A plan to build a new hotel, convenience store and gas station on South College Avenue passed its first hurdle last week when Newark’s board of adjustment granted two variances needed for the project to move forward.
The plan will now go on to the planning commission and ultimately require approval from city council.
SSN Hotels, a Wilmington-based firm that operates more than 20 hotels in the region, is seeking to demolish the aging Red Roof Inn at 1119 S. College Ave. and replace it with a smaller, 98-room Tru by Hilton hotel as well as a 5,100-square-foot convenience store with 12 gas pumps fronting South College Avenue.
The tenant of the convenience store has not formally been announced, but last year, SSN President Pinky Bhai said the combination of a Wawa and a new hotel would be “a good draw for the city.”
The 3.1-acre site is adjacent to the Candlewood Suites, which SSN opened last year. Other adjoining parcels that are home to Friendly’s restaurant and Jersey Mike’s Subs are not owned by SSN and will not be affected.
John Tracey, a lawyer for SSN, pitched the plan as a way to clean up the property and bring in a different clientele. Hilton’s Tru brand is aimed at millennials and features a game room and other modern touches, like mobile check-in and digital room keys.
“We’ve entered into a process of trying to transform this and change the character of the property by bringing some higher-end uses into play,” Tracey said.
The Red Roof Inn, built in the 1960s as a Howard Johnson’s, has more of a transient clientele and is no stranger to police activity. There was a shooting in the parking lot in March, and last summer, two sex traffickers held a kidnapped 15-year-old there, according to a federal indictment.
The two variances approved last week were minor and largely uncontroversial. One allowed SSN to eliminate loading areas Tracey said were unnecessary, and the other allowed the parking lot entrance to be closer to the neighboring property than is typically allowed.
However, several residents attended the meeting to voice broader concerns over the project, foreshadowing what could become a tougher fight to get the project approved by city council.
“A 24-hour convenience store? I don’t think so,” said Rick Ramsey, Jr., who lives next door to the hotel property. “We have enough problems right now with just the people who are there going for the hotel.”
Ramsey expressed concern about traffic and noted there are already four gas stations in the immediate vicinity.
“Why do we feel the need to have another gas station in that area?” he asked.
Donald Gaines, who lives across Old Cooch’s Bridge Road from the hotel site, said SSN hasn’t lived up to promises it made when building the Candlewood Suites.
“The residents on our street do not think the Candlewood Suites completed everything they were supposed to have completed, which makes us all suspicious,” Gaines said. “They haven’t been very good neighbors so far.”
Members of the board of adjustment said the concerns were not relevant to the discussion over the variances but encouraged the residents to address them to the planning commission and city council.
“You all have made some very valid points, and I think they need to be heard,” board member Bill Moore said. “I encourage the applicant to work strongly with the residents. It appears to me that from the previous experience, we’ve heard some negativity and they have some concerns. That concerns me.”
A date for consideration by the planning commission has not been announced.
Last year, SSN CEO Peter Bhai expressed confidence the project would move forward.
“The city is very pro-development,” he said in an interview.