Manchester, NH. Hannafordís Lawsuit Sends Wal-Mart Back To Planning Board
Two huge superstore chains have collided in New Hampshire, with the result that a proposed Wal-Mart superstore is now stuck in traffic gridlock.
Wal-Mart has 16 discount stores in New Hampshire, and 11 supercenters. Their goal is to convert all their existing discount stores into supercenters, or shut them down.
On June 3, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had drawn a line in the sand for Aldermen in Manchester, New Hampshire, a city of roughly 109,000 people. The corporation told Manchester officials they wanted 15 acres of land rezoned from industrial to commercial, and they wanted it done by June 30, 2009.
City officials ignored the wishes of many neighbors, and in early June, gave Wal-Mart their rezoning. The Aldermen were not required to rezone land for anyone, but when the corporation asked them to jump, they asked, 'How high?' As a result, Wal-Mart has proceeded with plans for a huge, 183,000 s.f. supercenter, which will result in the closing down of their nearby discount store on Keller Street in Manchester.
But there are 3 other Wal-Mart stores within 10 miles of Manchester, including Bedford, Hookset and Derry, New Hampshire. The 82,550 s.f. Wal-Mart in Hookset, built in 1991, is already up for sale. Wal-Mart Realty describes the Hookset location as being "located in the small community of Hooksett New Hampshire, abutting New Hampshire's largest city Manchester. The new Supercenter is relocated to a Super Regional Site only 1.8 miles west but across the Merrimack River."
The new superstore will be located on land on the south side of town on Gold Street. The city's Ward 9 Alderman Michael Garrity, who met with Wal-Mart privately, would not initially identify the size of the superstore that Wal-Mart had in mind. Garrity said Wal-Mart told him that the company would tear down a vacant grocery warehouse on the site, but the Alderman did not mention what would happen to the existing Wal-Mart on Keller Street.
"I think Wal-Mart and McDonald's are the few publicly held companies that are making money in this economy," Garrity told the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper. The site is located near interstate 293, and is close to the city's largest commercial strip area. Wal-Mart has a purchase-sale agreement on the parcel, but does not own it. That explains the company's rush to get the rezoning done -- so they would not lose their option on the land, or have to pay more to hold it.
Wal-Mart mailed a letter to neighbors of the project, telling them that the retailer wanted to build a larger store in Manchester. "The relocated store would follow the model of our new and improved stores, featuring wider aisles and more merchandise, including a full-service grocery store," Wal-Mart wrote. Wider aisles and groceries are the main difference between this superstore and the 107,000 s.f Wal-Mart discount store less than a mile away.
The Manchester store on Keller Street has not yet been listed for sale by Wal-Mart Realty, but if the superstore project rolls forward, the Keller Street building will become a 'ghost box.' Wal-Mart already has one dead store in New Hampshire in the town of Hinsdale, that was eclipsed by a superstore one mile away. For a company that likes to talk about sustainability, Wal-Mart has adopted the most wasteful growth strategy in the history of retailing, shutting down stores that can be less than 10 years old, just to build a larger one across the street or down the road.
In Manchester, residents on Gold Street and surrounding streets were not pleased with the prospect of thousands of new cars on their small streets. Alderman Garrity told the Union-Leader that former Mayor Frank Guinta had been apprised of the Wal-Mart's plan, and asked Garrity to work out any issues with the neighbors. Garrity set up a meeting with 70 or more residents of the neighborhood. Through Garrity, Wal-Mart proposed a makeover of Gold Street that added a traffic light, and put in speed bumps. One neighbor told Garrity, "The majority of the neighbors said the only thing that will work for us is if you dead-end President Road, Sewall and Gold streets so no one will use our street as a short cut. We are not opposing Super Wal-Mart at all, but we do not want the traffic."
