Sometimes even the best just isn’t good enough. In Moon, Pennsylvania, the Chairman of the township’s board of Supervisors has been wrestling with Wal-Mart’s application to build a 148,561 s.f. superstore on the site of an abandoned 1960s-era mall known as the West Hills Shopping Center, located on one of the community’s major intersections, University Boulevard and Brodhead road. There are also two major housing developments abutting the project on its western side. “We are working toward our No 1 goal,” Supervisor Chairman Tim McLaughlin told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette this week. “To have the best Wal-Mart in Western Pennsylvania.” There’s lots of competition, because Wal-Mart has 15 stores within 25 miles of Moon, including a Wal-Mart three miles away from this site. Since 1954, the Pittsburgh International Airport has played an important role in the growth of Moon Township. In 1992 the Pittsburgh International Airport terminal relocated from Moon to the adjacent township of Findlay, taking with it a great deal of airport-related traffic, altering the University Boulevard’s identity as an airport service corridor. Township officials developed a plan that would maintain the corridor’s commercial success, and guide the future growth and sustainability of development in this thoroughfare. That plan was the Beers School Road Strategic Plan, which included a conceptual design for improvements to University Boulevard to improve traffic flow, enhance pedestrian access and mobility and develop streetscape improvements. The plan recommended implementing urban design changes to the corridor such as landscaping, sidewalks, building facades, public amenities and a gateway. The plan was presented and approved by the Moon Township Board of Supervisors in 2003. The township went further, and created the University Boulevard Overlay district, a tool to implement their strategic plan for the area. Then Wal-Mart entered the picture, and the strategic plan went out the window. In January of 2007, the public learned that the West Hills Shopping Center, had been sold to Wal-Mart for $4.7 million. During their review of Wal-Mart’s preliminary plan, the Supervisors quickly became concerned over the potential traffic congestion at the already difficult intersection. Chairman McLaughlin told Wal-Mart representatives at the end of April that he didn’t want to go to his grave knowing that his board was responsible for creating a traffic gridlock, according to the Post-Gazette. “We have a quality of life that is outstanding,” McLaughlin said. “We want to protect our resident’s quality of life. We don’t want the center of our township to became a gridlock.” Another supervisor said he thought Wal-Mart’s traffic study was flawed. The overlay district has a series of design guidelines that were created to heighten the public amenities in the area, to improve traffic flow and enhance pedestrian access. Wal-Mart has asked the supervisors for a conditional use modification of many of these design features, because they clash with a traditional big box store. The objective of the University Boulevard overlaiy district was to create a district for “regional scale mixed use development,” not suburban sprawl. Wal-Mart cannot meet the requirement for ground floor transparency (i.e. windows), and the overlay district flatly states: “Buildings which exhibit long, flat facades and continuous linear strip development are prohibited.” The parking lot does not conform to the design guidelines, so Wal-Mart has asked the township to make the overlay district fit the retailer’s needs — rather than the reverse. This week, roughly 25 local residents met with Sprawl-Busters to discuss their opposition to the superstore, and their concerns over the location and scale of the project. The residents decided to form a group, and are looking for a land use attorney to represent their interests. Neighbors said that the Supervisors are afraid that if they don’t give Wal-Mart their requested modifications, the company will sue the township. On the other hand, if the supervisors ignore the township’s Comprehensive Plan, the Beers Road strategic plan, and the purpose of the overlay district — they can now expect legal hassles from their own taxpayers.
The demise of the West Hills Shopping Center has given the township a unique opportunity to begin to reinvent its core commercial area, to reflect more of a mixed-use village feel, with smaller retail, office uses, and even residential. Moon is a township with roughly 24,000 people. It is not a huge urban center, and it is not a sprawling suburban area. This particular site is only a few miles from an infamous Wal-Mart landslide in Kilbuck, Pennsylvania, which closed down a major roadway and buried Wal-Mart’s hopes of ever building a store at the location. The Moon township site also has some geological issues. According to Wal-Mart, “there is an existing landslide on the south of the development. This slope does not have an adequate factor of safety against slope movement in its present condition.” In Kilbuck, nobody listened to the citizen’s engineers, who warned of slope instability. Residents in Moon want an independent analysis of the slope, as well as an independent review of the traffic plan, and a fiscal impact study. The Supervisors can ask Wal-Mart to underwrite the cost of all these studies — and let the township hire independent consultants. Citizens say they have been left out of the process thus far, that Moon officials appear willing to grant a dozen or more “modifications” to the overlay district, and they have vowed to pressure local officials to stick by the strategic plan that the township itself created. The supervisors meet again on July 2nd, and opponent hope to make them realize that even the “best” Wal-Mart is not good enough for Moon if it congests traffic, raises crime, harms abutting residential values, and violates the intent of the overlay district. If Wal-Mart ever opens, the Kmart diagonally across road will close, as well as one or two existing grocery stores. The project will steal most of its sales from the other Wal-Mart nearby. This is the kind of cannibalism that Wal-Mart now avoids — and if the company had not bought the land a year and a half ago, the retailer might have already scrubbed this project, as they have done in 70 other locations in the past year. Readers are urged to email Supervisor Chairman Tim McLaughlin at [email protected] with the following message: “Mr. Chairman, Please supply Wal-Mart with a copy of the overlay district, and ask them to return with a much smaller store that will not require several new stop lights on Broadhead, that will not remain open all night, that meets all the parking and design standards in the district, and that is truly a mixed-use development. Then ask them to underwrite the cost of an independent traffic impact study, slope stabilization study, a fiscal impact study, a noise study, a lighting/glare study, and an assessment of their impact on abutting residential properties. You say you want the best Wal-Mart. I want the best for Moon — and I don’t think Wal-Mart can produce it. You have the right under our zoning code to deny this project, and use incompatibility with the overlay district with traffic congestion as just two reasons. Do your due diligence in studying this proposal. A
Wal-Mart spokesman in September of 2007 told the media, “We are in no hurry to do anything.” The supervisors should adopt the same attitude. Most of the objections to this plan are scale-related, but if you write up your findings of fact, no Wal-Mart lawsuit will overturn your decision to deny. There is only one Moon township, but we are surrounded by many nearby Wal-Mart. Protect the residents of Moon, and don’t settle for the best Wal-Mart. The plan they’ve submitted just isn’t good enough.”