Activists in Gresham, Oregon responded quickly to a city planner’s decision to approve a Wal-Mart supercenter. The city approved the plan July 27th, and on August 4th, Gresham First filed its appeal. GF, along with three neighborhood associations have filed a joint appeal of the city’s approval of a Wal-Mart supercenter on 11 acres of land at the corner of Powell Boulevard and 182nd Avenue. “Gresham First will pursue our mission to promote quality development and this isn’t it,” one spokesman told the Gresham Outlook newspaper. Although the project has received initial approval from the city’s planner, neighbors concerned about community impacts such as traffic, safety and livability are not convinced that the development can work at the proposed location. The new proposal includes a 122,000-square-foot store with more than 500 parking spaces split between underground and surface lots. The site falls into two zones, Corridor Mixed Use (CMU), and Community Commercial (CC). The CMU District does not allow buildings larger than 10,000 s.f., so Wal-Mart designed its site plan so that no portion of their building would fall within the CMU portion of the site. In the CC district, there is no size restriction on buildings. Residents noted, however, that the CC district was for “community-scaled” projects, but the city planner responded, “For a development to be considered “too big” there must be a standard that states a building can be no larger than a certain size, an example of which can be found in the Corridor Mixed-Use District. No buildings are proposed in the CMU District portion of the site.” The city will schedule a hearing within 45 days and issue a public notice in the coming week. City officials claimed that Wal-Mart had met the city’s standards for traffic and transportation. The proposal approved is a scaled-down version of Wal-Mart’s original plans for a 203,000 s.f. store, which Sprawl-Busters first reported on in January of 2005. The original Wal-Mart plan was shot down by city planners, and then a hearing officer. “The proposal was changed from mammoth to huge,” Gresham First told the Outlook. “It’s ridiculous to think that reducing the square footage alone will change the draw (of daily customers) significantly… this particular location is a terrible fit. This is a densely residential area unsupported by freeway access that already sees its share of congestion.” The city’s approval of the “smaller” store, which is the size of three football fields (not counting the parking lot), came with minor conditions, such as re-striping lanes, where to place “no parking” signs, and installing “thorny bushes” on the perimeter. The staff report addresses the issue of crime at Wal-Mart by noting “The applicant has stated that security cameras will be utilized to assure a safe environment. Parking structures are not readily visible to the general public and are therefore considered to have a higher risk for criminal activity. The security cameras will need to be provided in the parking structure as well as near the building entrances. Signs stating that the site is under surveillance will also need to be posted throughout the parking structure (as proposed by the applicant).” Countering citizen concern over runoff into nearby Johnson Creek, the planner found “The runoff from the structured parking will be stored and shipped to a DEQ approved site. It will not be permitted to enter into the City’s stormwater or sanitary sewer systems or Johnson Creek. This arrangement is more environmentally sensitive than the standard large parking lot, which would have the runoff treated and then discharged into Johnson Creek.” To justify his approval, the city planner concluded, “the proposed development is appropriate. Large surface parking lots tend to be poor use of valuable commercial land. If development of land is not done in a compact, efficient manner, more land will be needed to provide for the same development. In this case, if all of the parking needed for the proposed store were to be provided by surface parking only, another 3 acres of land would be occupied by parking instead of a commercial use.”
In his decision, the Gresham City Planner acknowledged the large citizen opposition to the plan, and felt compelled to explain that the city had not solicited or endorsed the plan. “This is not an application proposed or specifically endorsed by the City, he wrote. “This decision is related specifically to whether or not the development proposal complies, or can reasonably be made to comply, with the applicable standards and criteria as set forth in the Gresham Community Development Code.” The planner also noted that many issues raised by citizens were not germane to zoning issues. “Many comments stated that the project should be denied because of the business practices of Wal-Mart or because it would have an adverse impact on existing smaller businesses. These considerations are not a part of the approval criteria and therefore, cannot be considered in deciding to approve or deny the application… Many comments stated that the development should be denied because it would have an adverse impact on the value of the existing residential properties. This consideration (impact on the value of a property) is not a part of the approval criteria and therefore, cannot be considered in deciding to approve or deny the application.” The Gresham First appeal will go a hearing officer, and if necessary, to the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA). A store this size can never be called “compact and efficient” and it will have an adverse impact on surrounding properties and the character of the community. For more details, go to www.greshamfirst.org.