Caught unaware by its landlord's plans, Sullivan Tire Co. Inc. may lose one of its most profitable stores to the wrecker's ball.
The situation is especially disconcerting to the company because just being able to build a new store practically anywhere in Burlington is now a major challenge, officials said.
Norwell, Mass.-based Sullivan Tire has run the outlet, a free-standing building on the grounds of the Burlington Mall, for 25 years, said Mark Gillard, marketing manager for the 43-outlet tire dealership. The store had been part of a batch acquired years ago.
Late last year, a canteen truck driver stopped by the store and expressed his regret that it would be razed, much to the surprise of the store's staff, Mr. Gillard said. A search at city hall turned up plans to demolish the building to make way for construction of a Crate & Barrel store, he said, adding Sullivan Tire was not informed directly by the property owner.
Federated Department Stores Inc. owns the site Sullivan Tire occupies, and it plans to sell the land to mall owner Simon Property Group Inc. for the Crate & Barrel store, said Tony Fields, Burlington's planning director.
Elina Kazan, a spokeswoman for Macy's department stores, which recently was bought by Federated Stores, said the sale is part of a deal to divest some locations that duplicate acquired stores. In the Burlington Mall's case, that meant closing a Filene's store and continuing to operate the Macy's. The sale of Filene's-which includes the Sullivan Tire plot-was part of a batch of nine department stores sold to Simon Property in early May and among 80 nationwide that Federated said it would divest. The Sullivan store also carries the name of Macy's Car Care, a relic of past ownerships.
Ms. Kazan said she's not sure when the Burlington deal will be finalized. Officials at Simon did not return requests by for comment.
``It's one of our busiest locations,'' Sullivan Tire's Mr. Gillard said. ``After being there for 25 years you can imagine the Sullivans are pretty upset that it went down this way, without telling us anything about it. We've always been good tenants there.''
Ms. Kazan disputes that, saying notification is part of the real estate arrangement. ``They are well aware of this,'' she told Tire Business.
Sullivan Tire, which has six months left on its lease, wants to negotiate with the mall's owner to build elsewhere on the property. In an update on its Web site, Sullivan Tire said Simon Property is talking with the dealership about this possibility.
That's much easier said than done.
``The issue now is Burlington's zoning laws are so strict on auto service shops that we can't just go in (anywhere) and build a shop,'' Mr. Gillard said.
In fact, two-thirds of the city is restricted against new automotive uses, Mr. Fields told Tire Business. The Sullivan Tire matter was scheduled to be discussed at a May 18 planning board meeting, after Tire Business' presstime.
``The primary issue in Burlington is a large segment of the town is in an aquifer district, so Burlington relies on the local groundwater for its public water supply,'' he said. ``So unlike much of greater Boston that gets its water from reservoirs in the western part of the state, we're entirely dependent upon the local water.''
Automotive businesses-including new and used car dealerships, gas stations, auto service shops and tire dealerships-are not permitted on land that contributes to the water supply. Businesses that already occupied these areas before many of the regulations went into effect are permitted to stay. The state and local regulations were instituted in the early to mid-1980s with the development of technology that could determine which areas fed the water supply.
To build a new automotive-related business, Mr. Fields said, a company would have to either find a site not restricted against automotive use or find a site that already had been used for automotive purposes and ask the planning commission for permission to build there.
Mr. Fields said there is no vacant land in the city of 23,000 zoned for automotive use.
Sullivan Tire hopes that if it can get Simon Property to agree to move the tire shop to another plot on mall property, the planning commission may grandfather it into the regulations, Mr. Gillard said.
That also may be difficult since the mall property is actually five separate parcels and Sullivan Tire may be limited to the parcel on which it already sits, Mr. Fields said.
Sullivan Tire has been encouraging its customers to contact the planning commission, and Mr. Gillard said the dealership already has gotten a lot of backing. A supporter of the tire store also set up a Web site, urging other customers to appeal to the planning board on Sullivan Tire's behalf.
The dealership's nearest store is seven miles away, but it hopes to stay in Burlington where it has cultivated about 11,000 customers and employs about 30 workers.
In the Baltimore area, Bay Area Tire & Service Center is facing a similar clamp on its growth from zoning regulations. The Goodyear Gemini dealer finalized a deal on April 1 to buy two retail shops, in Hampstead and Eldersburg, Md., that formerly were Yingling Tire Service Inc. shops. The deal expanded Bay Area Tire to nine locations in Maryland.
Bethlehem, Pa.-based Service Tire Truck Centers bought Yingling Tire last year and resold the two retail shops to Bay Area Tire, keeping two commercial sites.
Bay Area Tire General Manager Gerry White said the dealership is looking more to acquisitions for growth because of tough zoning laws against automotive service shops.
``It's harder and harder to get a new location because of zoning requirements anymore,'' Ms. White said. ``That makes it extremely difficult for growth.''
The zoning issues, she added, are mostly from environmental concerns about automotive service shops. She said many residents like the convenience of a nearby shop but also are apprehensive about potential environmental damage despite shops' best efforts to highlight their environmental considerations and counteract the image of being ``oil dumpers.''
``I guess it's still that perception,'' she said. ``It's just difficult to get people to think of us differently.''