By Mary Thurwachter
Water Tower Commons is inching closer to having its first retail businesses — a Wawa filling station with a restaurant and an Aldi grocery store. The Lantana Town Council, during its Oct. 14 meeting, voted to allow the developer special exception amendments for both proposals — although residents who filled the chambers largely opposed the filling station because of traffic concerns.
Water Tower Commons, a 73-acre retail and residential project east of Interstate 95 on Lantana Road, has been in the works since 2014. That’s when Lantana Development — a partnership between Wexford Capital and developer Ken Endelson’s Southeast Legacy — bought the 73-acre site, formerly home to A.G. Holley State Hospital, for $15.6 million. Although apartments are being built on the property, and some will be move-in ready by March, the retail portion of the project has been stagnant since 2017.
Two years ago, Water Tower Commons was negotiating to bring a Walmart Neighborhood Market to the property, but that deal fell through.
The shopping center portion of the project, originally planned for 280,000 square feet, has been scaled back to 150,000 square feet, reflecting a substantial softening of the retail market.
Ken Tuma, representing Lantana Development, and representatives of the gas station and grocery store chains laid out proposals for a 5,900-square-foot Wawa station and restaurant and a 19,658-square-foot Aldi. The gas station and restaurant would be in the southwest corner of the site at Lantana and Andrew Redding roads. The grocery store would be north of the filling station, near the entrance to the development from Andrew Redding Road.
The 16-pump Wawa would not be accessible directly from Lantana Road.
“Unlike a typical gas station that’s anywhere on a corner that’s allowed within a commercial land use, we are not having driveways coming into the site, so you have to enter through the mixed-use project,” Tuma said.
“It’s a really important point because it will help this project have more success and it will also allow the drivers to make sure when they’re coming to Water Tower Commons, they’re making a decision to come into Wawa and to be part of the overall center. It also allows for more pedestrian connection to the north.”
Many residents said that while they liked Wawa, they opposed this location because the area has enough filling stations and having another one would result in added traffic congestion.
“We’re proposing a fuel station on the north side of the road,” Tuma said. “There is currently a Shell station on the south side of the road and then to the west is a membership station at Costco, adjacent to I-95.”
He said westbound drivers in the morning would go to the station on the north side of the road and on the return trip drivers would likely go to the station on the south side of the road. A national study that engineers use shows that 61% of gas station trips are pass-by trips.
Still, traffic concerns appeared to be on everyone’s mind.
“This traffic on the road is terrible,” Mayor Dave Stewart said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I would really like to see some other type of mitigation to move traffic around that site and I don’t know how to do it. I’m not a traffic engineer.”
Some suggested the Wawa be located on the southeast corner of the site property at Eighth Street.
“Eighth Street is already a commercially traveled road for the truckers and the dump site and the police station,” said resident Mary Lacorazza-Genova. “It’s across from a cemetery. It doesn’t interfere with a main quarter of Lantana Heights to get out of the neighborhood. I don’t know if that’s feasible, but I would highly support Wawa if they could flip the plan.”
Dave Arm, who owns a gym at 700 W. Lantana Road and is president of the Lantana Chamber of Commerce, said he had asked about placing the Wawa at Eighth Street.
“The problem,” he said, “is you can’t put a traffic light there because there’s already one at Broadway, so you can’t have two lights so close together.”
Arm also said that the state Department of Transportation has plans to widen Lantana Road from Andrew Redding Road and west over the I-95 overpass. However, that project is several years off.
Tuma said the developer looked very specifically at where the filling station would go. “Traffic signals were a critical element, but also as you go further east there is residential adjacent, so that’s why we don’t push it all the way to the east,” he said.
A traffic light on Lantana Road at the main entrance to Water Tower Commons is in the site plan, but can’t be added until the county determines that traffic has reached a certain threshold.
Traffic on Lantana Road already meets the threshold, but a certain number of trips must come out of the driveway from the site for the permit to be issued. That number is projected to be met after a good portion of the construction of the Wawa and Aldi is done. Town Attorney Max Lohman warned that having the traffic light put in could take 12-18 months after a permit is issued.
“I don’t think there’s a person in this room that doesn’t realize that there’s going to be a hell of a traffic jam there,” said council member Phil Aridas. “We really want that light.”
And some really want the development to proceed.
“The development of this property depends on the approval of this project,” Arm said. “We’ve waited five years. I’ve been staring at dirt for five years. If we don’t do this now, there will be nothing but dirt for another five years.
“It’s not like people are knocking down the doors to build retail stores. It’s not like Water Tower Commons hasn’t tried to get a Trader Joe’s, a Whole Foods, whatever. They are doing their darnedest to get this approved. If this doesn’t get approved, they’ll be starting all over again. Five more years of staring at all that dirt. It’s time to get this thing moving.”
Council member Lynn Moorhouse agreed.
“From my view, this is the best thing we’ve had out there in a long time,” he said. “Retail went south. I think now is the time, in spite of the fact there’s going to be some bellyaching about the traffic until the roads are expanded — and I take that road every day so I know how frustrating it can be.”