FALMOUTH — The former Pratt Abbot Cleaners at the corner of Depot Road and U.S. Route 1 has been vacant and on the market for more than a year.

The owner believes several development requirements in the new Village Commercial zone are largely responsible for his inability to lure a new tenant.

So at Monday’s Town Council meeting, Ford Reiche, representing P&K Realty Trust, argued that contract zoning should be allowed in the village district, which was initially created about four years ago in conjunction with a multi-million dollar public infrastructure project that rebuilt Route 1 and added sidewalks and other streetscape amenities.

P&K Realty Trust owns several buildings along the thoroughfare: the former Pratt Abbott at 231 Route 1, the McDonald’s next door, and the recently vacated Five County Federal Credit Union building south of that, at 223 Route 1.

The former Pratt Abbott Cleaners property on Route 1 at Depot Road in Falmouth is still vacant after more than a year on the market. The property owner blames town zoning requirements. Photo courtesy of The Forecaster

“With the current zoning conditions we simply cannot bring in the tenants we want,” Reiche said.

“We’ve had a string of potential tenants,” he said, “and a number of them would have been great additions to the town. It’s embarrassing to have these vacancies on Route 1. We are in a building boom and there’s a lot going on in other towns, but we (simply) can’t find tenants. … It just isn’t working and it’s not about the cost to rent.”

He argued that allowing contract zoning in the village district would create “an opportunity to bring flexibility on a case-by-case basis.” The problem, according to Reiche is, “we’ve (seen) a dramatic rezoning in an area of town that’s already fully built out.”

In particular, Reiche said some of the hurdles to redevelopment include requirements to bring buildings almost to the curbside and meet updated codes that limit the ability to expand without “running into a mass of expenses.”

“If you tear down and rebuild, someone has to pay,” he said. “A complete tear-down is enormously expensive, so there’s an incentive to stay grandfathered, but that also means we can’t find tenants.”

Reiche also said the limits on drive-throughs for restaurants have been deal-breakers in somecases. “I understand that we don’t want large, national chains,” he said, “but even some local (eateries) want a drive-through.”

Reiche told the Council he respects the fact that there’s a vision for the Route 1 district, “but the vision has to match the reality.” He also said the longer the properties remain vacant, the longer both the town and P&K Realty Trust lose value.

In a memo to the council, Town Manager Nathan Poore noted contract zoning “was created to fully deal with the unusual nature or unique location of specific proposals for development. In these special situations, more flexible and adaptable zoning methods are needed.”

In the marketing brochure created by CBRE/The Boulos Co., the former Pratt Abbott building is described as a nearly 1-acre lot on a “prime retail corner” that’s at the “center of Falmouth’s commercial activity (with) exceptional exposure to passing traffic (and) highly desirable demographics.”

Permitted uses include restaurants, banks, office space and retail, which is the same for the former Five County Credit Union property.

While councilors said Monday that they don’t want to rip up the new Village Commercial zone, they also acknowledged that the Pratt Abbott property, in particular, has several unique physical characteristics, which may also be limiting its redevelopment potential.

Those include a small lot that’s bounded by a creek and a steep drop-off in the rear, and by two high-traffic roadways on the front and side. Even so, the majority of councilors agreed they don’t think contract zoning is the right tool to fix the issues Reiche discussed.

Allowing contract zoning, Councilor Claudia King said, “would be opening the barn door, not making an adjustment with a scalpel. A contract zone is really for a project that’s special, includes a public benefit and is consistent with the underlying zoning.”

“We have a vision for what (Route 1) can be,” she added. “A former council put a lot of work, research and thought into the current zoning, which is married to our multi-million dollar investment. That vision has just taken breath and I’m not in favor of” making any changes now.

However, Councilors Ned Kitchel and Andrea Ferrante said they’d like to do something to help facilitate redevelopment along Route 1.

“In and of itself, I see the value of contract zoning,” Kitchel said. “These properties do have some unique circumstances and if we don’t want them to be vacant until the end of time we need to take steps to make them viable.”

“What I like about contract zoning,” he said, “is that we don’t have to tinker with the underlying zoning. We do need to make accommodations to convert these businesses, especially if the current structure is irrelevant.”

Ferrante said she “would like to help this property owner. Right now we don’t have a good mechanism for (accommodating) someone with a hardship. Our current process is not good at problem-solving.”

Later on in the discussion, Kitchel added, “it’s not good to have these vacancies (with buildings) that don’t meet the needs of today. We need to be more flexible and light on our feet. Is there some process that could stir action and see some things evolve on these sites?”

Poore suggested town staff could “gather data to quantify the problem” and determine if “there are any commonalities that can be addressed.”

The goal, he said, would be to bring that information to the Community Development Committee for review in early spring.

See this story in The Forecaster.