Salt Lake City, UT. Smaller Wal-Mart Superstore Still Gets Rejected
Even a smaller Wal-Mart superstore can't find support in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Planning Commission on February 9th voted 6-1 not to rezone land for the giant retailer, leaving plans for a 92,000 s.f. superstore up in the air. Wal-Mart thought that by reducing their store from 122,320 s.f. that it might be more palatable. They found out this past week that they were wrong.
This proposed superstore, located in the historic Sugar House section of east bench Salt Lake City, drew a bitter response from neighbors as soon as it became public. This story began on July 29, 2008, when Sprawl-Busters indicated that Wal-Mart wanted to build a 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 in 2005.
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. One year after Wal-Mart bought the property, the city voted to prohibit superstores in the 'community business' zone. The developer, CLC Associates, had to seek the approval of the city's Planning Commission and City Council.
Sugar House residents said the 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.
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."
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."
After being rejected, Wal-Mart announced that they were going do an 'in-box conversion' and move into the old Kmart footprint on E. 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. It appeared as if the Wal-Mart story in Sugar House was over.
But at 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.
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.
One City Councilor spoke 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.' "
This past week, Wal-Mart lost a second time. The company turned out a bunch of its supporters wearing blue and yellow T-shirts which read: "Rezone Yes" on the front. Like a candidate running for office, "Citizen" Wal-Mart resorted to community organizing to try and get out its supporters. It didn't matter.
"If there is a use that is nonconforming, the idea is we want it to go away," one Commissioner said about the existing the Kmart. "Who cares if there's a pretty building. It's not about a new store."
Other Commissioner's complained that Wal-Mart's design was a "suburban model" of development in an urban area, and that Wal-Mart had "undermined" neighborhoods across the country for the past 50 years. "The developers make a big mistake in thinking they can do whatever they want with a piece of land," the Councilor added. "The land really belongs to the people. That community does not want a big box."
All Wal-Mart could say after the rejection was, "We'll evaluate what our next steps are."
What you can do: Wal-Mart could go back to Plan B and retrofit the existing Kmart. The company call also appeal the Planning Commission vote to the City Council -- but they need 4 members of the Council to vote to put this issue on the agenda -- and the Council has already voted against this project once.
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, 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.
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.
Before the Salt Lake City vote in 2008 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."
Readers are urged to email the Salt Lake City Council at: firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"The City Council did the right thing in 2008 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.
Wal-Mart returned with a "condensed" version, and its has been rejected by the Planning Commission. I urge the Council to back your Commission once again, and tell Wal-Mart for the second time that their suburban sprawl store makes no sense on E. Parleys Way, and that they should sell their land to someone who will build a project that fits into the area's Master Plan.
It's time for Wal-Mart to give the community what it wants: a walkable, mixed use development."