The opening of the Chappaqua Whole Foods was postponed last Friday after New Castle town and planning board members agreed they would not risk public safety until several traffic and road concerns are resolved.
Chappaqua Crossing developer Summit/Greenfield, which was looking to unveil the 40,000-square-foot supermarket this Wednesday at the former Reader’s Digest campus, had sought temporary relief from a list of conditions it was required to fulfill in order to make the announced Dec. 12 opening. A handful of those centered around road conditions outside the site.
Summit/Greenfield submitted a Maintenance and Protection of Traffic Plan (MPT) to the town on Dec. 4 outlining interim measures it planned to install in the vicinity of the heavily traveled Route 117 and Roaring Brook Road intersection.
But after a three-and-a-half-hour public hearing last Tuesday and a special meeting of the two boards Friday morning at Town Hall, officials concluded it could not approve the MPT that would have permitted the town’s building inspector to issue a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy because Summit/Greenfield’s plan failed to adequately address traffic flow and pedestrian safety.
There was also uncertainty about when three utility poles on the southbound side of Route 117 would be relocated by Con Edison. Summit/Greenfield’s MPT contained alternatives with and without relocation. The poles would have been used as part of the barrier between a temporary right turn lane onto Roaring Brook Road and one of the Route 117 southbound through lanes if they were not removed in time for the originally scheduled opening.
Supervisor Robert Greenstein said Con Edison was expected to remove its wires from the three utility poles on Saturday and cut off the top portion of the poles. The other service companies that use the poles will remove their wires shortly, although it was unclear last week when that would occur.
With the site near Horace Greeley High School and frequent congestion plaguing the intersection during weekday peak hours, town officials were uncomfortable with granting the temporary relief and giving the green light for the highly anticipated opening.
“I feel right now the wrong thing is wagging the dog,” said Councilwoman Hala Makowska. “Whole Foods sends out a press release they’re opening Dec. 12 and let’s see how much we can squeeze (in) to make that work.”
“I think you have to look at alternatives to make this thing as safe as possible,” added Planning Board Chairman Robert Kirkwood.
There is currently no date for when Whole Foods may open. The town’s traffic consultant, Lou Luglio, told both boards last Friday morning he would send a memo to town officials before the end of the day outlining what will be expected of Summit/Greenfield regarding road safety. The memo was scheduled to reach company representatives by Saturday morning and a response from Summit/Greenfield was anticipated by early Monday afternoon.
The public hearing before the Town Board and Planning Board will resume this Tuesday night at Town Hall at 6 p.m.
“The applicant must come back with a plan that meets Lou’s requirements,” said Director of Planning Sabrina Charney Hull. “That is going to take time.”
The postponement was announced despite Summit/Greenfield agreeing within the past two weeks to construct a temporary left turn lane from northbound Route 117 onto Roaring Brook Road and to pay for New Castle police officers to direct traffic near the site. Those measures were initially thought to be sufficient to permit Whole Foods to open.
Last week, attorney Mark Weingarten, representing Summit/Greenfield, explained to town officials that delays in completing the required road work were caused largely by the slow-moving state Department of Transportation (DOT). Despite being ready to work on the road improvements earlier this year, Summit/Greenfield didn’t receive its work permit for Route 117, a state road, until Nov. 15, he said.
With the asphalt plants set to close on Dec. 20 until spring, there is insufficient time to complete the work in addition to installing a required retaining wall on one side of the road. Otherwise, less than three months would be needed before the roadwork is done.
Weingarten appealed to town officials that the temporary plan, which would be in effect until road work resumes in the spring, would be safe.
“We met with our experts, we have a commitment to Whole Foods, they have their employees, they want to open with respect to the holiday season and we tried to put together a plan,” Weingarten said.
Scheduled completion of the permanent right turn lane from Route 117 onto Roaring Brook Road is now Apr. 19 and the permanent left turn lane from northbound Route 117 will be finished by June 7, he said.
Town and planning board members weren’t convinced. A combination of factors, including the expected surge in traffic to Whole Foods once it opens, the holiday season, the time of year where there is the least amount of daylight and the possibility of inclement weather were deemed too great a risk.
Councilwoman Lisa Katz said there are also many inexperienced drivers in the area because the intersection is in close proximity to Horace Greeley High School.
“You have a very, very dangerous intersection and I need to know how, I don’t understand how it’s going to be mitigated during construction and even after,” Katz said.
Councilwoman Ivy Pool said the drawings for the southbound Route 117 through lane appeared misaligned and worried there could be head-on collisions with motorists in the temporary left turn lane.
Planning Board member Tom Curley said the town needed greater assurances from the developer.
“Whole Foods is a national, big-box retailer with a sub-regional draw. There are going to be people going from everywhere to this location and we don’t have any idea whether the numbers that are in here reflect that,” Curley said. “Certainly, for the first month this place is going to be a nightmare.”
The Planning Board’s Sheila Crespi was one of several members on both boards that also expressed concern about pedestrian safety. With a Bee-line bus stop near the intersection and students walking to and from the high school, officials pressed for a push button to change the signal.
“How can we talk about safety without talking about the safety of pedestrians?” Crespi asked. “We need to have that as part of the plan.”
Luglio said a temporary push button to help change the signal could be installed within a few weeks.
Kirkwood and Greenstein suggested that when Whole Foods opens it should be on a Saturday to avoid conflict with the high school and midweek commuters.