On October 13, 2007 Sprawl-Busters reported that the idea of a Wal-Mart supercenter was not floating many boats in Venice, Florida. The city promotes its “beautiful beaches, a quaint downtown shopping area, and the old Florida scenery along the Myakka River… miles of white sand, sea shells and the prehistoric shark teeth.” Venice calls itself the “Sharks Tooth Capital of the world.” But another shark — this one retail — is taking a big bite out of Venice. The city has made a point of preserving the original character of Venice, creating the Historic Venice District and an Architectural Review Board to ensure that new construction or modification of existing buildings conform to the northern Italian Renaissance style of the city’s original architecture. The state also designated the community as a Florida Main Street City to “assure the city’s heritage will be preserved.” But Venice is an island surrounded by sprawl. There are 7 Wal-Mart’s within 20 miles of Venice, 5 of them are supercenters, including a supercenter right in Venice on South Tamiami Trail. But the Arkansas retailer has presented plans for a supercenter on Laurel Road near the tony Venetian Golf & River Club. “Wal-Mart would destroy the community that can economically support quality shops,” Venetian residents told city officials. The proposed 200,000-s.f. Wal-Mart inside the 73-acre Renaissance development east of Interstate 75 came before Venice’s planning commission this week. According to the Herald Tribune, people in Venice want commercial development — they just don’t want Wal-Mart. “We really need commercial development, but we need the right kind of commercial development,” Venetian Golf & River Club resident John Moeckel told the newspaper. Moeckel organized a write-in campaign against Wal-Mart, in his capacity as chairman of the local community association. Residents are upset by the scale of the store, and the impact of traffic on the two lane roadway. “They want boutiques, not big boxes,” the Herald Tribune said, and claim city leaders promised an attractive mixed-use town center. The original plan was to build 20 acres of mixed-use commercial retail and office space, including a movie theater complex and restaurants, next to 50 acres with homes and condos with up to 731 units, creating a village. But the developer pulled a classic bait-and-switch, cutting the housing units from 731 units to 200 units, killing off the central park, and replacing it with a retail center anchored by Wal-Mart. But yesterday, the Venice Planning Commission dropped Wal-Mart’s anchor. The Commission approved one part of the massive Renaissance project, which calls for a hotel and some retail space. But the other part of the project — the Wal-Mart supercenter, was sent back to the drawing board, with a unanimous denial.
The Planning Commission had earlier instructed Wal-Mart to submit a smaller plan, with scaled back parking, more green space, a park, and walkways. Officials told Wal-Mart their plan was still too foreign to the original plan for a “village” concept, with small retail shops and housing on the second floor, a central park connecting to a large residential development. What the commission got instead was a typical suburban sprawl pattern of a retail center anchored by a Wal-Mart. “We need commercial development. We recognize that,” one resident was quoted as saying by the Gondolier Sun newspaper. “We just don’t need this big box development.” The developer, Waterford Companies, asked the Commission to continue the hearing, so its architects could meet with city planners to come up with a plan more to everyone’s liking. But the Chairman of the Planning Commission, John Osmulski, responded, “I really don’t think we need to continue this. I don’t think they listened to us at all. If everyone wants this to happen, it should start over. We only get one shot at doing this.” A Wal-Mart spokesman said his team “may have misread some of the commission’s critique. “Obviously, you’re concerned with the plans,” he said. “I hear that. We didn’t go far enough.” Waterford Companies then tossed out the veiled threat of low-income housing. “If things don’t get approved,” he warned, “we might have to redo the whole plan,” referring to “more economical housing.” The Wal-Mart supercenter is far from dead, but the city has made it clear that suburban sprawl is not an acceptable use for this location. Readers are urged to contact Venice Planning Commission Chairman John Osmulski, by calling 941-486-2626 and leaving this message: “Please tell Chairman Osmulski that I called to congratulate him on his reaction to the Wal-Mart supercenter plan. This size and type of big box store makes no sense for Laurel Road, and is incompatible with the city’s land use plans. This is not an acceptable use. Stick by your guns, Venice has access to plenty of Wal-Marts nearby — more are not needed.”