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2009-02-15
Berlin, MD. Proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter Won’t Glow At Night

All around the country, Wal-Mart is promoting supercenters that are not supposed to look like supercenters. The company is trying to convince locals that by changing the "skin" of the store, it becomes more of a 'village supercenter,' which is an architectural oxymoron. Behind the skin is still a big box footprint. But the ruse seems to be working. Each town thinks they are getting a unique and special design. Berlin, Maryland is a case in point. On September 9, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had submitted an application to expand its discount store in the tiny community of Berlin. Wal-Mart discount store #2560 sits along Ocean Gateway road in Berlin. According to local officials, the store is "over-shopped." If that's true, it's not from people in Berlin, because the community has less than 4,000 people living there -- an increase from 1990 -- when the population was 2,616. The nearby community of Ocean City, Maryland has roughly 7,000 people -- so the two communities combined couldn't "overshop" any store. If they did, the competitors would have no business at all. The entire county of Worcester in Maryland has just about enough people to support a superstore: 49,500. Worcester County pitches itself to tourists -- not to big box shoppers. Located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Worcester County is Maryland's only seaside county, "known for Ocean City's clean sandy beaches, outdoor recreation, steamed crabs and the famous wild pony herd on Assateague Island State Park and National Seashore." Worcester County also claims to have the best birding in the state, "and 100 miles of marked bicycle trails on flat country roads." And if no citizen opposition creates waves -- Worcester County will soon be able to claim the 14th supercenter in Maryland. But it turns out that Worcester County, which is now considering plans for a long-delayed Wal-Mart supercenter, is talking out of both sides of its mouth. In one tourist promotion, the tiny town of Berlin is described to visitors as "the exquisite, Victorian-era town of Berlin with its romantic bed and breakfasts." Tourists are encouraged to visit "historic Snow Hill and Pocomoke City, with their 100-plus century-old homes and proximity to the beautiful Pocomoke River. All these towns... are just a short drive away from the beach. Get away from the strip malls, the fast food and the city lights. Trade it in for history, architecture and an easy pace of life." Now the county wants to "trade" all this for a huge, Wal-Mart supercenter. In September, Wal-Mart told the media that the superstore, which will expand the "old" Wal-Mart store on Ocean Gateway, was being reviewed by county officials. "We've recently met with the technical review committee and received the technical comments regarding the site plan," a lawyer for Wal-Mart said. "The consultants are addressing those comments now." The activity last Fall by Wal-Mart came after months of silence over the project, which first washed up on shore three years ago. County Commissioner Judy Boggs told The Wave that the slow-down in progress was not on Wal-Mart'shore, but caused by negotiations over water and sewer issues. If this expansion is approved, the superstore will be 189,842 s.f., and will be part of a project called Ocean Landings I, which has nothing to do with oceans, or docks. It's another suburban superstore mall, and its going to force the county to build a new wastewater treatment plant to handle the needs of Wal-Mart, a proposed Home Depot, and other roadside sprawl. There is also an Ocean Landings II in the works for a second retail center. The county has already OK'd a 23,000 gallon per day sewer system for this project. Wal-Mart reportedly will be financially responsible for the treatment plant, since it wouldn't be needed without their huge superstore. County Planning staff have warned that the wastewater treatment plant will need to be much larger than the proposed 23,000 gallon treatment system. This week, The Dispatch newspaper reports that Wal-Mart has changed its superstore design, to come up with a "more localized, attractive style." Wal-Mart's architect presented plans to the County's Planning Commission, which had not seen the plans since the spring of 2006. The architect told planner's that Wal-Mart's new design emphasizes "warm color and human scale." The footprint, which is nearly the size of three football fields, will be pedestrian-friendly, the architect said, and give a more local feel for the building and surrounding space. The building has more brick and earth tones, and the chain link fence around the garden center is now made of wrought iron. The main store sign will "only" be 377 s.f., instead of the original 1,000 s.f. The extra wall signs that say "pharmacy" and "superstore" are gone. A Wal-Mart spokesman told planners that the downward directed light of the lighting poles "will not have that glowing effect at night." The overall effect, said the architect, was a project with a "streetscape feel." Long, unbroken walls will be broken down into smaller parts. "The building should age well," the architect concluded. An adding selling point is the fact that the building will have "green" features, creating less waste water, and using skylights to help light the store. Finally, the store has been shrunk by 25,000 s.f., which makes it 164,000 s.f. -- still the largest retail store in the region. All of these changes were not lost on one member of the Planning Commission, who told Wal-Mart the new design was "mind boggling." The Commission voted unanimously to accept the drawings, which is the first step in approving them later. The architect spent a year redesigning the superstore. "When you walk past these big box stores, they can be so overwhelming," he said. The new Supercenter will be constructed behind the existing store, which will then be demolished and converted into parking spaces.

What you can do: "This building could really raise the bar on what should be built on Route 50 and what to expect to see as you head in to Ocean City," said the same Planning Commissioner. Wal-Mart has learned that if you toss in a few roof gables, some awnings, and brick facades, you can disguise the big box behind the façade. According to the Baltimore Business Journal, the Wal-Mart in Berlin is one of six new supercenters that Wal-Mart is pursuing in the state. Four of them are conversions of existing discount stores in Hampstead, North East, Laurel, and Cambridge, Maryland. Stores are also being built in Denton and Berlin. In Hampstead, Wal-Mart is proposing to expand its existing store from 103,000 s.f. to 193,000 s.f. The Journal quoted a local merchant who said that a supercenter in Hampstead could hurt smaller grocers in the area. Lou Santoni, co-owner of Santoni's Marketplace and Catering Co. in Glyndon, Maryland told the Journal, "They already cannibalize the dry goods and health and beauty care business of the supermarket." Readers are urged to email the President of the Worcester County Commissioners, Virgil Shockley at vlshockley@aol.com with the following message: "Dear President Shockley, I was shocked to learn that a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter is being considered in Berlin, to demolish the 'old' Wal-Mart store on Ocean Gateway, along Route 50. To expand the big box amidst the seacoast's natural beauty, seems to me foolish and shortsighted. Small towns like Berlin have been promoted for their romantic nature, pristine beaches, and old homes. Into the mix, you toss a totally incompatible big box store. It's time for Worcester County to do a better job of protecting its natural environment and its taxpayers. Your Planning Commission melted in the hands of Wal-Mart's architect, who managed to take a big box footprint almost the size of three football fields, and convince Commissioners that it was pedestrian-friendly. The façade treatment, made to look like a row of village stores, will not affect the increased traffic and crime that comes to this site, or the cost of police and fire protection the taxpayers will absorb. You can put a tuxedo on Frankenstein's monster, but it's still a monster. Don't allow your unique environment to be converted into another sprawling nowhere. Put a cap of 50,000 s.f. on the size of new retail buildings, make them conform to a village-appropriate scale and design, and then pass an ordinance that requires retailers to put money into escrow to pay for any store they leave empty for more than 12 months. This superstore is not an economic development project for Worcester County, because most of the 'new' jobs will come from the 'old' Wal-Mart store, and the existing grocery stores in the area. You will see no new jobs, and little new net revenues. But even worse: you can't buy small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf, and once they take it away, you can't buy it back at any price. Ask Wal-Mart to come back in with a store smaller than 100,000 s.f. They have a supercenter design for that size -- and the reality is, they could simply take their existing store and reformat it into a supercenter. That would be more 'green' than demolishing buildings and erecting overwhelming concrete monuments to market greed. Don't be tricked by all this talk of 'warm colors'. The glow from this project will be visible for miles."










 
 
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