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2008-08-13
Venice, FL. Wal-Mart Developer Turns Defeat Into Victory With Cosmetic Changes

A Wal-Mart project called the "Renaissance" has had a dramatic renaissance of its own in a small Florida community. A Wal-Mart developer in Venice, Florida has charmed his way into the hearts and minds of local residents, and turned a certain defeat 9 months ago into victory. All he did was make a few cosmetic changes to his Wal-Mart superstore proposal and the natives were happy. By putting a new tuxedo on Frankenstein's monster, the developer has gotten residents to agree to the big box. On October 13, 2007 Sprawl-Busters reported that the idea of a Wal-Mart supercenter was not floating many boats in Venice, Florida. The city promotes its "beautiful beaches, a quaint downtown shopping area, and the old Florida scenery along the Myakka River... miles of white sand, sea shells and the prehistoric shark teeth." Venice calls itself the "Sharks Tooth Capital of the world." But another shark -- this one retail -- wanted to take a big bite out of Venice. The city has made a point of preserving the original character of Venice, creating the Historic Venice District and an Architectural Review Board to ensure that new construction or modification of existing buildings conform to the northern Italian Renaissance style of the city's original architecture. The state also designated the community as a Florida Main Street City to "assure the city's heritage will be preserved." But Venice is an island surrounded by sprawl. There are 7 Wal-Mart's within 20 miles of Venice, 5 of them are supercenters, including a supercenter right in Venice. The Arkansas retailer presented plans for a supercenter on Laurel Road near the tony Venetian Golf & River Club. "Wal-Mart would destroy the community that can economically support quality shops," Venetian residents told city officials. The proposed 200,000-s.f. Wal-Mart inside the 73-acre "Renaissance" development east of Interstate 75 came before Venice's planning commission in November of 2007. According to the Herald Tribune, people in Venice want commercial development -- they just don't want Wal-Mart. "We really need commercial development, but we need the right kind of commercial development," Venetian Golf & River Club resident John Moeckel told the newspaper. Moeckel organized a write-in campaign against Wal-Mart, in his capacity as chairman of the local community association. Residents were upset by the scale of the store, and the impact of traffic on their two lane roadway. "They want boutiques, not big boxes," the Sarasota Herald Tribune said, and claim city leaders promised an attractive mixed-use town center. The original plan was to build 20 acres of mixed-use commercial retail and office space, including a movie theater complex and restaurants, next to 50 acres with homes and condos with up to 731 units, creating a village. But the developer pulled a classic bait-and-switch, cutting the housing units from 731 units to 200 units, killing off the central park, and replacing it with a retail center anchored by Wal-Mart. But in November of 2007, the Venice Planning Commission cut Wal-Mart's anchor. The Commission approved one part of the massive Renaissance project, which calls for a hotel and some retail space -- but the other part of the project -- the Wal-Mart supercenter, was sent back to the drawing board, with a unanimous denial. In what the Herald Tribune called "a stunning reversal," neighborhood groups now say they are fine with the supercenter. The Venetian Golf and River Club and the developer told the Venice City Council that they had reached an agreement on a plan. The Council rewarded the developer with a unanimous approval. The developer, Mike Miller, agreed to 10 changes, including widening Laurel Road from two to four lanes in front of the development -- a pretty standard roadwork change. He also agreed to add more landscape buffering and build "a higher berm" so the huge retail store will be "less visible" from Laurel Road. The superstore itself will have "a faux main street" skin to the building, with varying roofing pitches and building colors that "cloak the big-box store look" according to the newspaper. The developer also agreed to work with an advisory group of residents as outparcels of the project come forward for council approval. "The previous team failed to communicate the benefits of the project," Miller told the Herald Tribune. He repeated Wal-Mart's promise that the superstore would bring 300 jobs to the Venice, and millions of dollars in tax revenue -- neither of which is accurate. "I'm here to say thank you to Mr. Miller," one reasident of the Venetian Golf and River Club told the city council. "I am uplifted in my spirits."

What you can do: The folks in Venice have spent too much time in the sun. The concessions they spend months negotiating were minor and inconsequential in terms of impact on their community and their lives. They have been misled into believing that berms and 'faux' facades will hide the impact of the store on their neighborhood and the economics of the Venetian community. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart will not lead to any renaissance of the Venice economy. Small merchants, especially grocery stores, will suffer. The net new job creation will be negligible, because most of Wal-Mart's jobs will be transferred from existing stores. There is no such thing as a 'village superstore' -- even if the front of the building has different rooflines, and you cannot hide a superstore behind a berm. It will light up the sky at night, and be a very noise neighbors 24 hours a day. Ironically, the developer now has to go to Bentonville, Arkansas to see if he can woo Wal-Mart back like he wooed the natives. When the Planning Commission denied the project last fall, Wal-Mart let its option on the land expire. Given the slow housing market, the unsteady economy, and Wal-Mart's cutback in new store projects -- its not entirely clear that Wal-Mart will return. "We're all going to go to Bentonville to see if we can get Wal-Mart back," Mike Miller told the newspaper after the City Council approved his altered plan. The Planning Commission last Fall had instructed Wal-Mart to submit a smaller plan, with scaled back parking, more green space, a park, and walkways. Officials told Wal-Mart their plan was still too foreign to the original plan for a "village" concept, with small retail shops and housing on the second floor, a central park connecting to a large residential development. What the commission got instead was a typical suburban sprawl pattern of a retail center anchored by a Wal-Mart. "We need commercial development. We recognize that," one resident was quoted as saying by the Gondolier Sun newspaper. "We just don't need this big box development." The former developer, Waterford Companies, asked the Commission in 2007 to continue the hearing, so its architects could meet with city planners to come up with a plan more to everyone's liking. But the Chairman of the Planning Commission, John Osmulski, responded, "I really don't think we need to continue this. I don't think they listened to us at all. If everyone wants this to happen, it should start over. We only get one shot at doing this." A Wal-Mart spokesman said his team "may have misread" some of the commission's critique. "Obviously, you're concerned with the plans," he said. "I hear that. We didn't go far enough." Waterford Companies then tossed out the veiled threat of low-income housing. "If things don't get approved," he warned, "we might have to redo the whole plan," referring to "more economical housing." The Wal-Mart supercenter is far from dead, but the city has made it clear that suburban sprawl is not an acceptable use for this location. Readers are urged to contact Venice Planning Commission Chairman John Osmulski, by calling 941-486-2626 and leaving this message: "Please tell Chairman Osmulski that I am stunned that the Commission and the City Council would be coaxed into supporting a big box superstore with some minor cosmetic changes. The store is still 200,000 s.f., and it will still attract an enormous glut of cars down Laurel Road. It will increase your crime rate, hurt local businesses, and add little or no new jobs or revenues. This size and type of big box store makes no sense for Laurel Road, and is incompatible with the city's land use plans. This is not a compatible use. Venice has access to plenty of Wal-Marts nearby. Venice has just made a huge mistake, and hopefully even Wal-Mart will see that, and refuse to come back."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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