By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — The Zoning Board of Adjustment reversed course, granting approval for a car dealership at the former Coca-Cola plant on South Broadway.
Metscott 21 LLC must now go before the town’s Planning Board after receiving a variance in a 4-1 decision Tuesday. The ZBA rejected Metscott’s original request in November, but agreed to a rehearing last month.
The 92-year-old brick building, one of the nation’s first Coca-Cola plants, will be converted into a “high-end” dealership that would sell mostly new vehicles, according to project representative Mark Gross of MHF Design Consultants.
The original request was denied, 4-1, because board members were concerned plans to sell used vehicles there would violate zoning regulations.
The property at 23 S. Broadway is in a zone where used car dealerships cannot be within 2,000 feet of each other. There is no restriction on new car dealers.
The site is only 1,500 feet away from Toy Store Auto Sales & Service, which has opposed the project.
Metscott 21 and owner Joseph Scott were granted a rehearing after it was argued that car dealerships need to sell both new and used vehicles to remain in business. Only 10 percent of the cars sold would be used vehicles, Gross said.
Scott said yesterday he was pleased the board reconsidered. He’s been critical of the town’s land-use boards, which have denied approval for several proposals in the last eight years.
Shopping plazas and a waste-to-energy plant also were proposed at the site.
Past board members have been concerned about the vacant building’s historical value. The few proposals that were approved were abandoned because they were no longer economically feasible, according to Scott.
He plans to sell or lease the property to a prospective dealership.
“Now, I can market it,” he said. “It was too expensive to tear down.”
He’s been upgrading the building, replacing the roof, tearing down the original sign and part of the 70,000-square-foot structure. He expects the renovation project to take the rest of the year.
Gross told the board it’s hoped a “high-end” dealer would move in, companies that sell Audis or Lexus.
Board members, including Chairman Gary Azarian, said they were impressed with renderings of the project, but still had concerns.
“My concern is, if we build it and they don’t come, are we selling high-end used cars?” Azarian said.
But after hearing the project presentation again, Azarian and other board members were swayed.
“I agree the property owner has done a better job of explaining and clarifying what they want to do over there,” Azarian said.
Bernard Campbell, the only board member to back the proposal in November, reiterated his support.
“I will continue to say this is a project worthy of consideration in this town because it is not a used car dealership, but a new car dealership,” he said.
The only ZBA member to remain opposed was Robert Uttley. He said he thinks the project would make Salem look like “Route 1 in Massachusetts — with one used car dealer after another.”