Either Wal-Mart officials, or Planning Board officials — or both — were drunk back in 2001, when a supercenter project was approved in the community of New Hartford, New York. That’s the opinion of one resident of Utica, New York, who told the Utica Observer Dispatch newspaper that she shops at the Consumer Square Shopping Center in New Hartford once a week. Since the shopping center opened in 2002 with a Wal-Mart supercenter as anchor, the volume of traffic has exceeded planners’ expectations. A study that preceded the opening of Consumer Square did not indicate any need for installing traffic lights within the complex. “They either sat at a Planning Board meeting and had a grand old time with the Johnny Walker or I don’t know what,” said the shopper. “The whole thing is a mess.” The newspaper called the traffic confusion at the Wal-Mart plaza “nightmarish.” The original owner, Benderson Development, paraded its traffic engineers during the original site plan hearings, convincing local planners that traffic at the plaza was going to improve because of the Wal-Mart — not get worse. But the reality was not what the traffic engineers promised. The town, which has a population of roughly 21,000 people, has not heard from Benderson since October. Benderson sold the site in 2004 to Developers Diversified Realty Corporation, one of the largest mall owners in America. DDR owns an internal traffic light in the plaza, which is not coordinated with the light on the town-owned Commercial Drive. Traffic tie-ups have gotten so bad at the site, that New Hartford’s lawyer sent letters to Benderson and DDR on February 2nd and attached two letters to the editor critical of traffic patterns at the plaza published in The Observer Dispatch. The traffic mess at Consumer Square has been an on-going headache for town officials. Last year, in February of 2008, officials said the holiday season was awful, with drivers attempting to navigate the Consumer Square parking lot and Commercial Drive nearby. The town planned to spend $16,500 for a study paid for by the developer, to find ways to improve the internal traffic situation at Consumer Square. It was reported at the time that the town had decided to withhold from the developers a total of $100,000 in bond money until fixes were made in the parking lot’s traffic flow. Town Planner Kurt Schwenzfeier complained, “The problem started when it opened. Our town police had to go in and direct traffic. It was a unique situation.” New Hartford Police Chief Raymond Philo said the problem is at its worst during the holiday season. “We are looking to mitigate the problem,” the Chief told The Observer Dispatch. “Traffic is an indicator of economic vitality. I would hate to think of a commercial corridor without traffic.” Part of the traffic mess was created when Benderson failed to conform to the study’s original plan, which created several lane misalignments. In 2003, traffic signals were installed, but their microwave detection signals could not assess the traffic inflow from Commercial Drive, according to the town’s planner. When it became clear that the traffic problems were not going away, the town decided to hold Benderson’s bond money. Town Supervisor Earle Reed told the newspaper, “We are holding the bond till we address those issues. They would be responsible.” The Benderson Group agreed to allow the town to use the bond money for the required study. A public information officer for the New York transportation department, which maintains Commercial Drive as part of state Route 5A, said the plaza was bitten by its own success. “It is far more successful than when it was first developed,” the NYDOT spokesman said. “We are coordinating with the town.” The internal light at the plaza was supposed to help, but it has caused traffic backups, especially at high traffic times like the holidays. Shoppers over the years have complained about such issues as worn traffic lines, and confusion in exiting the parking lot. Another merchant at the plaza admitted that the traffic is so bad during the holidays, that employees can’t go out to get lunch because it takes too long.
The NYDOT says the problem with the Wal-Mart in New Hartford is that it has been ‘too successful.’ Another way to put that is: the traffic engineers under-estimated the traffic flow at the site. The traffic at this site should have improved in 2004, when Wal-Mart located another superstore less than 5 miles away in Utica, New York. But Benderson Development appears to have low-balled the traffic counts, which made it easier for the project to gain approval. Developers always tell towns that they want the traffic patterns to work well so people will want to shop their plazas. But New Hartford has been grappling with this ‘nightmare’ for nearly 7 years. Town officials say they are now hopeful that Consumer Square shoppers will experience some improvements by the spring. Planner Schwenzfeier told the newspaper that plans to coordinate the traffic light on Commercial Drive with the internal light owned by DDR could be done over the next few months. “The expectation is that this will make it better,” Schwenzfeier told the Observer Dispatch. “It will never be 100% perfect, but we’re hoping for the best we can. It is hoped the collective efforts to be undertaken in the spring will prove fruitful.” Readers are urged to email Town Supervisor Earl Reed at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Supervisor Reed, Your residents have put up with ‘nightmarish’ traffic problems at the Wal-Mart plaza for six and a half years now. Did it ever occur to the town that Wal-Mart’s trip numbers for this site were under-estimated to require less work and expense for the developer? Think of all the town staff time and legal expense that has gone into solving this problem — which could have been avoided from the outset. You can force Benderson to pay for new coordination of the lights, using their bond money, but the town has spent countless hours — not to mention the police bill for directing traffic at the store. Perhaps its time to ask Wal-Mart, which is the major generator of the traffic, to step up and pay for the needed roadwork — whether it’s a new entrance or synchronizing the lights. The traffic nightmare was caused by Wal-Mart. Whatever their traffic engineers predicted — they were wrong. The public has been inconvenienced far too long, and too much public money has been spent on the problem. New Hartford is a poster child for the need to conduct independent peer reviews of all traffic studies done by developers. Every traffic jam you have ever sat in was brought to you by some traffic engineer who underestimated the impact of their design. Ask Wal-Mart to pick up any costs of really improving this traffic flow beyond the bond money you are holding. This is Wal-Mart’s nightmare — let them end it.”