But in early June, 2009, they got the traffic. The Board of Alderman vote 8-3 to rezone land on Gold Avenue from industrial to commercial. Neighbors opposed to the project said they felt that streets in the area were too narrow to support this huge store. But Alderman Garrity said Wal-Mart's plan for Gold Street will actually improve the traffic situation on the road, which serves as a shortcut from South Beech Street to South Willow Street. "Are we going to be able to please everybody? Absolutely not," Garrity told the Union-Leader newspaper. "I think this will solve the problem on Gold Street."
Ironically, the empty building which will be torn down is the Associated Grocers warehouse, which has become a relic of the grocery wars that have devastated many local and regional grocery stores in New England. Wal-Mart says it will pay for a Gold Street bypass, which would bypass homes on the eastern end of the street. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the media that the Alderman needed to act because Wal-Mart had a self-imposed deadline of June 30, 2009 to make sure the project could be rezoned. "We're looking forward to working together in partnership with the city," she said.
But opponents of the project remained unconvinced. "They're trying to put 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag," one neighbor said. Another neighbor doubted Wal-Mart's plans to slow traffic on upper Gold Street, which includes granite curbs, bumped out sidewalks, and on-street parking. "If we could have wider streets that would lead people to (stores with) wider aisles, we'd have a win-win situation," he mused. The Wal-Mart spokesman said the company heard loud and clear the neighborhood concerns. "We believe their concerns have been addressed, based on what our traffic expert tells us," she said.
Alderman Dan O'Neil, who was one of three to vote against the rezoning, told the Union Leader, "I think some of this is premature." Wal-Mart's traffic engineers told city leaders that the proposed superstore will dump another 3,500 cars on Manchester roads, and 4,325 cars on a typical Saturday. Especially hard hit will be South Willow street, which will bear 50% of the new car trips.
Manchester Planning board Chairman Michael Landry told the Union-Leader, "People up and down the South Willow Street corridor are going to feel the impact if it's not done properly." In 2007, the existing traffic volume on South Willow Street was 36,000 cars. To influence the Planning Board hearing, Wal-Mart sent out fliers to Manchester residents promoting the store, and urging residents to write a letter to city officials, or attend the hearing. According to the newspaper, Wal-Mart also created an "astro-roots" front group to push its cause: the Manchester Residents for Economic Growth. "As small business owners and taxpayers, we know that this is just the type of economic stimulus needed during these tough economic times," one of the Wal-Mart backed group members told the Union-Leader, reading off her Wal-Mart script. As most neighbors expected, the Planning Board ended up voting for the new superstore, at which point another grocery chain store announced that it would appeal the decision.
A subsidiary of Hannaford's grocery store filed an appeal. Hannaford's operates over 170 grocery stores in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. What began as a family-owned chain is now controlled by Belgium-based Delhaize Group, one of the world's largest food retailers. The battle in Manchester over a Wal-Mart superstore had turned into a legal battle between two superchains.
This week the Manchester Wal-Mart was back in the news, one year and four months after our last entry. The Union-Leader reports that a Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge has reversed the town's decision, and forced the project to return to the Planning Board.
The Court ruled that the Planning Board must reconsider the project's traffic plan that would close a section of Gold Street. The judge wrote in his decision, "Having viewed the area and the maze of roads around it, the court appreciates the complicated nature of traffic patterns in the area surrounding the proposed site and the expected influx of traffic related to the project. As such, the court finds that the Planning Board acted unreasonably by voting to close and keep open a combination of streets for which a traffic impact study was not performed."
Hannaford's charged that the Planning Board did not adhere to city regulations when it approved a different traffic plan from the options presented by Wal-Mart. The retailer ended up showing the Board 4 different options. Hannaford submitted its own traffic study, suggesting that none of Wal-Mart's plans dealt with the added traffic volume the store would generate. The Planning Board rejected all these plans, and came up with one that closed sections of Sewell and Gold Streets. But town zoning regulations require a full traffic impact study to be done. "While a Planning Board is not limited to traffic mitigation plans proposed by an applicant, a Planning Board decision must be reasonable based upon the evidence before it," the judge wrote. "Without a traffic impact study analyzing the impact of the road closures and openings it decided upon, the Planning Board's decision was based on speculation and therefore unreasonable."
