Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Setback name of the game for Shoppes at Eastview

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, July 18, 2008 11:09 AM EDT

VERNON — The plate glass windows on the building’s north side are boarded up and weeds choke the potholed parking lot, making the vacant shopping plaza across from Merline Road on Route 83 look more like a ghost town than a thriving business.

While the facade at 425 Talcottville Road has been renovated, the plaza just north of Thrall’s gas station has been seemingly void of activity since 1991 when Heartland Food Warehouse abandoned the site.

Still, the owner of the Shoppes at Eastview, Peter Rusconi, says the refurbished 39,400-square-foot building will soon be a flurry of commerce, filled with retail outlets out front and his Cardio Express fitness center in the rear.

“Within 30 days we should start work on the parking lot, and I’m hoping to have the entire project done by the end of the year,” Rusconi said Wednesday.

State officials said he has a few more things to do first, like install a new streetlight at the intersection with Merline Road and change the driveways into the long-blighted property.

For Rusconi, the rehab project has been four years in the making, costing him vast sums in property taxes for a building he can’t rent out and repeated repairs to broken windows and graffiti left by vandals.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the delays, which have centered on problem entrances and exits from the busy four-lane highway to the Talcottville Road business.

Rusconi said the state has dragged its feet on permit approvals and has made unreasonable demands.

State transportation officials said otherwise, saying projects of this size and scope typically take much less time to complete and that it’s the developer and his consultants that have slowly implemented changes.

And both sides alleged that employee turnover in the opposite camp has contributed to the problem.

Local town officials said they just want to see some progress, as the property has been an eyesore for far too long.

Only one review remains before work on the entrances can proceed and Rusconi can open for business, Transportation Department spokesman Kevin Nursick said, adding: “The pace is picking up.”

Access tricky

According to Nursick, the developer’s plans initially called for keeping the existing driveways just south of the intersection with Merline Road. To do that, however, the state required him to widen Route 83, creating a left turn lane for northbound traffic, and to install a traffic light for those entering and leaving the property.

The turning lane would be in addition to the two lanes traveling in both directions and would position two traffic lights only yards away from each other, because there is already a signal at Merline Road.

State Transportation Department Traffic Engineering Manager John Carey says the plan has now changed for a more manageable flow on and off the heavily traveled road.

“He’ll be adding a driveway directly across from Merline Road, so it will be a four-way intersection there,” Carey said.

Rusconi, who owns the property, must clear the brush, install the new driveway, close off the old ones, replace the existing traffic light to accommodate the new configuration, and update the wiring, Carey said.

He will also be able to use the driveway access to the rear of the property on the one-way Thrall Road.

It’s a “major positive change,” Town Administrator Christopher Clark said, and it “works in the applicant’s favor.”

Rusconi agreed.

“It would have cost upwards of a million dollars to widen the road, and the only benefit would have been to the state,” said Rusconi who has sunk about that much into the project so far and is spending an additional $200,000 for a new traffic light. “It was an unfair request, and that’s why it took so long to work through a solution and make it work,” he said.

Once the traffic signal timing is reviewed and approved and the new driveways built, Rusconi can concentrate on putting the finishing touches on the building, look for tenants for the empty storefronts, and move his gym from its current location about one mile south at 234 Talcottville Road to the plaza’s rear space.

No tenants yet

Cardio Express operates fitness centers in Manchester, Vernon, Wethersfield, Southington, and Tolland.

Rusconi opened his first fitness center in Vernon in 1995.

The Shoppes at Eastview will house the new 18,000-square-foot Cardio Express fitness center and the remainder of the space will be available for other retail use.

Rusconi said he is not concerned about renting that space out, because there were many retailers attracted to the property when the project launched four years ago.

“I haven’t pursued tenants because I haven’t had the approvals, but there was a lot of interest in the beginning and I hope there will be again,” he said.

Mayor Jason L. McCoy said he just hopes that something happens soon to turn the derelict state of the site around.

“The owner a couple of months ago said everything was all straightened out — that was in April and we should see them moving in this summer,” McCoy said after he asked town officials last month to find out what the hold up was. “It’s been years — it predated me.”

In 1979 Heartland moved to the Talcottville Road building, a former A&P market, but Heartland closed in April 1991, and the building has been mostly vacant since.

For about 12 years after Heartland’s closing, the Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. held the lease, but did little with the building. When the lease expired in 2004, Rusconi bought the property and began his renovation project.

He said he’s hopeful it won’t be much longer.

“It’s going great,” Rusconi said, ever positive. “It’s gotten to the point where I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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