The building formerly occupied by Sears at the Turnpike Mall in Augusta. Sears moved out of the site in 2017. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — As stores lose sales to online shopping, leaving many retail spaces vacant, Augusta officials are considering allowing self-storage businesses in two zoning districts that include the city’s two largest retail shopping areas.

The proposal from city staff members, recommended by the Planning Board, would allow self-storage businesses as conditional uses in two zoning districts — the Civic Center District and Regional Business District — where they are not allowed now.

Those districts also include the area around the Marketplace at Augusta, off Western Avenue, the Turnpike Mall and Augusta Crossing.

Matt Nazar, development director for the city, said there is no proposal before the city to start a self-storage business in either of those zones, but over the years, potential developers of such businesses have inquired with the city, only to be turned away because self storage units are not allowed in those zones, and indoor self-storage businesses are not currently addressed by city zoning as uses anywhere in Augusta.

“This is something that has come up a number of times in the past few years, with respect to some of the larger retail locations that are having trouble being filled,” Nazar told city councilors when they discussed the proposal recently.

“And one of the potential uses for a portion of those existing retail spaces is for indoor self-storage units. Basically, cutting some of those spaces up into individual self-storage spaces. It may end up providing some level of use in some of these commercial facilities that couldn’t, potentially, get used in another way.”

Nazar said Planning Board members expressed some concern the Turnpike Mall — specifically, the former Sears building, which closed in 2017 — might have trouble attracting new retail tenants, as shopping trends nationwide have continued to trend toward online shopping at the expense of bricks-and-mortar retail stores.

He noted the leases for the mall, and most others, tend to restrict properties to retail use. But, he said, it might be possible for a building, such as the former Sears, to be used for retail in the front, with heated self-storage space in the back.

In 2018, longtime Augusta resident and businessman Roger Pomerleau, a partner and developer of the sprawling Marketplace at Augusta, approached Augusta officials to ask that the zoning around the Marketplace be changed to allow brew pubs, distilleries, light manufacturing and warehousing. City councilors agreed to the changes.

At the time, Pomerleau said a business had expressed interest in leasing the rear of the former Linens ‘n Things location, which has loading docks in the rear, for warehousing and light manufacturing. Pomerleau said the change would provide income from the rear of the building while allowing the front to remain retail.

The business that had expressed interest in the location ended up opening elsewhere. Pomerleau, however, said to maintain their appeal, shopping areas must be allowed flexibility.

Asked recently about the proposal to allow more self-storage space, Pomerleau said he would be in favor of it.

“I think it adds flexibility to properties,” he said. “It’s good to keep all properties viable. And that might fill some unusual spaces, with retail in the front. When an opportunity comes along, when a business needs space, they need it quickly. So it’s good to be proactive and offer maximum flexibility.”

Pomerleau said the Marketplace is surviving the coronavirus pandemic and increase in online shopping, having lost only a few national chains. There is always turnover at malls, he said, as retail trends come and go.

He stressed the Marketplace’s first priority remains retail, which is the highest-and-best use of its properties. He said the Marketplace has no plan now for anything other than retail, but other uses could happen, especially in the backs of buildings, where space might go unused.

Indoor self-storage businesses would be conditional uses, meaning they would undergo more scrutiny than allowed uses and require review by the Planning Board, which would include an opportunity for neighbors or others to comment.

Nazar said that would give the city some control over the appearance of such businesses. It could also prevent an influx of typical self-storage businesses, which are often simple, unadorned metal buildings, from moving into retail areas, although those are allowed in some of the city’s more rural zoning districts.

Some city councilors have questioned whether it is a good idea to allow storage businesses at retail spaces. They asked if doing so could detract from the economic vitality of shopping areas because storage businesses would not generate the foot traffic on which many retailers rely.

At least one councilor has suggested exploring the option of using vacant retail space to help address Augusta’s lack of available housing.

“I just think we need to be careful because we wouldn’t want, especially during the economic downturn that may well be coming, to lose a lot of buildings to this,” said At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander. “(Adding self-storage businesses) doesn’t generate any other economic development. These buildings are empty. People don’t come to them often, so they won’t go to the store next door. I feel we need to be very careful.”

At-Large Councilor Courtney Allen said she was interested in whether some of the large, vacant retail buildings, such as the former Sears location, could be converted to housing.

“We have a housing crisis, and I’m feeling protective of these large buildings as a possible opportunity for addressing the housing crisis and creating economic development in those malls,” Allen said.

Nazar said he thought leases at most shopping centers prohibit using retail space for housing.

Pomerleau said he had not heard talk of using space at the Marketplace for housing. He said the closest discussion he had heard involved a hotel, which would likely be a new building on the property.

Nazar said the proposal does not include the Kmart Plaza, which is in a different zoning district on Western Avenue than Augusta Crossing and the Turnpike Mall.

City Councilors agreed to have city employees conduct market research and an economic impact analysis of the indoor self-storage proposal and report back, likely in about a month.

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