Salt Lake City, UT. Wal-Mart Accused of Trying to Bribe Local Residents
In October of 2009, Eduardo Castro-Wright, then Wal-Mart's vice chairman of U.S, stores, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "The writing is on the wall, we are going to smaller stores." Residents in Salt Lake City are learning first-hand how that statement plays out. Residents charged this week that Wal-Mart is trying to bribe some of them with cash payments.
On August 31, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that after more than two years of battles, Wal-Mart unveiled a new "condensed" superstore plan for a neighborhood in Salt Lake City that doesn't want superstores.
This story began on July 29, 2008, when Sprawl-Busters indicated that Wal-Mart wanted to build a 122,320 s.f. supercenter in the heart of the Sugar House neighborhood, but first it planned to tear down an empty 113,000 s.f. Kmart it bought several years ago. The city's zoning ordinance says the existing building can be remodeled -- but not torn down.
In 2005, Salt Lake City passed a zoning amendment that prohibits supercenters from 'community business' areas, which now requires Wal-Mart to change the zoning on the Kmart property -- a parcel that Wal-Mart bought five years ago.
Wal-Mart asked for a rezoning of the property -- and tried to sweeten the deal by offering a landscaping package, "green" features on the building, new sidewalks and other site amenities. But an advisory group to the council, known as the Sugar House Community Council, opposed the rezoning, claiming that a previous owner of the parcel on E. Parleys Way agreed to the current zoning rules in exchange for zoning flexibility on another piece of property.
"I don't care what the business is, whether it's Wal-Mart or Kmart or Target or any other business. The thing I'm concerned about is that it stays with the current zoning, with the current types of businesses" in the area, a Sugar House Community Council spokesman said.
Kmart, which has been at this location for 40 years, is shutting down. Wal-Mart bought the property in 2005, but less than a year later, the city voted to prohibit superstores in the 'community business' zone. The developer, CLC Associates, must seek the approval of the city's Planning Commission and City Council.
Sugar House residents said current zoning was designed to keep businesses small and neighborhood-serving. "The problem with Wal-Mart is Wal-Mart is a regional store," one member of the community council said. "Adding more traffic to these intersections that barely make it would be a disaster," said a representative from the Foothill Development Watch citizen's group.
During one of the Planning Commission sessions on this project, one resident asked, "Do they want to build green for the community or do they want the green for their pockets?"
If they don't get the rezoning, Wal-Mart warned, they would simply move into the existing Kmart store, which they described as a "40-year-old technology."
The Planning Commission had some pointed words for Wal-Mart. "They may want to think about flattening the hierarchy and listening to the members of the community," one Commissioner stated.
In July of 2008, sensing that the Sugar House deal was going sour, Wal-Mart turned its public relations machine into high gear. The retailer sent out an estimated 36,000 fliers with a return postcard that residents were asked to send to The Summit Group, a local public-relations firm, voicing support for the supercenter.
But a variety of neighborhood groups, including The Sugar House, East Bench, Greater Avenues, Bonneville Hills, Wasatch Hollow, Sunnyside East and Yalecrest community councils, all voted to oppose the rezoning, which was not consistent with the East Bench master plan.
On September 6, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the city's planners gave a "qualified yes" to amend the neighborhood's master plan and approve a zoning change for the convenience of Wal-Mart.
The city's new economic-development director argued that rezoning gave the city more control over the store design. But Robert Forbis, a planning commissioner, remained concerned about the impact Wal-Mart would have on other businesses in the Foothill corridor. "Do we really need another Wal-Mart in such close proximity to the one on 300 West? These people are not thinking long term."
But on September 10, 2008, the Planning Commission, on a unanimous vote, recommended a No vote for a zoning change. The City Council got the final vote, and rejected the rezoning also. "This is great grassroots democracy," said Planning Commissioner Tim Chambless. "I'm just very, very pleased to see it."
On April 28, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents of the Sugar House community of Salt Lake City were savoring a victory over a larger Wal-Mart superstore -- but the deal wasn't quite over. The city's Planning Commission had voted down a Wal-Mart superstore. "We're psyched," said Jill Burke, with Foothill Development Watch. "That shows you the role community councils play."
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Wal-Mart had officially abandoned plans to build a supercenter, and instead -- as they warned -- were going do an 'in-box conversion' and move into the old Kmart footprint on Parleys Way. "As a result of the decision to remodel the existing building, we have withdrawn our application requesting a rezone of the property," Wal-Mart said in a prepared statement. City officials approved the architectural plans, and city staff said the project just needed a pro forma building permit.
One opponent of the superstore said remodeling the existing Kmart "can help keep this more of a neighborhood. We want to see more neighborhood businesses, not giant big box stores."
It appeared as if the Wal-Mart story in Sugar House was over, and the Kmart would be renovated, but by the end of August, 2010, the story took yet another twist. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Wal-Mart was "back with something smaller." The retailer submitted plans for a "slimmer big box." They took off the garden center and the tire and lube center, and dropped the square footage down to "a condensed 92,000 s.f. store," according to the newspaper.
Wal-Mart now needs city approval again to tear down the Kmart building. The city's Planning Division is now reviewing a rezoning request, and an amendment to the city's Master Plan.
A spokesman for Wal-Mart told the Tribune, "We sensed that there was a degree of disappointment in the  outcome, that there was a better outcome than a remodeled store. We've really spent the last nine months listening to and researching what the folks said. We did some polling in the spring to see if reducing the building size would really matter to the community. We discovered that it does."
