In October of 2006, the Assembly in Anchorage, Alaska voted 8-2 to overturn a decision from its own Planning Commission that gave the cold shoulder to a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter and a Sam’s Club on a parcel of 53 acres along Muldoon road. The Assembly unfroze the Wal-Mart project. Even by Alaska standards, this project was huge: a 228,000 s.f. supercenter and a 149,000 s.f. Sam’s Club. “This is a far better deal,” one assemblyman said at the time, “than anything that would happen should we say no.” More than 60% of the land Wal-Mart wanted was zoned for industry, which would have allowed a big box store — but a piece of the land was zoned for residential use — so the Assembly had to rezone that portion. Wal-Mart and city officials made a deal that they would rezone the land if Wal-Mart would “dress up” the fa??ade of the store, and give some land to the city for a park. Wal-Mart also was asked to construct a road with sidewalks, and other amenities — all bartered in exchange for a rezoning approval. Assembly members justified this bizarre deal by saying that if Wal-Mart was not allowed to build, the industrial land could end up being something worse — like an asphalt plant. “Boy, we’d hear from it then, wouldn’t we?” an Assemblyman told the Anchorage Daily News. But one Assembly member rejected the deal, saying, “The road work and the pocket park are not worth the harm of the rezone to this neighborhood.” The City’s Planning and Zoning Commission had recommended against the plan, and local residents in the Northeast Community Council also testified against it. “The process has been bought by Wal-Mart,” a member of the Community Council told the newspaper. The retailer promised the Assembly that their Wal-Mart was going to be “among the nicest in the country.” “It’s going to be right up there,” said Wal-Mart’s marketing manager. “It’s going to be a beautiful store.” When the store was approved in the fall of 2006, the company said construction would begin sometime in 2008. But they were wrong. The head of a local union filed a lawsuit against the City in January of 2007. Wally Stuart, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1496, said in his lawsuit that one Assembly member had a “substantial financial interest” in the zoning change and should have been recused from the vote. The Assemblyman in question revealed that he owned 30% of a mall located across the street from the proposed Wal-Mart. He admitted that the new project could increase the value of his mall. The other members of the Assembly saw no conflict, and the Assemblyman voted on the project, providing the critical 8th vote needed for the supermajority count required for a rezoning. The lawsuit said the Assemblyman “eventually became an advocate for the proposed rezoning ordinance.” The lawsuit also claimed that the Assembly made so many change to the original plan, that it should have been sent back to the Planning Commission for review. This week, 15 months after the Wal-Mart store was approved, Wally Stuart won his case in court. A Superior Court judge ruled that the Anchorage Assembly broke its own rules when it rezoned the land for a Wal-Mart Supercenter and Sam’s Club. Judge Sharon Gleason wrote that Assembly members shouldn’t have allowed their colleague who owns part of a shopping mall near the proposed Wal-Mart, to cast the deciding vote on the project. “Our elected officials, our government, was operating improperly. … We had lost our voice,” Wally Stuart, told the Daily News. Wal-Mart now has to decide what to do with its property. The retailer could build a smaller store on the property that is industrially zoned, or it could file again for rezoning. The city of Anchorage also has to decide whether or not to appeal the court’s ruling. “We’re really trying to evaluate where this leaves us and where we go from here,” said one of the city’s attorneys.
Wal-Mart now has to go back to the City and start the process all over again. This means the retailer has spent more than three years slipping on the ice in Anchorage — because of the actions of one private citizen. The Assemblyman who should have stepped down, told the newspaper he didn’t think a judge should decide if he had a conflict. The Judge quoted the Assemblyman in her decision, saying the official told his colleagues a rezone like the one being considered would be good for his property over time. He therefore had a conflict of interest that couldn’t be waived by the rest of the Assembly, the judge said. The Assemblyman told the newspaper, “I didn’t do it for personal gain. That isn’t, wasn’t and won’t ever be my motivation.” Ironically, Wal-Mart announced at the same time that it wants the city to hold off on another planned supercenter in Anchorage. This other project was expected to be Alaska’s first supercenter, but now Wal-Mart wants to delay its scheduled opening until sometime in 2009 or later. It was originally supposed to be open sometime in 2007. City staff said the project was hung up in “complex permitting and right-of-way and utility issues.” It’s been a cold winter for Wal-Mart in Anchorage. Wal-Mart currently has 2 supercentes, 6 discount stores, and 3 Sam’s Clubs in Alaska. The first Alaska supercenter ended up opening in Juneau in September, 2007. Readers are urged to email Mayor Mark Begich at [email protected] with fhe following message: “Please take advantage of the court’s rejection of the Muldoon Road Wal-Mart supercenter, and pass a zoning bylaw limiting the size of retail stores to 75,000 s.f. Your wife owns retail stores that feature Alaskan products — but all Wal-Mart offers is Chinese imports, low wage jobs, higher crime rates, and traffic congestion. This project is not a form of economic development. I urge you to let the court ruling stand, and work on a retail cap instead, so this inharmonious big box store doesn’t keep popping up. Bury this one in the Alaska ice.”