Wal-Mart woes not unique

Monday, September 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Once considered the savior of small towns by pumping in tax dollars and employing residents, the world's largest retailer is often seen as an ugly force to be reckoned with.

And Arlington - like other cities in the United States, Canada, England and Germany - finds itself torn between the desire to preserve livable neighborhoods and the need to expand its tax base.

On Tuesday, Arlington City Council members will conduct a public hearing on a zoning case involving a 208,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store in southwest Arlington near Interstate 20 and U.S. Highway 287.

More than 800 residents have signed petitions or written letters in opposition to the case.

"They're shoving it down our throat," said Lorayne Roberds, who opposes building a Wal-Mart Supercenter moving near her southwest Arlington neighborhood.

Corporate officials could not be reached for comment, but local Wal-Mart representatives say the company has gone the extra mile to address residents' concerns.

"This suggestion that Wal-Mart doesn't work with anyone is absurd," said Frank Gilstrap, a local attorney representing landowners of the Wal-Mart site.

"I can't respond to how they work nationally, but as far as this case goes, Wal-Mart has met with anyone who will talk to them."

Council members must consider a change in a zoning case that would turn 3.5 acres of land from residential to retail use and preserve 4.8 acres as a no-build zone.

The site straddles the Arlington-Kennedale border. Wal-Mart officials plan to use the Kennedale portion to construct the store's parking lot.

Last month the Bentonville, Ark.-based company sent a letter to city officials outlining nearly 60 concessions they would make to meet the concerns of residents.

Those conditions include improvements to the building's architecture, landscaping, signage and security.

In addition, the letter outlines a plan for the store manager to routinely meet with Southwest Sector Committee members, residents of nearby neighborhoods and apartments to discuss any problems the community may have with the store's operations.

"It is our hope that this good faith document illustrates Wal-Mart's efforts to be a good corporate citizen," wrote Tim Scott, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. real estate manager.

The concessions were enough to garner the approval of members of the council-appointed Southwest Sector Committee and members of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Dan Fernandez, chairman of Arlington's Planning and Zoning Commission, said this issue has shifted from zoning to politics.

"This thing has gotten politically charged," he said. "When someone wants to come in and build on land, you can't discriminate against the user, just the use. This property fits Wal-Mart's use."

But residents say the fact that the store is so large and will generate excessive traffic in the area remains problematic.

"It's just too close to a neighborhood," Ms. Roberds said. "I don't want it here."

Like most area residents, Ms. Roberds said she's not anti-Wal-Mart. She regularly shops at the retailer, but pledges not to patronize the new store.

"I shop at the Wal-Mart on Cooper [Street] and on Eastchase [Parkway]. I won't shop here," she vowed.

Council members will not decide on the zoning ordinance until after the public hearing. But all have indicated it will be a tight vote.

"I see it going 5-4 either way," council member Ron Wright said.

Cities up in arms

In the Arlington-D/FW area alone, at least six other cities have battled Wal-Mart just this year.

The most talked-about case centered around Plano residents' objections to a 113,000 square-foot store that would sit on 15.3 acres.

Like in Arlington, Plano's argument focused on the amount of traffic the store would generate and the safety of children who cross the intersection en route to school. Others objected to the size of the proposed building and its proximity to other Wal-Mart stores.

The protest resulted in new rules for large retail stores near residential areas. Wal-Mart also agreed to scale down the store to 43,000 square feet.

At the time of the change, Wal-Mart spokesman Nef Garcia said: "Our first concern here was how to be a good neighbor when you're literally in the back yards of your customers."

Colleyville residents who live near a proposed Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market grocery store objected to the plans because it did not fit the city's upscale image. Council members objected by a 3-2 vote in July to plans for a shopping center anchored by a 41,631-square-foot store.

Developers of a Wal-Mart grocery store recently cut off negotiations with Rockwall city officials and shifted to a less desirable plan that doesn't need City Council approval.

Officials with the Stainback Organization sent a letter to city leaders saying they were withdrawing their request for a zoning change that could put numerous restrictions on the project.

