On June 21, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that local residents in Iowa City, Iowa were being saturated with flood waters, and saturated with big box stores. Iowa City already has a 110,000 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store on Highway 1 West. The city also has a 122,000 s.f. Target at the Coral Ridge Mall, and a 128,000 s.f. Dillards. They have a 97,000 s.f. Kmart as well. There’s also a Wal-Mart supercenter less than 5 miles away in Coralville, Iowa. There are three Wal-Mart supercenters within 25 miles of Iowa City — so the city’s 63,000 population has easy access to cheap Chinese imports within a short drive. The Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission in late June delayed for a second time the processing of a Wal-Mart supercenter proposal. According to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, a number of Commissioners just don’t like the looks of the proposed 189,000 s.f. Wal-Mart. “It seems like you didn’t look at the code when you planned this — the big-box standards,” the commission’s chairwoman told the retailer. “We’re not even close to meeting the minimum on these things.” The Commission wants Wal-Mart to put more green space into their plan, and said the proposal itself is not compatible with the city’s comprehensive plan, which expects an integrated, pedestrian-friendly community. In response to the criticism, one of Wal-Mart’s engineers said, “We will definitely take a look at it.” To approve this plan, the Commission will have to change an agreement that already exists regarding the development of this site. The original agreement says that the site is supposed to have “individual, unrelated buildings.” This week, the Press-Citizen explains that the city council must now vote to amend a conditional zoning agreement signed on the property when it was first developed. That agreement says that the parcel is supposed to be configured with several smaller stores arranged like a shopping center — not one huge box store. The citizen’s group, Iowa City Stop Wal-Mart, has hired attorney Wally Taylor, who told the city council that the project does not meet the ‘essence’ of that existing zoning agreement. He also indicated that if the city council chooses to ignore that agreement — which all the neighbors have relied upon in making their investment decisions — the citizens would consider appealing to court. Wal-Mart has been busy getting shoppers in their Iowa City store to sign petitions in favor of the supercenter. The retailer says it has gathered 1,600 signatures. At their meeting this week, the Iowa City Council took no action, voting instead to continue the public hearing until August 26th, giving both sides several weeks to lobby the council members.
There is much more than aesthetics wrong with this plan. The proposed supercenter would be the single largest retail building in the history of Iowa City. The community describes itself as a “community of neighborhoods.” The city’s Comprehensive Plan says that “neighborhoods are the building blocks which make up the larger community… compact neighborhood design creates village-like neighborhoods with housing for a diverse population, a mix of land use… integrated civic and commercial centers, and streets which are pleasant for both motorists and pedestrians to travel on.” The Plan focuses on “Neighborhood Commercial” uses, which “provide shopping opportunities within convenient walking distance for the residents of the immediate area… The design of the neighborhood commercial center should have a pedestrian orientation with the stores placed close to the street, but with sufficient open space to allow for outdoor cafes and patios and landscaping. Parking should be located to the rear and sides of stores with additional parking on the street.” In the Economic Development section of the Comprehensive Plan it says, “Given the construction of approximately 1.3 million s.f. of retail space at the new Coral Ridge Mall, it is unlikely and probably not prudent for Iowa City to consider the development of large, new commercial centers in the foreseeable future.” A Wal-Mart supercenter makes no sense in the context of this Comprehensive Plan. The Plan dates from 1997 — but it is the Iowa City current plan in effect. The city’s Vision Statement also remains in effect, and it says, “As Iowa City grows, we will strive to preserve the character and identity of the community while guiding the creation of compatible new areas.” Readers are urged to email Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Bailey, A 189,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter is more than aesthetically wrong for your city — its totally incompatible with your Vision Statement and your Comprehensive Plan. You will end up with an empty 110,000 s.f. Wal-Mart, and a huge store that bears no connection to Iowa City’s goal of preserving the city’s character and identity. Your Comprehensive Plan says its ‘probably not prudent’ to consider additional large, new commercial centers given the Coral Ridge Mall. One Wal-Mart in Iowa City is one more than enough. You have other big boxes, and you have existing grocery stores which will fold if this project is approved. Your Plan’s goal is to “nuture existing businesses by encouraging their retention and expansion.” This project adds no economic value to your city, and is incompatible with the ‘collection of neighborhoods’ approach in your land use plan. Do what you need to do to encourage the Planning Commission to reject this suburban sprawl design as being inharmonious with your Comprehensive Plan. I urge you to honor the existing zoning agreement at this site, and not pull a bait-and-switch on all the neighbors who never dreamed — or wanted — a big box store on that site.”