ZBA Considers a Request for Variance or Special Permit at Bedford Marketplace

Marketplace Center plan, with annotations show where major stores
Marketplace Center plan, with annotations show Marshall’s,Whole Foods Market and Learning Express, Edits – JMcCT, 2015

By Julie McCay Turner

Substantial support for creating a diverse mix of stores in the Bedford Marketplace renovation was expressed during May 28’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) hearing of a proposal by educational toy store franchisor Learning Express. They seek relief from the constraints of Bedford’s Limited Business zone in order to construct a 6,700 square foot flagship location, Learning Express PLAY, in ‘Building C’ at the renovated Bedford Marketplace.

Crafting specific language for either a special permit or variance without creating precedents that could come to haunt the town in the future became a question that was referred to Town Counsel Robert Mangiaratti. His response will be discussed during a continuation of the hearing, scheduled for Thursday, June 11 at 7:30 pm, at Town Hall, 10 Mudge Way.

Zoning History

Imagine an arbitrary line that runs parallel to The Great Road and bisects the parking lot at the Marketplace Shopping Center.

Behind the line? The Town’s General Business zone, where there are no size limits on retail stores, and multiple uses are allowed. In front of the line, Bedford’s Limited Business zone caps retail store size at 2,000 square feet with fewer allowable uses.

When the shopping center was constructed in the mid-1950’s, the Limited Business zone was intended to keep larger stores at the back of the plaza, with smaller, more local businesses near the street.

Several years ago Bedford’s CVS — also in the Limited Business zone — was granted relief to allow its 11,000 square foot store to be built, and in 1995 Genetti’s, now Lincoln Liquors, was granted a special permit for 3,500 square feet of retail floor space at its current location in what has become the Bedford Marketplace.

Whether Bedford’s 2,000 square foot retail store limit and allowable uses in the Limited Business zone represent an antiquated approach to zoning is an open question in an era when it appears that businesses, like new residential construction, seem to need to be large in order to succeed.

About Learning Express’s Proposal

Learning Express began as a single, small store in Acton, selling educational toys and raising funds for a community school in Groton; it has grown to become an affiliation of eight Boston-area stores.

Their proposal before the ZBA seeks either a variance or special permit for Learning Express’s first-in-the-nation flagship, the much-larger Learning Express PLAY, that would open in the autumn of 2016 at the rear of ‘Building C’ in the reconfigured Marketplace Center.

With its “open-imagination interactive area,” Learning Express PLAY would inspire growth and learning through play. In addition, the establishment would include a retail area, a gymnasium, a classroom and a reception area, along with restrooms, office space and storage.

Learning Express and Learning Express PLAY are noted to be separate corporate entities. By right, Learning Express would be allowed up to 2,000 square feet for their retail toy store in ‘Building C’ under current Limited Business zoning.

Bedford Marketplace is deemed an ideal launch site for Learning Express PLAY based on the customer demographics within a five-mile radius of the Marketplace, proximity to Learning Express’s corporate headquarters in Devens, and a Whole Foods Market at the same location.

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