Tucson, AZ. Historic Neighborhood Prepares Legal Case To Block Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart's efforts to push its way into an historic Tucson, Arizona neighborhood is leading them to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting.
According to Inside Tucson Business this week, the El Encanto Estates Homeowners Association plans to legally challenge Wal-Mart's proposal to build a superstore in a mall abutting the neighborhood at the site of an empty Macy's department store. The Macy's store shut down in 2008.
The retailer has eight stores located within Tucson, including 4 of its smaller Neighborhood Markets, two discount stores, plus a superststore on North Valencia Road and a second superstore on LaCholla Boulevard. Tucson is saturated with sprawling big boxes -- but the company has been fixated on one location it wants for more than a decade.
For more than 11 years, Wal-Mart has been trying to squeeze its way into the El Con Mall in Tucson. On June 28, 1999, Sprawl-Busters reported from Tucson that Wal-Mart wanted to build a superstore, along with a Home Depot and a 20 screen theater complex. Neighbors in the abutting El Encanto neighborhood -- which is on the national historic registry -- forcefully opposed the over-sized plan.
Within two months of Wal-Mart's appearance, the Tucson City Council voted unanimously to ask the City Manager to write an ordinance banning the construction of big box retail stores of 100,000 s.f. or more, and to limit outdoor activities at retail stores. One city councilman said at the time the new ordinance was aimed at making sure that the city didn't lose its sense of "community identity and sense of place."
On September 15, 1999, Wal-Mart saw the writing on Tucson's WAL, and pulled out of the project. Within two weeks of Wal-Mart's withdrawal, Tucson had passed its new ordinance, which took effect October 27, 1999. The ordinance only required developers of stores over 100,000 s.f. to file plans with the city addressing standards for such commonplace zoning issues as noise, traffic, lights and hours of operation.
The new law also required a public hearing before a zoning examiner, with the final decision resting with the Mayor and City Council. The Tucson ordinance also limited non-taxable grocery items to no more than 10% of a superstore's floor space.
Home Depot stayed in the fray throughout, and today there is a Home Depot store -- and a Target -- in the El Con mall where Wal-Mart now wants to build.
Despite its departure in 1999, Wal-Mart did not give up on locating in the El Con. In 2003, the giant retailer tried -- and failed -- to get the courts in Arizona to overturn the "big box" law in Tucson, Arizona. Sprawl-Busters reported on September 28, 2003, that a judge in the Pima County, Arizona Superior Court had tossed out a lawsuit filed by Wal-Mart against Tucson's big box law.
Ten years after its El Con defeat, Wal-Mart reappeared in an article by the Arizona Daily Star. The newspaper revealed that Wal-Mart was turning its attention to smaller superstores as a way to come in below the size cap in Tucson. The giant retailer had proposed a 91,000 s.f. store at the corner of Golf Links and Houghton Roads. "It's a grocery store," a Wal-Mart spokesperson said. "General merchandise and grocery to provide that value and convenience to our Tucson customers." Apparently Wal-Mart was reluctant to use the term "supercenter" for this new format, and instead described the smaller version as "more of a really localized neighborhood kind of shopping experience." Their store will fit into the Macy's footprint -- but instead of 3 stories, the Wal-Mart will only have one floor. If the retailer had build a 3 story building, the footprint could have been reduced by two-thirds.
Wal-Mart told the Daily Star that several other sites in Tucson were also still on the company's radar: the corner of Valencia and Alvernon and El Con Mall. "There is a lot of speculation about El Con. We would be interested in serving that community."
On May 31, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had officially announced that it wanted to build a 102,000 s.f. superstore in the west end of the El Con Mall, building a new store about the same size as the closed three-story Macy's store at the mall. One of the provisions in the 1999 Tucson big box law specifically dealt with El Con. It allows a new store to be built if it fits into an existing footprint.
Wal-Mart hoped to have the project open for business by the middle of 2012. "El Con Mall is an area that's been looking to revitalize and we have a chance now to make that happen," a Wal-Mart spokesperson told the Arizona Daily Star.
The city's Planning Administrator has already told the media that if the store fits into the Macy's footprint, it will not require approval by the city council -- despite the fact that the Wal-Mart will generate significantly higher traffic and crime than Macy's ever did.
