On April 22, 2009, the Brooklyn, Connecticut Planning and Zoning Commission will continue its public hearing on a Wal-Mart superstore application at the Brooklyn Middle School. This controversial project has set neighbor against neighbor, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and rancor in this small community. On March 19, 2009, the town’s Inland/Wetland Commission voted 5-0 to approve the Wal-Mart superstore. Roughly one month earlier, on February 22nd, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was busy denying rumors of a ‘secret’ deal with town officials in Brooklyn, while at the same time trying to deal with criticisms of its ‘big box’ design for Route 6. On October 26, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart wanted to build a 162,000 s.f. superstore on 25.6 acres in Brooklyn. This town of roughly 7,900 people describes itself as “a town in flux.” Many residents were stunned by the news that Wal-Mart wanted to come to this “quiet corner” of the state. Town officials like to boast that Brooklyn has “a rural look,” but with “a modern day commerce center” on Route 6, close to Route 395. At the center of the controversy was Town First Selectman Roger Engle, who apparently was present at one or two private meetings with the Wal-Mart corporation without the knowledge of townspeople. Residents who contacted Sprawl-Busters charged that Engle was telling citizens that the Wal-Mart was a ‘done deal,’ because the land in question was commercially zoned. Some charged that Engle harbored plans to further develop Route 6. One resident wrote: “Many people of our town are quite concerned and town officials deny any rumors, but did indicate that there is nothing they can do about it, if it was the case.” An anonymous flyer was sent out in October regarding a potential Wal-Mart. On February 6th, Wal-Mart’s regional public affairs manager submitted an unusual letter to the editor in the Norwich Bulletin. “Since announcing Wal-Mart’s plans for Brooklyn, letters to the editor have appeared citing concerns and negative views,” Wal-Mart wrote. “Often the truth and the benefits are overshadowed by rumors and misinformation. We met with the town and announced our plans Oct. 20. There was no confidentiality agreement between Wal-Mart and the town before this time. On Nov. 19, we hosted an open house to share our plans, answer questions and receive input from residents. Suggestions and concerns were integrated into our plans. Brooklyn was selected as a town that could benefit from the economic impact and convenience of a new store.” The letter from Wal-Mart goes on to claim, without substantiation, “Home values will not be affected. The store is in a commercially developed area, and the ‘difference of change’ needed to change a home’s value would not happen at this site, so any “impact” already has occurred.” Yet a home located near a Wal-Mart, or along roadways leading to a Wal-Mart, would be significantly impacted because of the scale of this project — by far the largest in Brooklyn’s history. Most homeowners would not choose to live with a 24/7 Wal-Mart as a night light — including Wal-Mart’s public affairs manager for New England. The retailer also challenged citizens who charged that the trade area was already saturated with Wal-Marts. The Brooklyn retail trade area has a Wal-Mart 10 miles away in Putnam, Connecticut, plus a supercenter 14 miles away in North Windham, and another supercenter 14 miles away in Lisbon. “This store will not affect our stores in neighboring communities,” Wal-Mart countered. “Having multiple stores in a region is a way to ensure we provide savings and convenience to as many as possible.” Wal-Mart tried to use the economy’s weakened condition as another reason to want a superstore. “With the economy in fragile condition, a Brooklyn store brings hundreds of new jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.” The reality is that there will be little or no ‘new’ jobs at Wal-Mart, because the superstore in Brooklyn will cannibalize other Wal-Mart’s nearby, and cause local stores — including grocery stores — to fail. Wal-Mart’s public affairs manager promised his company would “protect” their site, and use “technology” to “reduce impacts on the environment.” He was referring to the wetlands on the site. Instead, Wal-Mart presented its project as an efficient ‘green’ superstore “designed to make energy and water conservation a priority.” But more efficient freezer cases begs the question of why a store this big is needed in the first place in a small community already surrounded by sprawl, and why 3,600 new cars per day along Route 6 is an environmental advance. (The actual car count on a Saturday is expected to be closer to 4,658.) Wal-Mart justifies the “additional cars” as a “positive benefit to other local businesses by increasing foot traffic in their own stores.” Yet all the regional New England-based discount stores were killed off by Wal-Mart in the late 1990s, like Ames, and Bradlees. Additional cars in Wal-Mart parking lots benefits Wal-Mart only — no one else. The Wal-Mart PR agent ended his letter by asserting, “While concerns are expected, it’s important to get the facts from the source to understand the benefits Wal-Mart brings to Brooklyn.” But if the source is Wal-Mart, the facts are Wal-facts. It turns out that a ‘big box’ in this small town is just not consistent with building design guidelines along Route 6, and Wal-Mart has failed to address that fact. On March 19th, as expected the Inland/Wetlands Commission approved Wal-Mart application, following a total of 12 hours of hearings on three separate dates. The I/W Commission voted that the huge superstore would not create a “significant activity” that would have a major impact on wetlands. They also ruled that the project would not cause unreasonable pollution or impairment the wetlands on the site. The Commission attached 14 conditions to their approval, such as requiring Wal-Mart to use a biodegradable de-icing product on the parking lot. These “conditions” were all minor in nature. After the vote, the citizens group Brooklyn First vowed to challenge the I/W Commission decision. “Brooklyn First is in the process of filing an Appeal,” one member of the group told Sprawl-Busters on April 6th. “I believe the Town was getting served today.” Once again, Wal-Mart’s inflexible approach to store siting is leading to a courtroom, rather than a ribbon cutting.
