By late September next year (2024), an Academy Sports + Outdoor store could be open for business on the east side of Bloomington, north of 3rd Street off Kingston Drive.
The outdoor sporting goods store would operate out of the building that has sat vacant since 2017, when it was home to a Marsh supermarket.
That’s according to Bryan Chandler, president at Eclipse Real Estate, who represented Academy Sports at a special Tuesday night hearing, which was held by Bloomington’s board of zoning appeals (BZA).
What cleared the way for the national big box sporting goods retailer, to put a store at the former Marsh store site, is a variance that was granted by the BZA at the end of Tuesday’s hearing.
Under the terms of the variance, Academy Sports can have 252 parking spaces on the site.
The city’s zoning code would ordinarily place a cap of 169 parking spaces for the 51,268-square-foot building.
The ordinary cap comes from a parking maximum expressed in the city’s unified development ordinance (UDO)—for the use called “retail sales, large”—as 3.3 spaces per 1,000 square feet.
There are already 267 parking spaces on the site, which were available to the Marsh store customers.
The variance says that Academy Sports can keep all but 15 of the 267 spaces, for a total of 252. But there are three conditions attached to the variance. Academy Sports has to install 15 landscape islands in the parking lot. And 26 of the parking spaces have to be provided for ride-share vehicles, not for customers or staff of Academy Sports. Finally, 57 of the parking spaces have to be surfaced with permeable pavers.
On Tuesday night, it took about 90 minutes of deliberations and sorting through the terms and conditions, for the BZA to approve a variance from the city’s maximum number of parking spaces. That came after the board had spent a couple of hours on the topic the week before, at its regular meeting last Thursday (Sept. 21).
The board members voted last week to continue the hearing to this week’s special meeting, at a point when they already seemed inclined to approve some kind of variance. But they wanted to nail down the details of the conditions—and they were running short on time at last week’s meeting.
The need for any variance at all, as well as the planning staff’s recommendation against granting it, was a big source of frustration for the ownership group for the building, which consisted of: Jeff Gould with Crane of Indiana; and David and Eric Kamen, with Bryan Rental.
Even though their previous building tenant, Marsh Supermarkets, had used the building for a similar purpose, because the building had sat vacant for more than 12 months, any use of the building was considered a new use. The new use made it subject to compliance with the UDO’s newer parking requirements. Those requirements include a maximum of 3.3 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of building space.
Over the two nights of the hearing, a point that was drawn out was the fact that if the building owners had been trying to lease the building to Academy Sports within 12 months of it becoming vacant, the new parking maximums would not have applied.
Gould and the Kamens were also crunched for time, a constraint they were put under by their current lessee, which is the Kroger Company. The owners had until Oct. 2 to get a deal done, to lease the property to Academy Sports, instead of Kroger.
Kroger had bought the long-term lease at the Marsh bankruptcy auction, Gould told the BZA on Tuesday night. But Kroger did not buy the lease with an eye towards opening a grocery store there. Instead, Gould said, Kroger just wanted to have control of the property as a “defensive mechanism,” to keep competitors out.
Last week, when the BZA was mulling a continuation of the hearing to its scheduled Oct. 19 meeting, the owners protested that it would be too late, given the Oct. 2 deadline that Kroger had set. They characterized the chance to sign a lease with Academy Sports as a unique opportunity.
Bloomington senior planner Eric Greulich countered that the occasion of a new use, which triggers compliance with stricter parking regulations, is also a unique opportunity—for the city and its residents to get the benefits of reduced parking on the site.
At the BZA hearing last week, Greulich talked about the harm that excess asphalt can cause—like excess stormwater runoff and urban heat island impacts. Lots of asphalt doesn’t promote pedestrian accessibility to a building, he said. “Just the presence of asphalt and cars sitting there, goes against many of the goals within our comprehensive plan,” Greulich said.
In the end, BZA members were helped towards a decision to grant the variance by uniformly positive commentary from surrounding businesses and residential neighbors.
They also saw it as a chance to stand up to Kroger. BZA member Tim Ballard put it like this: “Kroger is a monopolistic company, coming in here and really trying to strongarm local business owners and local property owners.”
Ballard continued, “I believe we should fully support and try to support any petitioner, whether big or small, who comes to us this way.”
The vote to grant the variance was unanimous among the four BZA members present on Tuesday—Jo Throckmorton, Tim Ballard, Nikki Farrell, and Barre Klapper. Flavia Burrell was absent.