Into all the activity going on in the vicinity of State and Fifth streets--illicit, criminal, and otherwise--Selha Graham-Cora wants to introduce something else: a U-Haul truck franchise. Avowing that the Sip 'n' Sudz laundromat she operates at 453 State Street isn't profitable enough, Graham-Cora wants to rent U-Haul trucks out of the space, in addition to operating the laundromat, and is requesting a use variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals and site plan approval from the Planning Commission. Last night, the ZBA held a public hearing on Graham-Cora's request.
Graham-Cora ran the U-Haul business for about six weeks earlier this year but was shut down by code enforcement because the area is not zoned for commercial businesses and because U-Haul trucks and vans were being parked on the street overnight. (The owners of the building got a use variance from the ZBA seven years ago to open a laundromat there. During the public comment period, a resident questioned if that variance could legally be transferred to Graham-Cora, who now rents the laundromat from one of the owners.)
In requesting the use variance, Graham-Cora maintains that she has solved the problems that brought a "cease and desist" order from the City. With the owner's consent, she plans to demolish a building on Long Alley behind the laundromat and use the vacant space to park three trucks, which Graham-Cora attests will be the maximum number of vehicles to be handled at her location. Until the building can be demolished, trucks will be parked at two remote locations: in the parking lot at 98 Green Street and somewhere "near the Basilica." Trucks will continue to be picked up from the street in front of the laundromat and returned there, and Graham-Cora herself will drive them to and from the remote locations.
Residents in the area don't accept that Graham-Cora has solved all the problems attendant on her business plan. They recalled the problems caused by trucks being parked on the street and being dropped off at all hours. It was reported that one truck stood for seven days in front of the Armory without being moved. Another was dropped off in the dead of night, and the renter cleaned the trash out of the truck and dumped it on the sidewalk. One resident of North Fifth Street claimed that trucks parked in the street invite problems: "Trucks create walls that people can hide behind to engage in nefarious activity."
Residents anticipated problems with the plan to park trucks in the alley. There was concern about the increased traffic going in and out of the alley and trucks exiting the alley on Fourth Street, in close proximity to John L. Edwards Primary School and children walking on the sidewalk and in the crosswalks. Although they acknowledged that the building to be demolished was a problem because it harbored vagrants, drug trafficking, and other illicit activity, they warned that unlocked vans and trucks parked in the alley presented the same attractive nuisance as the abandoned building does.
Armory block resident Jamison Teale, who called the proposed business a "totally inappropriate enterprise for a residential neighborhood" and described the neighborhood as a "beleaguered part of the community that we are trying to turn around," presented ZBA chair Lisa Kenneally with a petition objecting to the use variance, signed by residents and homeowners in the immediate vicinity of the laundromat. Graham-Cora had her own petition, signed, she said, by people up and down State and Columbia streets "who don't have a problem with the plan" and who want a "walk-up location" where they can rent vans.
Because the ZBA had no legal counsel present (city attorney Cheryl Roberts recused herself because of a conflict of interest), no decision was made last night about granting a use variance. The public hearing remains open, and the ZBA will consider the application at its next meeting, now scheduled for September 19.