Manchester, NH. Alderman Calls Wal-Mart Plan “A Disaster”
Residents in Manchester, New Hampshire are going to the November 30th Planning Board hearing dressed in yellow -- a sign of their solidarity against Wal-Mart. The giant retailer's plans to shut down an existing store to move it a few blocks away to a larger location, has been called "a disaster" by one city elected official.
On October 8, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that two big box chain stores were engaged in a legal battle in Manchester. One of them is Wal-Mart, which already has 16 discount stores in New Hampshire, and 11 supercenters. The retailer's goal is to convert all their existing discount stores into supercenters, or shut them down. On June 3, 2009, we 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 they gave Wal-Mart what they needed to file for a huge, 183,000 s.f. supercenter, which will result in the closing down of their nearby Wal-Mart discount store on Keller Street in Manchester.
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."
But after the rezoning was done, the rest of the journey has been tortuous for Wal-Mart. The Manchester superstore is slated for land on the south side of town on Gold Street. The city's Ward 9 Alderman Michael Garrity told the Union-Leader newspaper that "Wal-Mart and McDonald's are the few publicly held companies that are making money in this economy." 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. Wal-Mart proposed a makeover of Gold Street that added a traffic light, and put in speed bumps. One neighbor told the media, "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."
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. But opponents of the project remained unconvinced. "They're trying to put 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag," one neighbor said.
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. But at this point, the entire dynamics of the case changed -- and it was not Wal-Mart fight a small band of local residents. Another corporate player jumped into the fray.
A subsidiary of Hannaford's grocery store filed an appeal against the rezoning. 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.
In October of 2010, a Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge 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.
This week, the Union-Leader reports that anti-Wal-Mart residents are still determined to change Wal-Mart's plans. The neighbors are organizing rides to the next Planning Board meeting on November 30th, and will all be wearing yellow to show the united opposition to the project. The Union-Leader described the neighbors as "re-energized," and the tally of 150 residents at the strategy hearing reflects that renewed interest.
According to WMUR Radio, one of the organizers of the neighbor's group is Barbara Shaw, a member of Manchester's Board of Aldermen. Shaw organized Monday's meeting to get organized for the next planning board meeting at the end of the month. "This isn't a vendetta against Wal-Mart," Shaw told the newspaper. "It's a vendetta against them relocating to an area that's a disaster for everyone involved." "I am not opposed to Wal-Mart," she told the radio station. "I am opposed to the relocation of Wal-Mart because it is going to be a major impact -- not only on the residents, the businesses, the traffic -- it's going to affect everyone in this city."
Some neighbors are suggesting that Wal-Mart should simply expand its existing store instead of pursuing its latest plan. A Wal-Mart spokesman responded: "We look forward to presenting our traffic study to the board and to continue our public dialog. The judge remanded the project back to the planning board for further consideration of a traffic study and to allow for additional public input. We look forward to presenting our traffic study to the Board."
What you can do: Now Wal-Mart's latest traffic plan will be studied at the end of this month -- but only because of court action. The retailer now has a city Alderman working against them as well. Hannaford's has the financial resources to keep this case tied up in legal knots.
The neighbors fighting this project in Manchester 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 call Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw at (603) 626-4681 with the following message:
"Alderman Shaw, Thank you for standing up for the property rights of the neighbors who are fighting the Wal-Mart project. 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 if this project is approved.
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.
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. The first thing you should do at the November 30th meeting is ask Wal-Mart to present plans to reconfigure their existing into a superstore, as an alternative to this new proposal.
You are right: this location is a disaster, and there are more reasonable alternatives that involve no new construction, and no rezoning."