Such stories are not limited to North Texas. Residents across the nation have fought Wal-Mart as far back as 1993. That's when the company began moving away from constructing their traditional smaller retail stores. Instead, Wal-Mart got into the grocery business and created the supercenter.

"We reject the size of a Wal-Mart that is the size of three or four football fields," said Al Norman, a Massachusetts resident who has helped communities fight the company. Some have been successful, but others haven't.

In Acworth, Ga., a community outside Atlanta, council members ignored residents' opposition in July and approved a rezoning case for a Wal-Mart Superstore about 35 yards from homes. The same action was taken by council members in Aurora, Colo., in May.

But City Council members in Westerville, Ohio, voted 7-0 earlier this month against a 212,000-square-foot supercenter, citing that it was too large for the 27-acre site. And in Connecticut, city leaders in Granby opposed zoning changes for a 155,000-square-foot superstore in December.

American dream

The story of Wal-Mart is the stuff of legends. In 1945, a poor young man named Sam Walton opened a variety store in rural Arkansas that became the largest retail operation in the United States.

Upon his death in 1992, Mr. Walton left his family a fortune estimated at $23.5 billion. That same year Wal-Mart Stores attained net sales of $43.9 billion and had 1,720 Wal-Mart units operating in 39 states.

Today, more than 100 million customers shop at Wal-Mart each week. It is the biggest private-sector employer in North America and one of the most dominant and influential corporations anywhere, company analysts have said.

Some have said that Mr. Walton was a workaholic obsessed with his stores. He established the ruthlessly efficient strategy that enabled Wal-Mart to surpass Sears, outsmart Kmart and drive out small-town, locally owned stores.

Council member Pat Remington, a land-use attorney by profession, has never represented a Wal-Mart case but has heard the stories of opposition to Wal-Mart stores.

"Smaller communities resist because it destroys their mom-and-pop stores, and larger cities just don't like big-box retailers," he said.

Building resistance

Mr. Norman went into battle against Wal-Mart when the company wanted to build a supercenter in his community.

At the time, Greenfield, Mass., located two hours west of Boston, was a rural community of 18,000 residents.

Wal-Mart wanted city officials to rezone some land on the edge of town to build a store there. Mr. Norman and many of the residents successfully launched a voter campaign in October 1993 that defeated the change.

Since then, Mr. Norman has created a Web site (www.sprawl-busters.com) dedicated to helping communities succeed in keeping out such big-box retailers and preserving their community's land-use desires.

He also wrote the book, ITALSlam-Dunking Wal-Mart: How You Can Stop Superstore Sprawl in Your Hometown.

Much of Mr. Norman's research centers on abandoned Wal-Mart stores that are vacated once the company opens a new supercenter within the community or pulls out of a town altogether.

That is one concern of many Arlington residents. A Wal-Mart already exists on South Cooper Street, just a few miles from the proposed superstore.

Nationally, there are more than 300 abandoned Wal-Mart sites, Mr. Norman said.

"Texas has the largest number of dead stores behind California," he said. "They are the largest real estate broker of dead space, and Texas is the cemetery for Wal-Mart stores."

Still, the fight most communities have today is over the mammoth shops being constructed so close to residential areas.

"When commercial property is so out of scale that it harms the other property around it, why do it?" Mr. Norman asked. "They are blind to the impact they have on anybody else. But through zoning cities can limit the size and bulk of such projects to prevent this.

"America is so fixated on cheap underwear that the dimensions of community is no larger than their shopping cart."

Still, that is not the case in Arlington, Mr. Fernandez said. The proposed store wouldn't even go against the big-box ordinance the city is considering at this time.

As far as he's concerned, residents should accept the fact that Wal-Mart is going to locate at the site, and they would be best served to work with the retailer.

"I didn't look at the letter Wal-Mart sent until after we approved the zoning change," Mr. Fernandez said. "I did look at it afterward, and they are doing a lot of stuff they don't have to. The company is trying to make this an easy transition."