U-Haul proposes purchase, redevelopment of Hartford Plaza
City officials question storage units as part of company’s plan

By Joe VanDeLaarschot

Jan. 11, 2019

Traffic is seen moving past the former Kmart building Thursday morning in Hartford. U-Haul is proposing purchasing the site of the former Kmart.
John Ehlke/Daily News

HARTFORD — U-Haul Moving and Storage is proposing to buy and develop the mostly and long vacant Hartford Plaza along Highway 60, but some city officials have said that if the company sticks to the plan as now proposed it is possible it could be rejected.

U-Haul has submitted a conceptual plan to redevelop the former Kmart location in the Plaza as a U-Haul Neighborhood Store. The city’s Plan Commission will review the plan at its Monday meeting starting at 5:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The proposed development is to be similar to developments the company has completed at other sites of closed retail stores — many in Wisconsin.

The store would have a retail showroom of about 4,000 square-feet for moving and packing supply sales and rentals, 66,000 square-feet of warehousing and truck and trailer rental which would be placed in the parking lot in front of the former Kmart building.

“They also propose a new structure of about 7,800 square-feet near the northeast corner of the property for what they describe as ‘sustainable storage’ with U-Haul in addition to purchasing the entire plaza and seek to lease out all of the remaining retail spaces,” City Planner Justin Drew said. “U-Haul would also replace the roof, repair the parking lot as needed and make aesthetic changes to the exterior.”

Drew and other city officials are unsure about the company’s proposal to build the storage units so close to Highway 60 but a long distance from the old Kmart building.

“There are only three large commercial areas in the city (Hartford Plaza, Walmart site and Piggly Wiggly) and given the existing pattern of development in the city as well as the presence of wetlands and other environmental concerns its difficult to create more,” Drew said.

Mayor Tim Michalak, who also chairs the Plan Commission, said he would welcome U-Haul, but he too has reservations about the location of the storage units.

 “I don’t believe there are a majority of Common Council members that support that,” Michalak said. “The city and myself have personally talked to U-Haul and they are insistent the units have to be where they are proposing to be noticed.”

Traffic is seen moving past the former Kmart building Thursday morning in Hartford.
John Ehlke/Daily News

Drew said because Hartford Plaza would remain primarily retail and that the space would be more likely fully leased and put into productive use if the U-Haul redevelopment moved forward, staff was prepared to approve the concept of converting the Kmart building into the Neighborhood Store, but again they are concerned about the location of the storage units.

“The units’ garage doors would face the street, be painted bright orange and would be quite visible from Highway 60,” Drew said. “The presence of these structures would detract from the area’s commercial nature and surrounding businesses and change the nature of the one of the city’s most important business corridors.”

Drew and Michalak said U-Haul has refused to remove the mini-storage warehouse structures from the plan. U-Haul insists that since Hartford Plaza is on a frontage road rather than directly on Highway 60, the location of the mini-storage units is necessary “in order for the public to understand they offer storage services.”

“Staff disagrees and believes that signs can deal with that,” Michalak said. “There will be a big sign there that will say ‘U-Haul’ where they could include something on the order of ‘climate-controlled storage units available.’ They’re playing it like that ‘we are making this investment and if we don’t get our way we’re picking up our ball and leaving and going home,’” Michalak said. “I’ve said to them that you may be going home then. You claim you want to work with the city. The city has one request and you refuse. We don’t think our request is out of bounds. We’re hoping they will work with us on this. There has to be a little flexibility on their part. Hopefully we can come to an agreement.”

Drew said through numerous rounds of negotiations, U-Haul has shrunk the proposed sustainable storage from 14,400 square-feet to 7,800 square-feet, city officials said “the visual impact of the storage structures would remain” despite the square-footage reduction to nearly half of what was originally proposed.

“Staff can not support the concept as proposed, but would support the proposal without the outside storage structures,” Drew said. “Staff would also not recommend against a plan that included only a storage structure oriented north-south along Novak Street.”

Michalak said from his perspective the argument U-Haul is bringing up is “disingenuous.” He said they need to work with the city and understand that officials want the project to look good.

“We said take those same storage units and push them right up against the building — we’ll give them that. That’s what zoning is — that’s what zoning does for people. It makes sure there is a quality look to a city and that’s what we’re shooting for and we’re hoping U-Haul will work with us,” Michalak said. “If they do they will be welcome into the community. We just need a little help from them.”