This is another story about the ‘in-box conversion’ trend at Wal-Mart. On September 11, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the residents of the Sugar House community in Salt Lake City were savoring a victory over a Wal-Mart superstore — but the deal wasn’t quite over. The city’s Planning Commission voted down a Wal-Mart superstore. “We’re psyched,” said Jill Burke, with Foothill Development Watch. “That shows you the role community councils play.” On July 29, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart wanted to build a 122,320 s.f. supercenter in the heart of Sugar House, but first it planned to 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 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. But an advisory group to the council, known as the Sugar House Community Council, opposed 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. 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. 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?” 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. But 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. On September 6, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the city’s 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. But Robert Forbis, a planning commissioner, remained concerned about the impact Wal-Mart would 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.” But on September 10, 2008, the Planning Commission, on a unanimous vote, recommended a No vote for a zoning change. The City Council got the final vote, and rejected the rezoning also. “This is great grassroots democracy,” said Planning Commissioner Tim Chambless. “I’m just very, very pleased to see it.” Seven months later, Wal-Mart is back in the news. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Wal-Mart has officially abandoned plans to build a supercenter, and instead — as they warned — are going do an ‘in-box conversion’ and move into the old Kmart footprint on Parleys Way. “As a result of the decision to remodel the existing building, we have withdrawn our application requesting a rezone of the property,” Wal-Mart said in a prepared statement. City officials have approved the architectural plans, and city staff say the project just needs a pro forma building permit. One opponent of the superstore said remodeling the existing Kmart “can help keep this more of a neighborhood. We want to see more neighborhood businesses, not giant big box stores.” But this site is still going to see much more traffic than ever in the past.
Wal-Mart already has a discount store on West Hope Avenue in Salt Lake City, so there is no dramatic need for more of the same. This project will largely draw sales from existing merchants. During the hearing process, a Wal-Mart spokeswomen said she was surprised that more people supporting Wal-Mart did not come out to the hearing. “We’ve got our remodel plans,” she told the Tribune. “If we’re denied at the City Council, we’ll go forward with our remodel.” Wal-Mart had offered a “green” store, but Commissioners were not impressed, and did not believe a rezoning of the land was necessary. “From an environmental standpoint, I think we need to send a message to the City Council and the mayor,” said Commissioner Peggy McDonough. Wal-Mart owns the property, and could remodel it, or sell it and walk away — which is what local residents want. 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 move in. 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. 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 predicted, “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 Council by emailing: [email protected] with this message: “You did the right thing by turning down the Wal-Mart supercenter. Many Sugar House residents will be disappointed that the Kmart property was not torn down, and the site used for smaller scale, neighborhood — based retail. The closure of the Kmart site would have given Salt Lake City an opportunity to reinvent the site for something other than suburban sprawl. That’s why the land was rezoned. The traffic congestion under current background conditions is already at a failing level. This project, even inside the existing Kmart footprint, is going to generate a lot more traffic than the old Kmart. This project adds no economic value to the city, because you already have an existing Wal-Mart nearby. You could have rejected their reuse of the Kmart as is — based on the fact that Wal-Mart will generate a lot more car trips than Kmart ever did. The Council ought to ask Wal-Mart to underwrite the cost of a traffic study based on the 113,000 s.f. store, because you will end up needed some engineering changes to make this ‘in-box conversion’ work. You’re not just trading logos on the building. Wal-Mart is a much more intense use, with an entirely different scale traffic pattern, and that will cause you headaches in the months ahead that could have been avoided now.”