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2009-10-30
Gainesville, FL. After Six Years, Wal-Mart Project Finally Dead

Just in time for Halloween. A Wal-Mart project in Gainesville, Florida can now parade around as dead. It's been a long, slow demise for the Wal-Mart superstore project in Gainesville. But there is no need for a dirge, because the giant retailer already has three stores in Gainesville, including a supercenter on 12th avenue on the east side of the city. The company also has two discount stores: one on 13th street on the west side of the city, and another on the south side on Archer Road. Sprawl-Busters reported on August 23, 2005, that the city had rejected a Wal-Mart supercenter that was part of land swap idea by an aggressive developer. At that time, the Gainesville City Commission voted 4-3 not to trade a 32 acre Northside Park to Wal-Mart for a supercenter, in exchange for a 91 acre property under Wal-Mart's control. Wal-Mart had proposed to convert a recreational park into a Supercenter (200,000+ sq feet) and in return donate the so-called Hartman property to the City for a park. Twice before, Wal-Mart had proposed a Supercenter at the Hartman property and lost on environmental and land-use considerations. Wal-Mart also offered one million dollars for the new park. Wal-Mart offered to build a superstore in the poorer east Gainesville market -- which later became the superstore on 12th avenue. Wal-Mart spent considerable funds on a mass mailer as well as increased TV saturation on the land swap deal. The local newspaper endorsed their proposal. On the surface this looked like an invincible proposal. Wal-Mart had the support of most Afro-American leaders and much of the business and developer community. They also offered to help make up the City's park deficit. But residents were able to defeat them by organizing neighbors. The City Hall auditorium was overflowing with Wal-Mart opponents at the hearing. Wal-Mart presented plans for a "Great American Park" at the Hartman property (the site Wal-Mart had lost on twice before). Wal-Mart promised to donate the land in exchange for Northside Park and this developer would donate the first one million dollars for park infrastructure. What the developer failed to mention was that he owned an ongoing development adjacent to the Hartman property which would have increased in value beyond one million dollars with a new park next door. But another plan surfaced: the County Conservation Fund agree to consider buying the land for conservation and park use. Wal-Mart told all the major Afro-American leaders that if Northside Park was approved they would get a superstore in east Gainesville. But a Northside Park store and a Waldo Road east Gainesville store would have covered much of the same market. Wal-Mart contended that few citizens used Northside Park and it was excess land. Hundreds of neighbors showed up at the meeting with "Save Our Parks" stickers. The Mayor of Gainesville, Pegeen Hanrahan, said problems with tying the Northside Park proposal to an east-side supercenter, complexities in the process behind the park swap and the city's credibility in stewarding its parks, led to her decision to vote against Wal-Mart. "There's a certain sacredness to a park and certain credibility to a local government in how it treats its designated uses," Hanrahan told the Gainesville Sun. The Mayor also was able to read the room. When she asked the more than 140 people in attendance how they felt about the plan, nearly everyone indicated they were against it. "It's disappointing," a Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper after the vote. "Especially given the difficulty the city has had with finding park funding recently." One local resident offered to put up $1 million to create a park at Northwest Avenue. A group called "Save Our Parks" held a rally before the Commission meeting. On April 13, 2009, nearly four years later, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had constructed its superstore on the east side, but the company still wants to build more superstores in Gainesville. The Sun newspaper reported that the city's Development Review Board was slated to hear Wal-Mart's proposal on April 8th for a new site along Route 441 -- but Wal-Mart asked for the meeting to be cancelled, because its lawyers found a lawsuit almost 30 years old that could cause problems for the retailer. "Wal-Mart really wanted to go forward," a Gainesville City Attorney told the newspaper. "It was a legitimate case of the agent for the developer obtaining some documents late in the process." The old case involved the zoning of the land on northwest 34th street. The land is currently zoned for mixed-used medium intensity development. It is possible that Wal-Mart would not fit the definition of 'medium intensity' because it is proposing a 186,000 s.f. superstore. This week, the Gainesville Sun reports that Wal-Mart has lost its effort to get the city's development review board to reconsider its plans for the northwest side of the city. An Administrative law Judge has upheld the DRB's decision that the retail giant's development plan was inconsistent with the city's comprehensive plan and zoning for Mixed Use 2, saying that "competent substantial evidence" presented at board hearings supported the decision. Wal-Mart now has one month to consider appealing this decision, which kills its proposed 186,000 s.f. project with a 14,000 s.f. garden center on Northwest 34th street. The Judge's ruling comes three months after the board of city residents appointed by the City Commission voted 4-3 to reject Wal-Mart's application. The giant retailer appealed that citizen decision, charging that the board had misunderstood the Gainesville Comprehensive Plan and land use regulations. The Judge held a hearing in early October. Unless Wal-Mart continues to pile up its legal bills with an appeal, this superstore can be buried in the new line of caskets that Wal-Mart is now selling.