The focus in Brooklyn now shifts to the Planning & Zoning Commission, which will review the site-specific details of the project, such as traffic impacts and building design, at hearings set for April, May and June. In addition, Brooklyn First has filed an amendment to the Brooklyn zoning bylaw that would put a cap on the size of retail stores, to prevent any more big box battles from dividing this community. The size cap amendment will take its first hearing on June 3rd, so it will have no legal impact on the current Wal-Mart application, which would be grandfathered in. Local residents fighting Wal-Mart have had to hire their own land use attorney, and have been attending every meeting of the Brooklyn Inland-Wetlands Commission. One activist in the group Brooklyn First told Sprawl-Busters, “so far it has been a pretty disappointing process… town officials, employees and Inland Wetland commission members are rubber stamping this project.” In late January, an independent study was presented to the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This study raised concerns over issues such as: the size of the parking lot; the capacity of the main driveway to handle tractor trailer trucks; discharges from the sediment pond which could cause adverse or nuisance impacts on adjacent properties; proper erosion controls; stormwater runoff issues; traffic counts and road widening requirements. On the subject of Building Design, the independent report is most critical. The report notes that Wal-Mart has tried to break up the long walls with gables and different roof treatments. “This variety of building forms appear to be an attempt to break down the scale of the project (to break the box), and to create the illusion of a vital “streetscape”. However, it should be noted that the presence of the main building block is still apparent. Further exacerbating this visual contradiction is the fact that the vast parking lot and deep setback from Route 6 will have the effect of miniaturizing this handsome articulation and fight the admirable architectural attempt at creating the image of a lively streetscape. Interestingly, the predominance of the Wal-Mart sign above the trellis element and its design consistency with the other large wall signs works further to tie the whole composition together, reminding the viewer that this is in fact a single, large building. There is very little fenestration on the building, most of which is clustered around the entry doors and at the pharmacy. The side and rear elevations of the building are stark, with little volumetric relief, material or color variation, or fenestration… but the project remains a very large structure set deeply into the property with a vast sea of parking separating the building from the street. While the specific architectural delineation is pleasing, it does not disguise or overcome the physical reality of the larger development pattern (vehicular primacy, big box retail) that the project perpetuates.” The report notes that the building is 8 feet higher than town zoning limits, and that its design is clearly not compatible with the town’s Route 6 corridor design guidelines. “The architectural style of the proposal should be ‘compatible and complimentary to the rural character of Brooklyn,” the study notes. “The proposal does not comply with the spirit of this suggestion.” Finally, the report blasts Wal-Mart for not fitting in with the rural character of its host town, quoting Brooklyn requirements: “To maintain the unique character of Brooklyn, franchise architecture (building design that is trademarked or identified with a specific chain … and is generic in nature) should be minimized, unless compatible with the rural nature of Brooklyn — rather they should enhance and compliment the rural character and New England style present in the Town.” While we are aware that this proposal is a new direction for the Wal-Mart chain, this design does not embrace the rural, New England style present in Brooklyn. There are no particular identifying elements that say this building was designed specifically for Brooklyn, but rather that this building could easily be seen comfortably residing on virtually any retail strip in America… . “New construction should respond to the small scale detailing of town and/or regional historic buildings by displaying stylistically consistent, compatible detailing on street facades”. The proposal falls short of this goal… .”Facades should be articulated to reduce the massive scale and the uniform, impersonal appearances of large buildings and provide visual interest that will be consistent with the community’s identity, character and scale. The intent is to encourage a more human scale that residents of Brooklyn will be able to identify with their community”. While the front fa??ade employs scale reducing techniques, the chosen style is not consistent with the community’s identity.” The Planning & Zoning Commission meets again on April 22nd. Readers are urged to email P&Z Chairman Thomas Doherty by emailing the Town Clerk at: [email protected] with the following message: “To Chairman Tom Doherty, At your next meeting on April 22nd, I would urge you to read to Wal-Mart the following summary from the Milone & MacBroom study. This project is clearly incompatible with rural Brooklyn — and we don’t need more suburban sprawl. Here’s the Milone Summary: ‘The project as designed makes an effort to downplay the negative aspects of ‘Big Box’ retail design. The articulation and modulation of the massing facing Route 6 is tastefully done, but is still an apparent tack-on to the larger box lurking behind the ‘pretty’ fa??ade. Not enough effort was made to use local architectural precedents to inform the style of the articulated portions of the building. While the color palate is pleasing, the small scale building details and the material selections are not consistent with the character of the Town. The central challenge raised by the Route 6 Design Guidelines is to reform the existing commercial strip development pattern (big, stand-alone, generic buildings, isolated in seas of asphalt parking lots; episodic, contourless, anti-urban, anti-village space making) with a pattern of denser, pedestrian friendly, urbanistic or village-centric developments that enhance and celebrate the historic cultural milieu of their locale. While this proposed project is located in a stretch of Route 6 emblematic of the problem, the goal of the Guidelines is to change that pattern, which this proposal has not accomplished.’ Planning & Zoning has the right to ask the developer to shrink the scale of this project dramatically to be more harmonious with the towns’ design guidelines. Behind the ‘skin’ of this building, the big box is lurking, and only P&Z can reveal the true nature of this out-of-scale project. I urge you to vote down this current plan, and insist on a store half the size or less.”