Shopping center plans on Rockland

By Steve Estes

A proposed 500,000 square foot shopping center on Rockland Key was supported by a vast majority of people Monday night during a town meeting on Big Coppitt.

Local planner Owen Trepanier, representing the property owners, told the assemblage that the center will bring jobs and an economic boost to the area if they are allowed to develop the site.

The plans call for one, possibly two, major big box stores to anchor the complex, with a mixture of regional and local commercial shops, offices and restaurants on the 33 acre site that spans the area from US 1 where the adult store is now to the waterfront just west of the bridge leading from Big Coppitt to Rockland Key.

Trepanier said the area is mostly resource extraction “borrow pits” now and “that use is being regulated out of existence in this area.”

He admitted the property had some challenges involving environmental clean up issues, but that those would be addressed by the property owners during the construction phase of the project.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners is expected to hold a public hearing on the project in October. What Trepanier intends to do is get approval from the county for an overlay district for the property that allows the eclectic mix of uses the developers envision.

“Just changing the zoning for industrial land had repercussions all the way to Key Largo, but using an overlay kept the effects limited to this property,” he said.

He said the overlay district would delineate all the potential uses of the property.

“If we get the overlay district, then we’ll begin the site planning process to develop a shopping center,” said Trepanier.

Claude Gardner is the realtor who will be handling placement at the site. He says there are no contracts in place yet as to what national chains may locate there.

“We need two large anchor tenants, but we have no agreements with anyone,” he said. “We need to know the footage that will be available before we can begin serious negotiations, but this will be a typical shopping center.”

“There has been a lot of speculation about what the anchor stores might be,” said Trepanier. “But we can’t tell you that today.”

There has been speculation that developers might try to entice Wal-Mart or Target to the site.

Trepanier said that the overlay currently being discussed requires the developer to set aside five percent of the space for public uses such as a library or post office. “We want this to be community friendly.”

Some in attendance from Key West voiced concerns that a large shopping center that close to the county’s largest municipality might result in more abandoned buildings in the southernmost city as shops moved to the more rural location on Rockland Key. Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce officials voiced some of the same concerns as that area is the smallest of the commercial areas in the Keys.

Gardner said that Key West is down to about 30,000 in large retail footage available following the 2008 recession and said he is confident that adding another shopping center within 10 miles won’t affect those numbers.

One of the primary impediments to the development right now is traffic generation.

According to the county’s latest travel time study, the area east of the planned development is one of the worst for vehicular level of service where Big Coppitt traffic feeds into the two-lane bridge before opening up into the four-lane where the center would be located.

County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley said that the current zoning on the parcel allows “a ton of use. We have to determine how the higher commercial intensity planned here equates to the industrial that is there now in terms of traffic flow, and we don’t yet have a firm number on that.”

She said the land already has a future land use designation that allows for commercial uses and residential uses.

The residential rights of the parcel will be extinguished, said Trepanier.

Trepanier also touted the jobs that will be created for local residents when the center is completed, and prior.

“There are two types of jobs here we’ll create. One will be the construction jobs and the other will be the permanent jobs providing customer service,” he said.

There are local chamber members, however, who feel that the new center will cause the demise of locally-run businesses that put their money directly back into the local economy and generally pay better wages than national chains, simply replacing those better-paying jobs with minimum-wage jobs.

The mechanism for importing labor will be present because Trepanier said that one of the features the overlay calls for is a bus transfer station for use by the county’s transit system.

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