Wal-Mart promised the city that their new store will 'create' 250 new jobs. "It's big news for Tucson," the Wal-Mart spokesman told Inside Tucson Business last spring. "We'll be bringing jobs and sales tax revenue that the city sorely needs. A number of our customers are currently driving from mid-town to our stores outside the city limits," the retailer said.
The Macy's building is 22 years old. It was built around the same time as Richard Nixon was elected President. As retail buildings go, the Macy's building still has plenty of life remaining in it, and its has the advantage of being three stories, which means more square footage of selling space than a one-story Wal-Mart. The Macy's building is more appropriate for an urban area, while a one-store big box is more of a suburban model. The El Con is being transformed into a land-consumptive big box power center, surrounded by several historic neighborhoods.
The local residents planning a legal challenge say the mall had a development agreement with the City in 2000 -- but it has now expired, and the group wants the city to treat the Wal-Mar proposal as a new application, subject to public hearing. They have retained a Tucson law firm, and notified the city council that according to state law the agreement with the El Con expired three years ago.
"Our goal is to totally stop Wal-Mart," a spokesman for the El Encanto Association told Inside Tucson Business. "Our issues are the closeness to our neighborhood. Wal-Mart will be open 24/7, Wal-Mart sells alcohol. Wal-Mart brings crime. Wal-Mart does not stand for economic job growth."
City officials contend that the El Con agreement holds in force until the year 2020, and the city's lawyer has ruled that the agreement is still valid. Wal-Mart has indicated that the agreement is still valid, and the company has the right to build. The retailer said it will be filing a proposal with the city next week.
What you can do: This week Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke told the Associated Press, "I think we have improved and changed who we are in many ways. I think we are more desirable to come to a community. ... I think we've done a better job of communicating about the jobs that we create and the opportunity that we create in the area of jobs. I think we've done a better job of communicating about the jobs that we create and the opportunity that we create in the area of jobs."
Wal-Mart's latest plan to shrink their store to get into Tucson is a victory for citizen activists who fought to get the size cap ordinance passed in the first place. But Wal-Mart has built and abandoned some stores after less than ten years -- so what they build today in Tucson could be dark within a decade, and the fact remains that this new project will be very dissimilar to Macy's. The world's largest retail discounter will bring increased traffic and crime that will leave city planner's flat-footed unless they plan now for the true impact of this store.
Readers are urged to email Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup at: email@example.com with the following message: "Dear Mayor Walkup, Wal-Mart and Macy's are not the same store. The footprint might total the same, but are you prepared for the increase in crime and traffic that this addition will bring to El Con?
In terms of design, it would be better to urge Wal-Mart to build a three-story building with 33,000 s.f. per floor, and to incorporate many of the historic building elements found in the El Encanto neighborhood and other historic neighborhoods abutting this mall.
What Tucson has done is create a suburban big box power center in the middle of historic city neighborhoods. Retail areas should have thematic connectivity to the homes that surround them.
You might also insist on operating hours that require this store to close by 11 pm, and not open before 8 am, with no overnight deliveries. Wal-Mart should also be required to sign a demolition bond, so that if they abandon this store and leave it empty for 12 consecutive months, they have to tear it down at their expense.
I certainly hope you will not repeat the voodoo economics from Wal-Mart that somehow this store will create 250 new jobs. In fact, this project adds no value to the mid-town economy, since most of its sales will come from existing merchants -- including some already located at El Con. You will gain some 'dark stores' from this oversaturation of big box retail.
This kind of suburban, big box power center is so out of character with the surrounding land uses, that one has to wonder when will Tucson grasp that the quality of life and character of a neighborhood is more important than access to cheap Chinese products?
Wal-Mart knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. This seems to be the reining philosophy at the Tucson City Council as well. The El Encanto neighborhood is right to begin a legal challenge against the El Con Wal-Mart.
If you don't protect the value of their homes, it is left for them to do.
Tucson should not spend one penny of legal expense in this case. Let Wal-Mart foot the entire legal bill for defending a permit that will bring them millions of dollars in new sales."