Costco generally has a better reputation than Wal-Mart, but this is only because its growth plans are much lower than Wal-Mart’s, so the company is less frequently in the news. But its proposals are every bit as sprawling as Wal-Mart, and its arrogance in approaching small towns is just as objectionable.
The Hartford Courant reported a little over a week ago that Costco wants to build a 150,000 s.f. warehouse club store on a 26-acre site on Route 1 in Guilford, Connecticut. This proposal happens to be 6 times larger than the size cap imposed on the parcel that Costco wants. A public hearing on the Costco application will take place in September, but the plan is already getting lousy reviews from the public.
According to the Courant, Guilford boasts that it has more 18th century houses than Salem, Massachusetts, which is north of Boston. The newspaper says that Costco has forced the community to do some “soul-searching, as residents consider the character of their hometown and its place in a world of encroaching development.”
One of Guilford’s residents is speaking out. Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture and urbanism at Yale University and author of “Field Guide to Sprawl,” and “Building Suburbia,” blasted the idea of giving Costco a zone change. “To sustain its historic pedestrian scale,” Hayden wrote to town officials, “planners and residents of Guilford have emphasized preservation and conservation in the existing town plan and in the existing zoning limiting individual stores to 25,000 square feet. This should not be changed.”
The parcel in question is located in a “Service Center West” zone, which has a cap of 25,000 s.f. for a retail building, with allowance of up to 40,000 s.f. per store by special permit. This limit on store size has been in place for more than ten years.
To entice local officials to ignore their own rules, Costco says its project will give the town $500,000 in annual tax revenues, and more than 200 jobs. These numbers are gross figures — not net — and once you subtract out the jobs and taxes lost when other retailers in the area fail, plus factor in the public safety costs of police and fire service to the big box, there is very little left for Guilford.
Guilford First Selectman Joe Mazza thinks the prolonged recession has made residents look more favorably at these sprawl proposals. “I think if it had been five years ago, the majority would have been against this,” Mazza told The Courant. “The economy has changed things. Now, people are coming up to me and saying they want Costco.”
But one local merchant stated the obvious: “This isn’t about Costco… This is about changing local zoning. We have rules that ban big box stores. Why does Costco think you can change those rules?”
This particular site was the location of another large retail battle four years ago, when Developers Diversified Realty Corp., of Ohio, proposed the “Guilford Commons” mall — most notable for its common mall appearance.
The DDR plan was approved over the loud objections of local residents — but work on the project stopped when the company was unable to find tenants for the project as the economy slid south.
Last spring, DDR met with local officials to talk about the idea of pitching a Costco for this site. Costco launched a website, and began making the rounds of community leaders in Guilford.
The Costco is being depicted as a Frank Lloyd Wright mega-store, with hip roofs, turrets and columned arcades, according to the newspaper. “It’s a big departure from the ‘vanilla box’ of the past,” DDR says. The Costco, plus a gas station, will fit within the Guilford Commons footprint — which was a collection of upscale stores — not one big box.
Doing battle with the big box is a group called the Guilford Preservation Alliance, which formed a new group, the Guilford Citizens for Responsible Development (GCRD). The group is handing out bumper-stickers which politely ask, “Please, no Costco for Guilford.”
The group has apparently decided to praise Costco, but slam this choice of locations. A spokesman for the citizens group, said that in the Third World, “Costco is very sensitive to local economies. But I don’t think they’re applying those principles here. Guilford is a special place. We have a unique local economy that’s still intact. I think we have to be alert to what this development might do to that.”
That embarrassing statement might ring hollow in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where a bitter fight over a Costco ensued for years, with angry charges that Costco destroyed “La Casino de la Selva,” including important indigenous art murals in the building. Costco threatened to sue Sprawl-Busters over that story.
To ease fears that allowing Costco to increase the zoning cap six times over the limit, the developer suggests that this is a “single-user permit” only for a warehouse club, and only on this one site. But the next big box store will have this precedent to allow them to ask for the same kind of privileged special treatment. Open the door to Costco, and Guilford will be opening the door to all big box sprawl.
Reaaders are urged to email First Selectman Joe Mazzo at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Selectman Mazza, The latest DDR proposal is just a bait and switch from the original Guildford Commons — which only was permissible at its huge scale because it was a collection of smaller buildings.
Now you have Costco telling you that they want an exception to the rules just for them and just for that parcel. If you grant this, the next big box store that comes along will ask for an exemption just for them, and just for the parcel they want. For DDR to claim that this is not setting a precedent is foolish.
This project is not a jobs and revenue issue. Most of Costco’s sales will come from existing merchants in the trade area — and will not bring added value to Guilford. Your community put in place a size cap for a very important reason: to make sure that future commercial development fit into Guilford — and not the reverse. Adding more retailers to your trade area will not lift you out of a recession — it will only lift your crime numbers, and lift your traffic numbers.
Costco does not sell small town quality of life on any shelf — and once you lose it — they can’t sell it back to you at any price. Say No to this cap, and tell the developers that size still matters in Guilford.”