What part of “No” don’t they understand in Canada? On July 7, 2008, the city council in Guelph, Ontario rejected Wal-Mart’s proposal to increase by one-third the size of it’s existing store — which was stalled by opponents for roughly ten years. Now Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge is so anxious to expand the Wal-Mart into a supercenter, that she wants a ‘do over’ vote. The Mayor said this week that she doesn’t wish to see Wal-Mart appeal the council’s decision to the Ontario Municipal Board — so she wants the council to reverse their vote. The Mayor is calling the rejection of the store a ‘non-decision’ according to the Guelph Mercury newspaper. Although the city council turned down the proposal, the Mayor felt obliged to put out a press release inviting the city council to ‘reconsider’ their vote. This project would not only expand the existing Wal-Mart by 65,000 s.f. — but encircle it with an additional 135,000 s.f. of retail space. Once Wal-Mart gained an inch in Guelph, they wanted a kilometer. Wal-Mart first set its sights on Guelph, a city of 100,000, in 1995. A concerted citizen effort resulted in a council decision in 1997 to turn down the Wal-Mart, and a proposal from a Canadian discount chain, Zellers. That decision was appealed to the court for council decisions in Ontario, called the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Through various legal manuevers, the developer got the matter sent back to the local council in 1999 for another decision. This time, a new council approved both big boxes, ignoring dozens of citizens who again spoke in opposition to the proposals. On December 17, 2001, the Guelph City Council reversed a previous council vote which had supported two big box proposals. Both proposals required zoning changes. Citizens turned out in droves and were successful in persuading the council to revert to its original position in opposition to both proposals. But the Wal-Mart discount store was eventually approved by city officials, and in February of 2006 a broad-based Multi-Faith Initiative was formed to fight Wal-Mart’s approved location next to the Ignatius Jesuit Center, a spiritual retreat. However, that group eventually reached an out-of-court settlement with the developer. Among the mitigation measures that Wal-Mart agreed to was the creation of a “Living Wall,” created from willow trees. But the city council rejected the latest expansion bid — until the Mayor stepped in. The Mercury says that the council will take up the application a second time on September 15th. The council, on July 7th, decided that the application was not energy-efficient enough, according to the newspaper. But the Mayor now claims that the negative vote was not done following proper procedure, and she doesn’t want Wal-Mart to appeal the non-decision to a higher level. “Procedurally, we have no decision on this issue,” the Mayor claimed, “and that is why we have to bring it back and actually get a decision, which would mean supporting a motion. That could be supporting a motion to reject the application for specific reasons, or it could be to support a motion to accept an application, with certain conditions.” The Mayor also intimated that the council had stayed up so late that they didn’t leave time to discuss possible solutions to their complaints about the project. “The only thing I know for sure is that we won’t build the type of community we want if the decisions are being made at the OMB,” Farbridge said. “I think it’s in all of our interests — the applicant and also the city — if we can continue to dialogue and see if we can find a resolution to the issue.” The Mayor says the lack of a clear decision allows the developer to appeal the case to the OMB.
The Mayor, of course, voted in favor of the application, and apparently she does not like to lose a vote at the council level — so she is asking for a ‘do over’ vote. The Mayor is now shilling for the developer, telling the media that the developer, 6 & & Developments, satisfied all the conditions the city requested, and they threw in a transit transfer station that they were not required to include. Wal-Mart, naturally, jumped at the opportunity to see the matter reversed. A spokesman for the retailer said his company would be delighted to “re-explain the ways in which this is a good and green plan to expand the Wal-Mart.” Wal-Mart said “some councilors may want another opportunity to reconsider and to vote. We have a pretty robust plan as it relates to sustainability for our store. We felt really good about what we put on the table, and obviously we are open to discussing and clarifying.” Wal-Mart must have applied pretty robust pressure on the Mayor to get her to try and reconvene the Guelph city council. More than 12,000 people signed the first anti-Wal-Mart proposal. 6 & 7 Developments Limited wants to add a grocery store to the existing Wal-Mart. The developer also plans to add a mixed use commercial space on the corner lot. This requires a zoning amendment in Guelph, and the City’s staff support the idea. Ben Bennett, who fought the first Wal-Mart store for more than a decade, is warning that the expanded store will only make traffic problems worse. Bennett’s battle against the Guelph Wal-Mart was featured in the 2007 movie ‘Wal-Mart Nation,’ which was filmed in the U.S. and Canada. Readers are urged to contact Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge at [email protected] with this message: “Dear Mayor Farbridge, Your recent efforts to pressure the city council into reversing its vote on Wal-Mart is quite bizarre. Are you in the habit of asking for a ‘do over’ when a vote doesn’t go your way? When I searched your blog by the words ‘Wal-Mart,’ I got this message: ‘Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.’ There are thousands of Guelph residents who probably wish that were true. Your city spent ten years bitterly divided over the need for a store the size of Wal-Mart — and now the retailer wants to get bigger. But the larger store adds no economic value to Guelph — it’s just another company selling bananas. All it will do is put other existing grocers out of business, or cut into local merchants’ sales. This will not add jobs or revenue to Guelph. You said in your State of the City speech that the city had a ‘local growth strategy’ with ‘Urban design guidelines… to ensure that, as we grow, we maintain compatibility with existing neighbourhoods.’ You warned that ‘if we grow the same way we have for the past 50 years, we will experience longer commuting times, higher auto emissions, lower air quality, and the depletion of large amounts of farmland and land that protects our water.’ That pretty much sums up what a Wal-Mart supercenter means for Guelph. How does an expanded Wal-Mart fit into your growth management plan? How does it enhance your goal of revitalizing your downtown? If Guelph’s vision statement is really ‘to be the city that makes a difference,’ then you need to think differently too. You need to think outside the box, and not let a big Wal-Mart grow even bigger. You are bending over backwards to keep Wal-Mart’s expansion plans alive. A second vote is not needed, and makes it look like the city is pandering to special interests, or is being bullied into submission. What is really needed now is your commitment to a real ‘local growth strategy’ that is not build upon suburban sprawl.”