With an undisclosed “high-end” electric car maker looking to open a showroom and service center in Mishawaka, some nearby residents think all the signs point to one company: Tesla.
The Mishawaka Plan Commission voted 4-3 this week in favor of a proposal by a Chicago-based developer to convert the former JC Penney Home Store, at Grape and Cleveland roads, into a 36,000-square-foot automotive facility.
Chris Sotos, a representative of Key Development Partners, told the commission his company has a contract to buy the site from its local owner and lease it to the auto company.
Sotos did not name the prospective tenant but described it as a “high-end electric automobile, solar power and renewable energy” company.
When The Tribune asked whether that tenant would be Tesla, Mishawaka City Planner Ken Prince said the developer had not disclosed that information to the city.
But some aspects of the plan are consistent with the luxury brand founded by multi-billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk.
Nate Hoover, a California native who lives on Timberland Drive, just west of the site, said he looked at renderings of the proposed auto center and immediately recognized it.
“I knew, just looking at it, that’s going to be a Tesla or related service center from the way it’s laid out and the design concept,” Hoover said. They’re very uniform in the retail brand and what they do.”
Hoover was one of several nearby neighborhood residents who referred to Tesla by name when raising questions about the project during the Plan Commission meeting Tuesday.
The renderings filed with the Plan Commission show a gray, white and red color scheme, as well as signage placement consistent with other Tesla dealerships and service centers, though the documents do not include any names or logos.
Sotos also said the facility would have a showroom with a handful of cars on display, as well as a “host of other solar and renewable products that the tenant is in the business of selling,” but that the vehicles would not actually be sold on site as they would be at a traditional dealership.
“This is not a facility that is a typical automotive ‘we sell cars out of our facility,’” he said. “This is primarily a service facility with a showroom to showcase automobiles, solar products and renewable products.”
Neither Tesla nor Steve Panko, a partner with Key Development who is listed as the firm’s contact in documents filed with the city, responded to requests for comment.
Tesla sells its cars directly to consumers and does not use third-party dealerships. In 2019, Musk announced plans to move the company’s sales almost entirely online and close its physical stores, while leaving some locations open as “galleries.”
Hoover and several other residents raised concerns about the plans during Tuesday’s meeting, saying they feared noise and pollution from auto work, as well as intense lighting that often accompanies car lots.
Sotos said the auto center’s presence would be less intrusive than the former JC Penney store, with more limited hours and less traffic from delivery trucks. He said the developer would add landscaping and limit lighting to the minimum needed for security.
“This will not be a bright-lit showroom, 24-seven,” he said.
The plan now moves to the City Council, which would need to grant an exception to allow an auto center because the existing commercial strip-mall zoning doesn’t allow one.
The request is expected to go before the council in July.
Prince, the city planner, said Mishawaka administration officials see the proposal as a good use of the vacant JC Penney building.
“Every neighbor next to something that’s changing has concerns, and from a city perspective we’re sensitive to that,” Prince said. “From an intensity standpoint, less truck traffic, less people visiting, the site will better blend into the neighborhood than what the JC Penney home store previously did.”