Wheaton neighbors decry Mariano’s gas station plan for downtown gateway

The southern entrance to downtown Wheaton is one of the city’s most flood-prone areas, a busy corridor where low-lying roads swell with water in heavy rains.

It took millions of public and private dollars to redevelop the downtown gateway into a Mariano’s grocery store while preserving athletic fields and green space.

Almost eight years after that highly complex project, Mariano’s wants to replace an employee parking lot with a gas station across the street from its supermarket along Roosevelt Road.

But the proposal has been met with stiff resistance from neighbors and city planners who say a gas station doesn’t belong at the front door to a reinvigorated downtown that’s benefiting from new infrastructure, gathering spaces and popular evening events.

“Everything points in the direction of hope and progress. A gas station does not,” said Kate Reinhart, who lives on Frazier Court and has started an online petition that’s received nearly 2,000 signatures.

Opponents raise concerns about flooding, traffic flow, lighting, noise, the loss of trees and potential environmental hazards. Portions of the site fall within a flood plain.

“There are instances where a gas station in a flood plain might be necessary and unavoidable, but this particular station is redundant with three gas stations within a mile of the proposed location,” South Hale Street resident Steve Johnson said.

Stormwater detention on the site would have to be increased to comply with city requirements, but the proposed detention system wasn’t shown on preliminary plans for the gas station.

To the north, an area near Main and Indiana streets is known as “Lake Wheaton” when it floods.

“It’s much more of an intense development than just having a parking lot,” said Christine Cercone, who also lives on South Hale. “There’s going to be large tanks that are excavated. All that topsoil is going to be removed and replaced with an impermeable tank, and so that water that is normally held in that soil has nowhere to be absorbed or it has that much less space to be absorbed.”

The Mariano’s store opened in late 2013 with an upper customer parking lot at the northeast corner of Roosevelt and Main Street. The employee lot was installed at the northwest corner.

“We filled that lot up on a daily basis at that time,” said Dan Farrell, vice president of real estate at Milwaukee-based Roundy’s. “Part of it was just because of the number of employees we had and getting them trained and up to speed. Part of it was because of the volume that the store did.”

Since then, Kroger purchased Roundy’s, Mariano’s parent company, in 2015. And the employee lot across from the Wheaton store is now underused, Farrell said.

“There’s been some competitive changes,” he said. “We’ve been able to support the store with other stores in surrounding areas.”

Plans call for turning the lot into a gas station with seven dispensers or 14 fueling positions and a kiosk with public restrooms. Representatives for Mariano’s said the gas station would maintain the same hours as the grocer -- 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily -- and would help it compete with other stores. Mariano’s shoppers would earn fuel rewards points to get a discount at the pump.

“Fuel is becoming more and more common with these grocers, common and expected,” said Tim Kratz, an engineer for the project.

At a public hearing Tuesday, planning and zoning board members raised questions about stormwater management, landscaping and underground fuel tanks.

Constructed with a double wall and anchored with concrete, the tanks would be buried at the south end of the site.

“I’ve worked on fuel centers for 17 years now, and there’s always a sigh of relief from the state fire marshal when they’re on a Kroger project because of our internal standards,” project manager Natalie Mouw said.

But other residents took issue with the proximity of the proposed gas station to park district pickleball courts. They also worry the development would compound cut-through traffic on Hale Street.

“People walk from the south side to go to the downtown area. So many kids and pedestrians are needing that space to not be worse than it already is,” resident Susan Botts said.

The city’s planning and zoning board continued this week’s public hearing to Aug. 24.