Target faces Portsmouth Design board -- and residents
During a nearly 3-hour session tonight, representatives of Target discussed plans for a proposed West Main location with the Portsmouth Design Review Board (DRB), and heard questions and concerns from more than 80 residents who packed the Town Council chambers. Even given that this was Target's first presentation to the group, the questioning from the Board left no doubt that they had expected more.
"What I don't think we're seeing is a sense of Portsmouth," said Board member Gary Graham. Board chair John Borden questioned, "How do we make a 3-acre building that's 500 feet long look like a Portsmouth structure?" (To which someone in the audience shouted: "We tell them to take a hike.")
To be fair, the Target architect, Paul Rodee, had gone to some lengths to decorate the exterior of the building with details like fieldstone and brick ("Not Target red — toned down for New England"), but in the drawings on display, the proposed structure still had a squat, commercial appearance.
"Seems like dressing up a shoe box," said Board member Nick Avery. "We really are against flat roofs, especially on a building of this scale." Indeed, at 136,000 square feet — four times the size of Clements — with nearly a 500-foot-long, 20-25 foot high facade facing West Main, this struck many in the audience as out of scale for the town. "This is a mammoth, big-box design. It's out of place," said Borden.
And there was also no design available for the auxiliary building, an 8K-square-foot building suitable for a bank or professional offices, slated to occupy the northwest corner of the site abutting West Main, just north of the proposed main entrance across from Mail Coach Road.
At tonight's meeeting, the Design Review Board was considering four factors: Site plan, architecture, landscaping, and signage. Target, who had submitted their detailed plans last Thursday, was represented by their attorney, Robert M. Silva of Middletown, and had a team including project manager Trent Lugar, engineer Bryan Dundin, and architect Paul Rodee.
Speaking for his client, attorney Silva said, "Target wishes to follow every procedure that is in place for a corporate citizen." He guided the discussion, asking questions as Target's representatives stepped the board through the presentation.
Engineer Dundin described the testing which had gone into the decision to site the store on the southeast corner of the property, and the analysis and sign-off by state DEP on the proposed integrated septic system, located in the northeast edge. Deliveries would only come in via West Main, and would be routed to the loading dock at the northeast corner of the building.
Almost immediately, the Board raised concerns about the parking lot. At 637 spaces, this was above Target's own stated minimum of 4 spaces per thousand square feet. Even in plan view, the parking lot looked big. "I'd like to see a perspective view across the parking lot from the intersection of West Main and Union," said Graham. Board member Nick Avery noted that it was designed "to provide maximum parking," for holiday shopping periods and suggested converting the overflow part of the lot to permeable geogrid.
Silva made a point of querying Dundin about pedestrian access, and he replied that there would be sidewalks on West Main, leading board member Allen Shers to ask, "Where do you envision that all these people would be coming from on these sidewalks?" That got a laugh from what was, for most of the night, a tense and testy audience.
Neighbors of the property raised questions about protecting the water supply, parking lot runoff, shopping carts, lights (which would be on in the parking lot 30 minutes past store close, except in employee parking, on until 90 minutes after close) and ensuring that no trucks would use the Union Street entrance.
Architect Rodee then stepped the board through the building design. There was a lot of talk like, "A two-story expression of glass," "high-mass wall with Target signage," "Three feet of cast stone product for part of the elevation," and "Target guest parking."
The people behind me muttered. "Guest? Why don't they call them customers?" Why indeed.
John Borden gently called the architect's attention to some of the DRB's prior guidance, evidenced in the King's Grant commercial development. Features like "Roof pitches, gables — all those work quite well. What's been presented, you've tried to dress up the front elevation. It's more industrial than traditional Portsmouth-looking."
Graham began to read from the DRB's design guidelines, "Portsmouth wishes to conserve and protect...uh..." he lost his place.
"Positive land use practices," supplied Target attorney Silva.
Graham looked up with a raised eyebrow. "You're following along?" Silva clearly was; had a copy at the podium. Which leads me to wonder — were these folks coming in with this first proposal as a bargaining position? Hey, Portsmouth, our opening bid is 500 feet of facade with some fieldstone. What's your counteroffer?
To which Graham responded eloquently. "We have no facade more than 50-75 feet in length." he said. "This is a great challenge for an architect," to incorporate more "scale-breaking elements" to make it less industrial-looking. Shers suggested Target have a look at Wickford Junction: "I would like to echo the village-like look." Avery concurred, "You could make this your jewel."
After a bio break, the audience raised architectural concerns: making a big box fit in that area, dealing with major rainstorms, the view from approaches ("Did anybody drive down Union?" "I did," said Rodee. "Maybe it should have been a longer drive.") Town Councilor Bill West stressed the long view: "Will that building appeal to the eye in 20 years. People have to look at it for a long time."
Then engineer Bryan Dundin was back in the hot seat for landscaping. He discussed fieldstone walls at the corner of West Main and Union, and a variety of trees and shrubs along the perimeter, and in "end caps" at the end of rows of parking.
In a bruising, near "Magic Xylophone" moment, board member Avery dismissed the Target proposal's mixture of trees. "Fifty-six Eastern White Pines? That's kind of a trash tree. It's going to eclipse the Red Oaks." Ooh, snap.
Shers suggested considering lowering the floor elevation and adding a berm along West Main to reduce the visual impact of the building.
Finally, the board heard about signage. And Dundin was the unlucky guy who got to talk about their proposal. On the building, there would be a Target bullseye 12 feet in diameter, with an adjacent 2-foot high "pharmacy" sign. At the turn-in on West Main, an illuminated Target pylon sign 8'10" in diameter, rising to a height of 30', with a 12' high, 9-foot-wide sign at the entrance on Union. I don't know if Dundin could hear it, but an audible "WTF?" gasp rippled through the audience.
Borden handled it well. "Let me just explain the sign ordinance," he began. Height limit is fifteen feet. One sign per lot. 32 square foot maximum. You can request variances, but, "our board will comment." He emphasized the point. "Clements, a 30K-square-foot store, has a 30-square-foot sign. Drive around Portsmouth and get a feel."
"I don't think you'll need the pylon," said Graham. "Everyone will know you're here."
Dundin glanced at the audience. "They seem to already."
After a wrap-up where Borden summarized the points the DRB wants to see in the next presentation, and some parting shots from the community members ("The arrogance of the corporation to throw this at the town." "Dismay at the lack of consideration...there is no secret to what Portsmouth looks like, but this is not it.") the board adjourned.
The Design Review Board will hear a revised presentation from Target on May 1, after which they would likely render an advisory opinion. Target's application would then proceed to the Planning Board, which would consider issues such as runoff and traffic, and to the Zoning Board, which has final approval.
A local community group, Preserve Portsmouth, is in the process of setting up a web site and e-mail list to keep folks informed. Their site, PreservePortsmouth.org should be on-line shortly.