Sugar House is one of Salt Lake City, Utah’s oldest neighborhoods. The local media describes the area as being known for its “distinctive local stores and small-town charm.” But Sugar House is facing a big threat to that distinctive charm. Wal-Mart wants to build a new 122,320 s.f. supercenter in the heart of Sugar House. But the company faces a big obstacle: the empty Kmart building that Wal-Mart bought three years ago. For Wal-Mart to build a new store, it must first tear down the empty Kmart, but the city’s zoning ordinance says the existing building can be remodeled — but not torn down. Wal-Mart has therefore asked for a rezoning of the property — but such a request is not an automatic right, and the city could easily turn down the request. Wal-Mart tried to sweeten the deal by offering a landscaping package and “green” features on the building, such as skylights. They offered to install new sidewalks and flatten the parking lot, which is currently sloped. “We plan to invest a significant amount of money and resources into the redevelopment of this site, eventually providing the community with a store that is appealing to the eye, technologically modern and environmentally progressive,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. But the Salt Lake City Council has not yet decided on whether or not to allow the rezoning. They are likely to pay attention to the recommendation of an advisory group to the council known as the Sugar House Community Council. According to this group’s website, “The mission of the Sugar House Community Council (SHCC) is to involve citizens in identifying issues, plans, and projects that enhance the beauty, safety, vibrancy, and human-scale character of Sugar House neighborhoods, businesses, and historical and natural resources.” Wal-Mart can’t claim to support human-scale character — even with this “smaller” version of a supercenter. The SHCC has not yet adopted an official recommendation to the City Council on Wal-Mart’s rezoning request. The City Council will also have a recommendation from the city’s Planning Commission. The chairman of the Sugar House Community Council has told the Salt Lake Tribune that he opposes the rezoning, claiming that a previous owner of the parcel on E. Parleys Way agreed to the current zoning rules in exchange for zoning flexibility on another piece of property. “I don’t care what the business is, whether it’s Wal-Mart or Kmart or Target or any other business. The thing I’m concerned about is that it stays with the current zoning, with the current types of businesses” in the area, he said. But the vice-chairman of the Sugar House Council thinks Wal-Mart is a sweet deal. He told the Tribune that many people oppose a change because they don’t like Wal-Mart. “I fear that they will use their hatred of Wal-Mart [to oppose the rezone] because they don’t like Wal-Mart for Wal-Mart, and they will not judge it for what it will do for the community,” he said.
Or, perhaps many Sugar House residents hate Wal-Mart precisely because of what it will do to the community. Sugar House, a very distinctive neighborhood in the larger city, is clearly not an appropriate place for a huge, suburban, single story building. The old Kmart was bad enough — and ironically that store was killed off by the same company that now wants to tear the store down. In 2004, Wal-Mart and Home Depot bought a bunch of Kmart properties. Home Depot has gotten into deep trouble trying to tear down Kmarts in the Los Angeles California neighborhood of Sunland-Tujunga, and in the Miami, Florida neighborhood of Coconut Grove. Miami residents forced Home Depot to reuse the existing Kmart building, and the Los Angeles City Council has not yet approved Home Depot’s plans to reuse the Kmart there. In Salt Lake City, Wal-Mart has said, “If we are turned down on the rezone application, we certainly will operate out of the existing building. Unfortunately the existing building is a pretty aged building. Quite frankly, we would like to make a building that not only meets the needs of shoppers, but is visually appealing as well.” The company told the city that if they are forced to go into the existing Kmart building, they will not spend money on landscaping or the parking lot. That’s about as close as you’ll get to a corporate tantrum. Readers should contact the Salt Lake City Council by calling their comment line at (801) 535-7654, or drop them an email at: [email protected] Tell them: “Los Angeles and Miami refused to let their empty Kmart buildings be torn down. Don’t rezone the Kmart property for Wal-Mart. No special deals. If they want it so badly, make them move in and reuse it. We don’t need more Wal-Mart’s — especially in a unique neighborhood like Sugar House.”