Is Tucson, Arizona for sale? How much does it take to get a big box store exempted from the zoning rules? That’s what Wal-Mart hopes to find out soon. The Arizona Daily Star reports that a developer has offered $2 million for “neighborhood betterment” in order to better his own bottom line. A developer has submitted plans, called The Bridges, for a housing subdivision, a bioscience park, and a big box store on the south side of Tucson. The city would also kick in $4.5 million from the construction sales taxes generated from the project, for job training, business assistance and neighborhood programs. Eastbourne Investments Ltd., the developer, will be back in front of the City Council on February 27th. The newspaper said this last-minute financial “offer” may “cool off the political hot potato of a big-box Wal-Mart… which has bounced around the city and burned many fingers for the past year.” The developer has tried to sweeten the Wal-Mart deal with upscale housing, and a “tech park” to be developed by the University of Arizona on the enormous, 350 acre site. The project requires the City Council to exempt Eastbourne from the city’s big box ordinance, and school arrangements for the children who move into the housing has also been a sticking point. The newspaper says the project includes 1 million square feet of retail, which is about the size of 21 football fields — not counting any of the parking lots, which could triple the impervious space. Wal-Mart, as if often the case, has not indicated its formal participation in the plan. The developer has kicked in $2 million, which will include “economic-improvement grants” for local nonprofit groups. Councilors have been told the project willo “bring 900 jobs,” but most of the jobs it brings are already there, working at other cash registers. Members of the city council appear to be willing to sacrifice the city’s big box zoning ordinance, which limits the size of a big box store over 100,000 s.f. to less than 10% of interior square footage devoted to grocery items. Stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s would not be affected by this ordinance, only superstores like Wal-Mart.
Once a city passes a big box ordinance, if it begins to grant exemptions as developers come forward with large developments, then the original ordinance itself is meaningless. In Tucson’s case, the ordinance is limited only to superstores, exempting many large scale non-food stores. Even so, the city will, in effect, have no big box ordinance if this huge exception is made, because the precedent will be set by The Bridges project, and every subsequent developer will want the same treatment. All the political effort that went into Tucson’s big box ordinance will be destroyed by Eastbourne’s $2 million sweetener. Other developers will recognize that Tucson zoning permits are for sale — if the price is right. For earlier stories, search by “Tucson.”