AutoZone at Veterans Memorial and Buckner rejected

Matt Dahlhauser speaking at the October 16 zoning hearing of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)Matt Dahlhauser speaking at the October 16 zoning hearing of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners about the AutoZone request

The Cobb County Board of Commissioners, in their zoning hearing Tuesday morning, rejected a request that would have allowed an AutoZone store to be built at the corner of Veterans Memorial  Highway and Buckner Road.

>> View the request, called Other Business 35 (OB-35) here

The property had been rezoned to Neighborhood Retail Commercial (NRC) in 2009, and one of the stipulations of the rezoning prohibited “automotive parts, sales and service.”

The applicant, Matt Dahlhauser, owner of Buckner Crossroads, LCC,  requested an amendment to their site plan and stipulations to allow a 6,820-square-feet AutoZone auto parts store on the northwest portion of the property.

At the hearing, Dahlhauser said, “Yes it does have auto in the name, but it’s actually a retail-type establishment. In a lot of public shopping centers we do allow Autozones and other auto parts stores inside their center because they feel like it’s a good national tenant, they feel like it’s a good co-tenant for the area as well.”

He showed a slide of an automotive garage that had previously existed on the site and said the garage in the slide was more typical of what the community had in mind when the prohibition on auto-related businesses was put in place.

Dahlhauser called commercial real estate broker Martha Gross to the podium in support of his request.

Gross said,

I wear a few hats.  I happen to be the Zoning and Land Use chair for my community in Dekalb County.  I also have a masters in economic development and am very keenly aware of those issues, and I’m a commercial real estate broker, with 30 years of commercial real estate retail experience.  So those are my three hats.

Starbucks closed ten years ago, and I was asked to find a replacement for Starbucks. It took me until about two years ago to get Dunkin Donuts in there …

Matt called me up recently, and he said “Hey, can you help me find somebody, the Mableton Coalition wants a restaurant?”  So I started calling all kinds of restaurants, trying to find somebody and he was doing his best to get whatever they wanted there.

And so I contacted a lot of retailers, and they all said to me, “Are you kidding? Dunkin’s not doing so well, and Starbucks closed, and they went out of business, and they couldn’t open back up, they lost their rear.  And McDonald’s isn’t doing well, they’re talking about whether they ever want to renovate it or not.  And even Publix isn’t doing that well, it’s a very marginal Publix.  It’s not ready to close, but it’s really not a very high-performing Publix.  And then all that retail space has sat empty for almost ten years next to Publix … so much of that retail space has been empty forever.  Why would we want to go in there? It’s too risky for us.”

And that’s what the retailers were telling me, and I was like, “Matt, I don’t know …” And I said “Well, I hope you know what you’re doing because a lot of restaurants are kind of scared of the area because other restaurants and other people aren’t doing well.”

And that’s how these retailers think.  What are the comparable store sales in this area?  And they’re not good, for whatever reason … I’m not here to argue the reason, but they’re not good.  Even Dunkin’s not doing well.  Autozone’s the kind of national tentant that shows a revitalization for the area.

She said the layout of the site made visibility from the road poor, and, “It’s going to be an almost impossible site to lease if you don’t do an Autozone.”

Robin Meyer, the chairperson of the Mableton Improvement Coalition, which opposed the request, said,

I’m here today to let you know that the Mableton Improvement Coalition, on behalf of the surrounding neighborhood and neighborhood leaders, are opposed to this request. This four acres has been the subject of a very piece-meal development. From the first time we met with Matt, a year and a half ago, we have tried to understand the overall plan for this property.  And it’s only been revealed to us one step at a time, one stage at a time.  It began with the Dollar Tree smack dab in the middle, which has limited the development potential for this property and carved it up into very small difficult-to-deal-with parcels.  What we have in place now, is 2009 zoning.  Unlike the applicant and his team, I was actually, as they said in the musical, “In the room when it happened,” in 2009.

And we knew exactly what we were asking for.  And the applicant, and his attorney at the time, who was also here today and was in that room, knew exactly what we meant when we prohibited auto parts stores.  We meant stores like AutoZone.  The slide that was shown to you of the auto repair place which violate many many of your county codes, was not in operation in 2009.  So that is not what we had in mind. That building was there.  It was a small auto repair shop, but it was code-compliant, and was, honestly, not a problem.

Thus, when we negotiated that zoning, we very much knew that that auto repair business would be grandfathered in.  And we had no problem with that.

What’s being pitched to you today is a national chain, that somehow is going to turn around this dreadfully dim view of this retail corridor.  But it’s my understanding that you can’t require in a zoning stipulation any particular brand of business.  So while you might remove the stipulation for an auto parts retailer, there’s no guarantee that this will be an AutoZone. It could be any old body selling carburetors, oil filters, and what have you.

The renderings are certainly very nice-looking, and we’ve had we’ve had a good relationship with Mr. Dahlhauser as far as architectural review and landscape review is concerned. I’m confused by the rendering of the AutoZone because it includes some other tenants. It was my understanding that this building was going to be just the AutoZone.

I ask that you leave in place the restrictions on this property that we have relied on for the last ten years, that the property owners on Buckner Road have relied on for the last ten years, and that were candidly in place when Mr. Dahlhauser bought this property.  If this property is so difficult to develop, if it is so unattractive, then I’m quite frankly confused as to why this venture was ever enjoined in the first place.

I can certainly tell you that those of us who live near this property, and I live within a mile of it, don’t see this dark and dismal future that’s painted for you.  We’re a community on the rise, and we hope to have businesses that will help us go there.

District 4 Commissioner Lisa Cupid asked Cobb’s Zoning Division Manager John Pederson what his staff had recommended.  He said staff had recommended denial.

Cupid said she agreed with the staff recommendation, and moved that the Board of Commissioners reject the request. After discussion among board members, her motion passed 3-1, with commission chairperson Michael Boyce absent from the hearing.

Watch the hearing on the case embedded below