He said people love Old Saybrook because it’s a beautiful town on the shoreline, but also for the low tax rate. What the Zoning Commission decides can change that, he said, determining whether these new businesses can open and raise the town’s grand list.
“Maybe you folks will be retired in Florida and it won’t matter to you,” Lyman told the commission. “But the rest of us who enjoy the low taxes, I’d hate to see them double or triple over the next seven to ten years, which is the way we could be heading unfortunately.”