The judge also said that the town had failed to give opponents of the project a "sufficient and reasonable opportunity" to comment on the site plan that was approved. After hearing testimony initially, the Board gave opponents the chance to submit letters against the plan, but the public hearing process was closed for months.
What you can do: Now the case will be open again -- but only because of court action. The Board will now be forced to conduct a study of the traffic impact of its preferred plan. Hannaford's has the financial resources to keep this case tied up in legal knots.
The neighbors fighting this project in Manchester are poorly organized, and have insisted only on traffic reforms. The fact is, the land being used for this site was not properly zoned, and everyone who bought a home in the Gold Street neighborhood, did so on the reliance that they were moving into a residential neighborhood, not a super mall traffic jam. The land was zoned industrial, which meant that more houses were not going to be built there.
But a huge traffic collector was certainly not what real estate agents told potential homebuyers. Wal-Mart has used its corporate money to 'buy' citizen testimony, and has used its experts to present the case for promoting an out-of-scale project abutting residential homes. Wal-Mart is systematically going through its portfolio of stores in New England, and other regions, and either shutting down or expanding its discount stores.
In nearby Hookset, New Hampshire, Wal-Mart will be shutting down its discount store on Route 3 to open up a new superstore a few miles away on Route 3A. The retailer has been struggling in New Hampshire for several years. It had to shrink the Hookset store almost in half, pulled out of superstore plans in Derry and Hillsborough, and lost a rezoning vote in Plaistow by 80%. As in Manchester, the Wal-Mart project in Derry would have placed a superstore close-by an existing Wal-Mart discount store. But the Derry superstore imploded, and Wal-Mart was left with its 114,000 s.f. discount store.
Readers are urged to go to the Manchester Mayor's email page on the city website, at: http://www.manchesternh.gov/website/MayorandAldermen/MayorsOffice/ContacttheMayor/tabid/878/Default.aspx and leave this message for Mayor Ted Gatsas:
"Dear Mayor Gatsas, If you count the current Wal-Mart discount store on Keller Street, your city has 4 Wal-Marts within ten miles. Wal-Mart wants to replace all those discount stores -- many of which were built in the 1990s, and close them, as they did in Hookset, and as they tried to do in Derry and Plaistow.
A number of New Hampshire communities have said 'No' to these frivolous plans to build across the street or down the road from an existing Wal-Mart. Your city, like Hinsdale, New Hampshire, will soon be dealing with an empty Wal-Mart. This superstore does not add value economically to your city, because its sales will largely come from sales at other existing merchants -- especially the grocery stores. These 'transferred' sales do not represent economic growth.
The hardest hit will be the existing Wal-Mart on Keller Street, which will close. All the change from a discount store to a grocery store in Manchester means is that Wal-Mart will gain more food market share, and a couple of other grocers will close. This is not economic development -- it's economic displacement.
The vote by the Aldermen in June, 2009 to rezone land for one corporation was bad land use policy, and bad economic policy. The only increases you will see from this are in traffic and crime. If you don't get Wal-Mart to pay for the demolition of their 'old' store, it's going to fall on taxpayers to do it. The net change in jobs and property tax revenues will be almost a wash, once you factor in other grocery stores that close.
Other states fight over these projects for the sales taxes -- but New Hampshire has no sales tax, so all you get is the net change in property value. Manchester is adding to the bottom line of sprawl in the city. Wider aisles, wider roads -- Manchester is on the wide road to nowhere.
Now that Hannaford's has forced this case back to the town for reconsideration, you should ask the Planning Board to have Wal-Mart underwrite the cost of an independent traffic study -- not one produced by Wal-Mart's hired staff. Let the city pick the traffic engineer, and get an unbiased review of what this project really means to Gold Street and South Willow.
This kind of leap frog development is environmentally wasteful, and economically without value. It's time for Manchester to lead growth, instead of follow it. The first thing you should do is ask Wal-Mart to present plans to reconfigure their existing into a superstore, as an alternative to this new proposal."