On July 29, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was trying to sugar-coat a project in Sugar House, one of Salt Lake City, Utah’s oldest neighborhoods. The area is known for its distinctive local stores and small-town charm. Wal-Mart wants to build a 122,320 s.f. supercenter in the heart of Sugar House, but first it must tear down an empty 113,000 s.f. Kmart it bought several years ago. 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 — and tried to sweeten the deal by offering a landscaping package, “green” features on the building, new sidewalks and other site amenities. “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 promised. But an advisory group to the council, known as the Sugar House Community Council, 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, a Sugar House Community Council spokesman said. But the vice-chairman of the Sugar House Council thinks Wal-Mart is a sweet deal. He told the Salt Lake Tribune that many people oppose the rezoning because they don’t like Wal-Mart. “I fear that they will use their hatred of Wal-Mart, 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. Kmart, which has been at this location for 40 years, is shutting down. Wal-Mart bought the property in 2005, but less than a year later, the city voted to prohibit superstores in the ‘community business’ zone. The developer, CLC Associates, must seek the approval of the city’s Planning Commission and City Council. Part of the deal-sweetening in Sugar House is a “planned development agreement” that the developer and the city sign requiring the retailer to adhere to its plans. Sugar House residents said current zoning was designed to keep businesses small and neighborhood-serving. “The problem with Wal-Mart is Wal-Mart is a regional store,” one member of the community council said. “Adding more traffic to these intersections that barely make it would be a disaster,” said a representative from the Foothill Development Watch citizen’s group. During one of the Planning Commission sessions on this project, one resident asked, “Do they want to build green for the community or do they want the green for their pockets?” Wal-Mart insisted that the new building would have “lush landscaping and energy efficiency.” If they don’t get the rezoning, Wal-Mart warned, they would simply move into the existing Kmart store, which they described as a “40-year-old technology.” The Planning Commission had some pointed words for Wal-Mart. “They may want to think about flattening the hierarchy and listening to the members of the community,” one Commissioner stated. In July, sensing that the Sugar House deal was going sour, Wal-Mart turned its public relations machine into high gear. The retailer sent out an estimated 36,000 fliers with a return postcard that residents were asked to send to The Summit Group, a local public-relations firm, voicing support for the supercenter. The postcard allows Wal-Mart to use their names as supporters of the project. According to the Deseret News, this is the third mass mailing Wal-Mart has done on the project in the past year. But the neighbors are not impressed. A variety of neighborhood groups, including The Sugar House, East Bench, Greater Avenues, Bonneville Hills, Wasatch Hollow, Sunnyside East and Yalecrest community councils, have all voted to oppose the rezoning, which is not consistent with the East Bench master plan. This week, Wal-Mart appears to have won over the city’s planning staff. According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, city planners gave a “qualified yes” to amend the neighborhood’s master plan and approve a zoning change for the convenience of Wal-Mart. The city’s new economic-development director argues that rezoning gives the city more control over the store design. “The community’s goals can be achieved on a new construction site rather than a remodel site,” he told The Tribune. “We will have no control if they just proceed ahead with the remodel.” But Robert Forbis, a planning commissioner, remains concerned about the impact Wal-Mart will have on other businesses in the Foothill corridor. “Do we really need another Wal-Mart in such close proximity to the one on 300 West? These people are not thinking long term.” The city’s Planning Director says the traffic impact for a new store will be “no different” than for a remodeled Kmart. The Planning Commission is expected to vote September 10th on the rezoning.
Many Sugar House residents dislike 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. The two stores are almost the same size. 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 Brattleboro, Vermont, Home Depot was forced to reuse an empty Kmart, and recently shut that store down because of lagging sales. The store now sits empty. 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. Readers should contact the Salt Lake City Planning Commission by calling (801) 535-7757 with the following message: “I’m calling to urge the Planning Commission to vote NO on rezoning the Wal-Mart property. Los Angeles, Miami and Brattleboro, Vermont all 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. It’s almost the same size as the store Wal-Mart wants to build. The Fehr Traffic study shows that traffic congestion under current background conditions is already at a failing level. This project also is incompatible with the Downtown Rising project. Wal-Mart has had to work with reused buildings before, and they can take the existing structure and improve its appearance without having to tear it down. If you allow this rezoning, they could try to come back in the not-too-distant future and expand the store’s footprint. This project adds no economic value to the city, because you already have an existing Wal-Mart nearby. Wal-Mart has no right to a rezoning. You can reject this store legally on traffic and community impact. I urge you to make them use the existing building.”