On July 8th, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had shrunk the size of its proposed superstore, cut down the parking lot, and even offered to pay for road improvements — all to woo support in Cordova, Tennessee. In January of 2008, Wal-Mart announced that it wanted to build a supercenter in plan Cordova — a community located on the northeast side of the City of Memphis with a population of roughly 53,000 people. A relatively low-profile community, the Cordova area experienced major retail growth during the 1990s, with the development of the Wolfchase Galleria mall, which was the largest retail center in the county outside of Memphis. When Wal-Mart’s plans became known in Cordova, a non-profit group, the Gray’s Creek Association (GCA), began putting up signs along a large area of unincorporated land that read: “Gray’s Creek Preservation Area.” The group pushed for smart growth development in Cordova — not Wal-Marts. The area is already saturated with Wal-Marts. A total of 14 Wal-Mart stores are located within 20 miles of Cordova, including a Wal-Mart supercenter on Germantown Parkway just minutes away, and a supercenter in Bartlett 4 miles away. In fact, 8 of the 14 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Cordova are supercenters. There is no conceivable market need for additional Wal-Marts. The location of Wal-Mart’s latest proposal along Macon and Houston Levee roads, is located on land within the Gray’s Creek Plan, a set of guidelines that Memphis and Shelby County adopted to preserve the area’s property values and to protect it from intense commercial growth. The GCA has set its focus now on opposing Wal-Mart. “We are a pro-development group,” a leader of GCA told the Commercial Appeal newspaper. “But the haphazard way things have been handled in the past, case by case, has produced a hodgepodge of development both commercial and residential, and the public as a whole has lost confidence in knowing what will come into their neighborhoods.” Folks in Cordova had been hoping that Wal-Mart would build their store in the 1.2 million s.f. Mall of Memphis. The giant retailer was under contract to buy 22.5 acres of land there, and had submitted site plans for a 175,000 s.f. store with city and county officials. But last November, Wal-Mart announced that it was pulling out of the Mall of Memphis, citing the company’s national retrenchment of new superstore development. Neighbors were not pleased with Wal-Mart’s plans for the Houston Levee road store. “I don’t think they’ve been very considerate of the neighbors around here,” one neighbor abutting the 27 acre site told the CBS TV station. “It’s just Wal-Mart’s open 24/7, there’d be people coming in and going out all the time, we’d hear all the traffic,” she said. Apparently traffic also concerns county planners, who recommended in December of 2007 that the Land Use Control Board (LUCB) toss out Wal-Mart’s plan, because the local roadways cannot handle the influx of projected traffic. As the neighbors got more upset, Wal-Mart began asking the LUCB for more time to work on their plan. The retailer asked the Board to delay its hearing until February, 2008. The Board had already agreed once to give county planners more time to review the project, and for community groups to meet with the Wal-Mart, to urge the company to come up with more of a “creative town center-style design” according to the Commercial Appeal. County Planners agreed with neighbors that the Board should reject the plan because of worries of how the intersection of two lane roads would handle the cars. Wal-Mart’s reaction to these concerns showed more than a little corporate insensitivity. “We neither agree nor disagree,” said Wal-Mart’s senior manager of public affairs. “Traffic is a concern with that location for both sides. But it’s not incumbent upon Wal-Mart to fix the county’s traffic problem.” Just a few days ago, the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development (OPD) recommended that the Wal-Mart supercenter in Cordova be rejected. The 175,000 s.f. store has been shrunk to 151,908 s.f. The OPD said the intersection of Macon and Houston Levee won’t work — even with the changes in Wal-Mart’s second proposal. The retailer is now proposing more landscaping, a smaller parking lot and building, and road improvements. But the OPD staff wrote: “it remains the opinion of the staff that the existing public facilities (namely roads), cannot absorb the impact of introducing a regional-sized retail facility such as this Wal-Mart Super Center.” The OPD admits that the land is zoned for commercial development, but says “it should be phased or of a smaller scale to permit the construction of public facilities to keep pace with development of the property and surrounding area… More mixed uses in smaller buildings or tenant spaces with varied business hours of operation, rather than a dominant single user, would better disperse traffic and lessen demand on the transportation infrastructure.” Wal-Mart’s only response to the staff report was to tell the Memphis Business Journal it was “disappointed in the LUCB staff report recommendation. We’ve made significant improvements to our original submittal and, in a number of areas, have made these improvements proactively and in addition to requests made by the planning commission and LUCB.” On July 10th, two days after its staff recommended thumbs down on the project, the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board approved Wal-Mart’s superstore. At the meeting, Chip Saliba, manager of land use controls at the OPD, presented OPD’s arguments against the development. Wal-Mart’s lawyer said that the retailer was prepared to make a $2.4 million investment to relieve the “current bad situation” on the two-lane intersection where the store will be located. Wal-Mart also claimed that the new supercenter would increase traffic by 11.2% — just 1.4% higher than the traffic increase expected from any other commercial development at the same location. The Gray’s Creek Association testified against the plan, saying the plan violates the intent of Mayor A C Wharton’s Sustainable Shelby initiative. Parents from the Macon Hall Elementary School said the project poses safety dangers to 1,100 students walking to and from school. The LUCB debated the issue of whether or not this project would serve a ‘regional’ trade area. One Board member said Wal-Mart did not have regional draw because a plan needed 800,000 s.f. to be considered regional. Gray’s Creek opponents said shoppers will have to travel for miles of rural roads to reach this store. The LUCB ended up voting against its own staff recommendations, saying that Wal-Mart had “bent over backwards” to address the concerns of neighbors. Wal-Mart left the meeting telling the Memphis Business Journal it was “thrilled with the outcome,” and saying the positive outcome was “surprising in light of the hurdles the retailer has faced since first proposing a store on the site late last year,” according to the Business Journal. “It reflects the hard work and sincere effort to communicate with the neighbors and the government,” Wal-Mart said.
Now it is the neighbors who will have to ‘bend over backwards’ to accept a change to their community that will radically alter daily life as they have come to know it. The neighbors have only 10 days to file an appeal, which would then go to the Shelby County Commission. The Gray’s Creek Association has vowed to appeal the decision. The group said Cordova should work to “tighten and improve” the process, especially in light of the county’s recent move toward sustainability. The group said the rural roads, the existing traffic congestion, and the nearby schools and homes around this site, make the location of a huge supercenter an incompatible land use. In this case, Wal-Mart said it had at least 2,000 signatures supporting the project — but the people who will have to live with the store night and day, the Gray’s Creek Association and the Cordova Leadership Council — have not endorsed the first plan or the latest revision. Wal-Mart claims that even though they already have one supercenter 5 miles away on Germantown Parkway, and a 2nd. supercenter 6 miles away on Route 64, that they still want this one. They need another supercenter to spread out the demand, they said. Readers are urged to help the residents of Gray’s Creek, by calling the Chairman of the Shelby County Commission, Lindsey Allison, at (205) 991-6367 with the following message: “Chairman Allison, I urge you to oppose the Wal-Mart supercenter plan for the Gray’s Creek area. This community is already over-saturated with Wal-Mart supercenters, and the retailer clearly couldn’t care less about the traffic problems it will create. This project is like cramming a size 10 foot in a size 8 boot — it will cause local residents nothing but pain and discomfort. Stick with the Gray Creek Plan. This site should be used for smaller, mixed-use purposes. That will mitigate the traffic concerns, and be easier for people to live with. The LUCB staff were right: the residents want a town center, mixed-use approach in Cordova — not more suburban sprawl.”