What you can do: Wal-Mart was coy about its potential appeal. "We are evaluating our options," a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Sun newspaper. "We just found out, so that is about the extent of our comments." According to the Sun, this is strike four for Wal-Mart in northwest Gainesville. The city's attorney told the newspaper that the battle was not over whether or not Wal-Mart could build in the site, but "it was a question of what design was going to be approved." The city asked Wal-Mart repeatedly to come back with different plans, but Wal-Mart was never willing to go far enough to please city officials. Instead, Wal-Mart made legal arguments that the city was not correctly calculating details like how far the building had to be setback from the road and abutting properties. The Judge ruled that the citizen's board had the right to insist that Wal-Mart meet the setback requirements, and that the board had the power to deny a deviation from the rules, just as it had the right to approve a deviation. Wal-Mart argued that board had to accept its plan. The Judge also said that Wal-Mart failed to address all of the reasons for denying its plans. The Board members testified that they believed the design was not "walkable," would create unacceptable noise levels, was not an appropriate design and was not integrated with the surrounding land uses, as required for the zoning. One abutting property owner hired an urban planner who testified that the Wal-Mart site was an inappropriate use for the property. This proposed Wal-Mart supercenter for the northwest side of Gainesville has been stymied for six years now. While waiting to find a piece of property they could build on in the northwest, the retailer went ahead and built a superstore on the poorer east side of the city. But there are two discount stores left in Gainesville, and Wal-Mart is attempting to convert all its discount stores into supercenters. This latest proposal for 35 acres on northwest 34th street is not that far north from its existing discount store on northwest 13th street. So discount store #538 would have been history if this larger supercenter was built. That means the new superstore creates no added value to Gainesville, since most of the 'new' sales would come from the existing store on NW 13th street, and the grocery sales at the superstore will come from existing grocery stores on the west side of the city. This kind of leapfrog development, in which Wal-Mart opens a supercenter and shuts down a discount store, only wastes another 35 acres of land -- which in an urban area is a very precious commodity. The city should be looking for projects that really add new jobs to the bottom line, and not simply transfer existing jobs from other merchants. For this reason, another Wal-Mart superstore will not be politically attractive to Gainesville officials. The two existing Wal-Mart discount stores in Gainesville could be converted into superstores, and Wal-Mart would not need to seek any permits, or hold any hearings. Readers are urged to email Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan at HanrahanP@cityofgainesville.org with the following message: "Dear Mayor Hanrahan, I am delighted to hear that Wal-Mart has lost its latest appeal to build a huge superstore in northwest Gainesville, and I thank you for opposing it. Back in your first term as Mayor, you did the right thing by voting down the Wal-Mart proposal for the Northside Park. Wal-Mart came back again with another proposal that would have resulted in the closure of their existing discount store on NW 13th. This proposal was no better than the one which came forward in 2005 -- and was a wasteful use of 35 acres of much-needed development space. Opening up another supercenter would only cause more existing grocery stores to close, and do little or nothing for your economy. Traffic and crime are the only two things that would go up -- and Gainesville doesn't need more of either. Tell Wal-Mart if they want another superstore in Gainesville, simply to convert their existing discount stores and be done with it."














 
 
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