After community response, proposed pot shop shifts location

The vacant 8-10 Hancock St. property proposed as the site of a new recreational marijuana shop. Google Street photo

Updated Tues., 11:35 a.m. -- A recreational marijuana shop proposed for an Uphams Corner site has a change of plans and location -- about 400 feet away from the original spot and closer to the village hub of commercial activity.

In a conversation with the Reporter on Friday, Benjamin Virga said he and his business partner heard the community’s concerns after a fairly contentious preliminary meeting last week, and have found a nearby location that works just as well without being in the midst of the residential block.

“We’re hoping that it’s an olive branch that we’ve extended,” Virga said, “and Hancock Street Civic Association will see that and be more trusting of us to do right by the neighborhood.”

Virga had planned to pursue 33-37 Hancock St., now the site of the Kriola restaurant at the corner of Payson Avenue. But as of Friday, “we were able to secure a new location” Virga said. They terminated the contract for 33 Hancock St. and signed a purchase and sale agreement for 8-12 Hancock St., he said.

The new location “seems to be a much better fit,” Virga said. “After meeting with the neighborhood, as far as what they’re going to work with, it seemed like a reasonable request and something we wanted to try to do to show them we can be a good member of the community.”

Will Cole-French, president of the Hancock Street group said in an email Monday that he appreciated the direct outreach from Virga, “because it signals an intentionality on his part to keep an open line of communication with us.” 

However, Cole-French said, he is still uneasy with the amount of uncertainty in the emerging cannabis industry. City officials have been silent on his queries, Cole-French said, and a subsequent meeting in Bowdoin-Geneva left him “with more questions than answers” regarding license renewal and safeguards around the recreational shops.

He remains concerned about public usage in general, but particularly edible marijuana products like gummy bears that could appeal to children.

“How can [we] do anything but oppose a business like this in our community when there are so many questions and so few answers?” Cole-French asked.

Once the site of Cataloni’s -- which was closed in 2010 after alleged cocaine sales and purchases by customers, as well as damage from a sleeping driver who struck the property -- the 2,193-square foot building has sat vacant for years.

“It’s closer to Columbia Road, closer to true Uphams Corner,” Virga said, “with commercial benefits and surrounded by commercial properties.”

With the former agreement off the table, Virga said the next step is to go to the city and withdraw their application and appeal to the Zoning Board for 33 Hancock St., restarting the filing process with 8-12 Hancock St.

“We had a very small window of time to make that happen,” Virga said of the switch,. “It set us back couple of weeks,” but after the new application, the routine zoning denial, and setting up the first official round of abutters meetings, “hopefully, it shouldn’t be too long a process,” he said.

The impassioned response gave them an opportunity to “step up and do what they asked us, and it’s better for our business, better for the neighborhood,” he said. “One of the rare occurrences where it’s actually a win-win situation.”

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@dotnews.com, or follow her on Twitter at @JennDotSmith