Ulta Beauty will be able to lease a portion of the former Babies R Us space on New Britain Avenue following the Town Council’s approval of changes to the Special Development District that applies to the property.
By Ronni Newton
Conditions included in the Special Development District (SDD) formed for 1553-1559 New Britain Ave. in 1999 would have prevented Ulta Beauty from establishing a store at the location, but Tuesday night the Town Council unanimously approved several changes which will allow the retailer to move forward with a lease.
Attorney Robin Pearson of Alter & Pearson LLC, representing the property owner Newington Westfarms TMC LLC, requested several changes to the existing SDD to accommodate Ulta Beauty, a retailer of beauty products as well as a provider of beauty-related services.
The property owner’s plans to make several improvements to the building, including modernizing the façade and pylon sign, and replacement of some of the landscaping with native species, required the Town Council’s approval because of the property’s status as an SDD, but in addition Pearson asked for relief from other conditions that were placed on the property back in 1999.
It took three tries back in 1999 for the property owner to gain approval for the SDD needed to develop the property, Pearson said, and with that approval a list of limitations on usage were agreed to. Prohibited uses included: food-related occupancies such as restaurants or businesses involved in the sale of fresh foods, pet stores or kennels, medical office, auto parts store, bank, hair salon, and video store. The SDD also restricted the hours of operation to 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. on Sundays.
“Times have changed and there are a lot of reasons why those restrictions are no longer relevant,” Pearson told the Town Council during the public hearing that preceded the Council meeting and vote. She said historical records of hearings and meetings leading up to the approval did not provide documentation of why those specific restrictions were made in the first place, but they did not have an impact Babies R Us as the sole tenant of the property.
Babies R Us closed in 2018 and the property owners are looking to “reinvigorate, bring back to life a dark shopping center,” Pearson said. Ulta Beauty expressed interest in leasing 10,941 square feet of the 30,543 square foot building – but Ulta’s business model includes a hair salon in the store – and they plan an eight station salon at the rear of the West Hartford location – necessitating the removal of that specific restriction.
Ulta Beauty also specifically wanted relief from the restricted hours of operation, in order to operate with extended hours during the holiday season to be competitive with other retailers at Westfarms and at other shopping centers in West Hartford and in the other towns – Newington, Farmington, and New Britain – that surround the New Britain Avenue property.
While there is not yet a tenant for the remaining 19,602 square feet of the building, removal of the restrictions will make it easier to lease the space. Certain restrictions will remain – and kennels, video stores, and amusement arcades will not be permitted occupancies without a new application to the Council.
The applicant does not plan to increase the size of the building, but will be modernizing the façade and sign with a sleeker more contemporary design, adding screening for the dumpsters, and replacing some of the existing plantings – such as Bradford Pear trees that are not storm-resistant – with native species.
While there may have been “fear of the unknown” when the SDD was approved in 1999, the development has become a fixture in the community, Pearson said. “Overall this represents an investment into the property by the owner of the property.”
There was a positive response to community outreach from nearby residents, Chuck Coursey of Course & Company reported to the Council. Neighbors were pleased that the building owner has agreed to plow the sidewalk all the way to Shepherd Road.
“Retail in America in 2019 is a lot different than retail in 1999,” Council member Leon Davidoff said in voicing his approval for the update to the SDD, which will allow Ulta Beauty to occupy the space. He said that shopping is a “basic American institution,” and we need to be supportive of brick and mortar.
“I don’t know what happened in 1999, why there needed to be use restrictions,” Davidoff said. He said it was probably fear of the unknown, but knowing what we have now, he said he doesn’t think there is any reason for the restrictions to remain going forward and praised the landlord for plans to make significant improvement to the property.
Regarding the changes to the hours, Davidoff noted that people work different hours these days, and holiday hours are permitted at neighboring shopping plazas and should not need to be restricted for this property.
“I think the applicant did a great job this evening … they made a very strong case,” Davidoff said.
Other Council members agreed.
“I’m thrilled that you are willing to take on the challenge of brick and mortar,” Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan said in support of the applicant.
“Leasing this space, updating this space, will hopefully make it thrive,” Mayor Shari Cantor said, noting that Ulta will complement existing businesses in the area. “I think it’s a real neighborhood gesture to take on the plowing,” she added.
The West Hartford store will be Ulta Beauty’s fifth in the area. Existing locations are in Avon, Wethersfield, Plainville, and Manchester (Buckland Hills), according to Ulta’s website.
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