On January 8, 2006, Sprawl-Busters presented the story of a huge retail development in Covington, Louisiana that had a Wal-Mart and a Sam’s Club in the original plan. The project required the rezoning of 75 acres from residential to highway commercial. The project was promoted by Colonial Properties Trust, based in Birmingham, Alabama, and with 75 stores, is one of the largest retail projects in the history of St. Tammany parish. Covington residents argued that the big box stores would lower the quality of residential living in the area, especially the Flower Estates residential subdivision. The developer sweetened the pot by offering to put up as much as $8 million in roadwork — a self-serving gesture — since the project could not proceed without the road upgrades. Colonial Properties also offered to spend $2.4 million to change a rest area into an interchange — again, for purely selfish ends. The Mayor of Covington came out against Wal-Mart, and noted that the parish’s land use plan for the parcel said it was supposed to be used for mixed uses, like residential and light commercial. The Times Picayune now reports that the developer has agreed to move forward with the center — but without the Wal-Mart and Sam’s club, which were one target of the group Smart Growth Tammany. “My guess is this will all get resolved in a very, very short time,” said one of the property owners of the 160-acre tract. “We’re really excited,” one of the board member of Smart Growth
Tammany told the newspaper. “This shows you what can be done when people work together and do what’s best for the community. We definitely feel like we can wave the victory flag. This was a big win for the long-term future of St. Tammany Parish.” The agreement would bar developers from putting a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Sam’s Club or any other business connected with the giant retailer in the center. It would also prohibit any other store that meets the definition of a “big box retailer” in the center. The agreement also required the citizens group to withdraw all litigation against the project and end its opposition to the project. As many as 60 to 65 stores, restaurants, boutiques and specialty shops will sign onto the “lifestyle center,”including a Kohl’s — which by any definition is a big box. The developers initially said that the project would not be economically feasible without the two large retailers, but that position softened. During the controversy, the citizen’s group began a petition drive to force an election to void the
zoning change, but a state judge ruled that zoning issues could not be challenged using the parish’s initiative and referendum provisions of their home rule charter. Smart Growth Tammany appealed the judge’s ruling, and there are two lawsuits challenging
the rezoning of the property for the center.
Even with the tenant mix changed, this is a huge project. The only “lifestyle” it will improve is that of the developers. Many residents may still not be happy with the agreement, wanting the whole project to be scaled down, but the decision to drop Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club would never have happened without strong and persistent community opposition. This same story happened in Leominster, Massachusetts, when the group Leominster First forced New England Development to drop Wal-Mart from its retail mall. Although this victory may seem like half a loaf to some, any result that blocks Wal-Mart has been well worth the effort. For an earlier Covington story, search Newsflash by the name of the city.