The company is also noting that a smaller store will reduce the level of traffic at the site by 24% during peak p.m. hours and by 19% overall. The 'smaller' superstore will still have a full-line grocery, pharmacy and general merchandise.
But the 'smaller' store will not win over any support from the Sugar House Community Council. A spokesman for the group said Wal-Mart's change of mind on the Kmart site would generate a "firestorm" of opposition. "Right now, it's zoned in a way that can have a walkable development. I'd love to see some housing and shopping in that area. To have a suburban-type development in that spot is just the wrong place."
One City Councilor has already spoken out against the smaller version. "I don't see that it's substantially different," Soren Simonsen told the Tribune. "What they're giving us here is the same stuff they've given every other community. It's not innovative. And they're certainly not trying to support what this community has said continually, and with a fairly loud voice, which is, 'We don't want a big box.' "
"How on earth is it sustainable to tear down a building that is only 30 or 40 years old to build a similar building that won't be adaptive to the next user," Simonsen added. "I'd like to take them at their word, but I don't think what they're giving us is what they talk about as a corporation."
This week Wal-Mart 'condensed' store was in the headlines again. The retailer told the Tribune that its smaller store has removed scale, sustainability and aesthetics as issues still in contention. The store is 23% smaller than originally proposed, and will reduce traffic impacts by 19%. "My sense is the community is open," a Wal-Mart spokesman said. "They're recognizing this is a significantly different proposal."
Wal-Mart says that remodeling an "old" Kmart is not as useful as building a new structure. "We believe we can do better -- and that begins with a smaller store."
But the retailer had to answer new questions this week raised by residents who were invited to 'focus groups' by Wal-Mart, and paid cash for their participation. One resident claims a PR firm invited her to a focus group, and the 11 other members of her group were all given $60 in cash, while Wal-Mart representatives videotaped the session from behind two-way mirrors. "The questions they were asking were so biased," one resident told the Tribune.. "The $60 bucks didn't buy my vote." Wal-Mart said the focus group payments are common, and the groups were set up by their pollster.
In response to neighbors' concerns that some day Wal-Mart will leave this building and put deed restrictions to keep any competitors from reusing the building, Wal-Mart said, "It's not in our interest to keep that vacant. It ties up our capital." But these kinds of deed restrictions have been used by Wal-Mart elsewhere, and the concern is therefore legitimate.
The next step -- a rezoning petition for the Kmart building -- will not come before the city's Planning Commission until February. Once the Commission has heard from the developer and from the public, a decision will be made -- but the rezoning will ultimately be a decision made by the Salt Lake City Council.
What you can do: Wal-Mart already has a discount store on West Hope Avenue in Salt Lake City, so there is no dramatic need for more of the same. This project will largely draw sales from existing merchants.
During the hearing process, a Wal-Mart spokeswomen said she was surprised that more people supporting Wal-Mart did not come out to the hearing. Wal-Mart had offered a "green" store, but Commissioners were not impressed, and did not believe a rezoning of the land was necessary. "From an environmental standpoint, I think we need to send a message to the City Council and the mayor," said Commissioner Peggy McDonough.
Wal-Mart owns the property, and could remodel it, or sell it and walk away -- which is what local residents want. Many Sugar House residents dislike Wal-Mart precisely because of what it will do to the community.
Sugar House, a very distinctive neighborhood in the larger city, is clearly not an appropriate place for a huge, suburban, single story building. The old Kmart was bad enough -- and ironically that store was killed off by the same company that now wants to move in. The two stores are almost the same size.
In 2004, Wal-Mart and Home Depot bought a bunch of Kmart properties. Home Depot has gotten into deep trouble trying to tear down Kmarts in the Los Angeles, California neighborhood of Sunland-Tujunga, and in the Miami, Florida neighborhood of Coconut Grove. Miami residents forced Home Depot to reuse the existing Kmart building. In Brattleboro, Vermont, Home Depot was forced to reuse an empty Kmart, and in 2009 shut the store down because of lagging sales.
Before the Salt Lake City vote to oppose rezoning, Wal-Mart had predicted, "If we are turned down on the rezone application, we certainly will operate out of the existing building. Unfortunately the existing building is a pretty aged building. Quite frankly, we would like to make a building that not only meets the needs of shoppers, but is visually appealing as well." The company told the city that if they are forced to go into the existing Kmart building, they would not spend money on landscaping or the parking lot.
Readers are urged to email the Salt Lake City Council at: apps.slcgov.com/general/absolutefp/CouncilAll.htm with this message:
"You did the right thing when you turned down the Wal-Mart rezoning. Many Sugar House residents will be disappointed that the Kmart property was not torn down, and the site used for smaller scale, neighborhood -- based retail. The closure of the Kmart site would have given Salt Lake City an opportunity to reinvent the site for something other than suburban sprawl.
The traffic congestion under current background conditions is already at a failing level. This reuse project, even inside the existing Kmart footprint, is going to generate a lot more traffic than the old Kmart. The smaller Wal-Mart gets, the better. But this project adds no economic value to the city, because you already have an existing Wal-Mart nearby.
Now that Wal-Mart has returned with a "condensed" version, the City Council has the chance to reject the rezoning and Master Plan amendment once again, and ask Wal-Mart to consider selling the property to a developer who will give the community what it wants: a walkable, mixed use development."