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Planners sensitive to neighbors as they seek to fill empty retail spaces

  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for more than three years.

    This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for more than three years. Purchase photo reprints »

  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for two years. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • This former gas station lot at the southeast corner of Main and Maple streets in Florence has been vacant for more than three years.

In January, during the last few weeks before the closing of Big Y at 501 Newton St. in South Hadley, a dwindling number of customers wandered the sparsely stocked aisles. Many said they would have liked to see another supermarket in its place, not just because the store was conveniently located, but because it might mean staff who were not transferred to the 44 Willimansett St. store would find other work.

Cheryl Levitt of Granby said she was sad to see the almost-empty shelves. The store has been at the Newton Street location since Big Y acquired it from A&P/Super Food Mart in 2003.

“They’re very nice people, very accommodating,” Levitt said of the staff. “If they have another supermarket, I hope the people who don’t get transferred can stay and work here.”

Last month, Big Y officials said all but two of the 27 full-time employees at the Newton Street store found jobs elsewhere in the company, and of the 65 to 70 part-time workers, 50 have found jobs at other Big Y stores.

In an interview this month, Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president of corporate communications at Big Y said she couldn’t give a number of layoffs caused by the closure, though she noted that anyone laid off has been placed on a call list for future openings.

Levitt had plans to shift her business to Stop & Shop in Amherst once Big Y closed the branch.

The growing variety of local grocery store options, as well as the proximity of another Big Y store on Willimansett Street, were among the factors that led to Big Y’s decision to close the Newton Street store. D’Amour-Daley said that while Newton Street had offered an attractive market when the store opened a decade ago, the store had since begun to see an erosion in sales.

She said company officials thought long and hard before deciding to close.

“It’s never an easy decision nor is it ever our first decision, but we have the entire company to look at,” D’Amour-Daley said. “We have to look at 10,000 employees and 63 stores, and have to make a decision that’s important to everybody.”

Ongoing challenge

Big Y’s decision highlights a challenge faced by city and town planners: How to fill a vacancy in a timely manner while serving the best interests of the surrounding businesses and community. South Hadley Town Planner Richard Harris said the biggest obstacle to filling a large business space is the market demand.

Wayne Feiden, director of planning and development for Northampton, agrees.

He said while the goal is to fill a vacancy as soon as possible, finding a suitable tenant can make it tricky to do so.

He said some residents actually prefer a space to remain empty rather than occupied by a business they deem unsuitable or out of character with the neighborhood.

In Florence center, a spacious corner lot has been empty for two years, which has troubled some business owners, although they note that the extra parking is useful.

“It’s a balance between getting a project in immediately, and meeting with what the long-term community vision is,” Feiden said.

A lot languishes

The lot at the corner of Main and Maple streets was long-occupied by a gas station. John Zantouliadis is a neighbor whose roots go deep in Florence. He has worked as a manager at Miss Florence Diner for a decade, and his parents own the restaurant. He said he’s noticed that when the other businesses at the intersection close for the evening and the diner is the only place open, the empty lot affects the vibe of the area.

“It does kind make the whole area down here kind of dark,” Zantouliadis said. “I don’t know if people like looking out the window at nothing.”

Gaurang Patel, owner of Bird’s Store at 94 Maple St., purchased the vacant property in summer 2012. He said while he is not sure how the space will be filled, he anticipates that if he cannot find a tenant for the large space, the lot will be subdivided into three or four small storefronts.

Patel said the space will not house another gas station, mainly because gas stations tend to come with convenience stores, which would duplicate what Bird’s Store offers Florence center.

Other business owners hope the lot will attract an enterprise that complements the small-town atmosphere of Florence Center.

Tami Schirch, owner of Kidstuff at 90 Maple St., said a benefit of having a gas station there was that people pumping gasoline had a chance to look around at the neighboring businesses. She said she would like to see another business that will bring people into Florence, but in keeping with the local vibe, she hopes it isn’t a chain store. Schirch, who has owned Kidstuff for 16 years, notes the longevity of surrounding businesses, such as Miss Florence Diner and Florence Village Flower and Gift Shop. She said she hopes the vacancy is filled with a similarly long-lasting operation.

“It’s not the kind of place people open a business and close after a short period of time,” she said. “A lot of businesses have been here a long time.”

Meanwhile, in South Hadley, D’Amour-Daley said Big Y is currently looking at possibly using the space for a scaled down version of the store that is less expensive to maintain.

But other businesses that might move into the former supermarket space will have a lease to contend with.

And with such a large space — the store encompassed 55,000 square feet of retail space — Harris noted, the town might see the space subdivided.

Cheryl Chase, a principal of South Hadley Limited Partnership, owner of the Newton Street property, said Big Y is still obligated to pay rent until 2016, but if an early lease termination agreement is reached, Chase said the partnership would like to see another supermarket at the site.

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