In 2003, Wal-Mart tried — and failed — to get the courts in Arizona to overturn a “big box” law in Tucson, Arizona. Sprawl-Busters reported on September 28, 2003, that a judge in the Pima County, Arizona Superior Court had tossed out a lawsuit filed by Wal-Mart against a zoning law in Tucson. Wal-Mart filed the suit against the city’s zoning law, which requires a review process for retail stores greater than 100,000 s.f. in which the sales of non-taxable items inside the store amount to 10% or more of floor space. The law was passed in 1999. Now, ten years later, Wal-Mart is still trying to figure out a way to get into Tucson. The Arizona Daily Star speculates that Wal-Mart is now turning to smaller superstores as a way to come in below the size cap in Tucson. The giant retailer has proposed a 91,000 s.f. store at the corner of Golf Links and Houghton Roads. Wal-Mart is reportedly negotiating with a developer, David Williamson, and will submit plan shortly to the city. “The site at Golf Links and Houghton is a location that we are interested in,” a Wal-Mart spokeswoman admitted to the Arizona Daily Star. “It’s a grocery store. General merchandise and grocery to provide that value and convenience to our Tucson customers.” Apparently Wal-Mart is reluctant to use the term “supercenter” for this new format, and instead described the smaller version as “more of a really localized neighborhood kind of shopping experience.” Wal-Mart told the Daily Star that several other sites in Tucson were also still on the company’s radar: the corner of Valencia and Alvernon and El Con Mall. “At Alvernon… there is an opportunity there, potentially,” the spokesman said, “There is a lot of speculation about El Con. We would be interested in serving that community.” At least one Tucson City Councilor is ready to embrace the smaller format. “I know it would certainly generate a lot of potential interest in the area from potential customers, and the city would benefit from potential taxes from the site,” Councilwoman Shirley Scott told the newspaper. Her ward would be the site for the smaller stores.
Wal-Mart tried to get the courts to throw out the Tucson size cap. The company hired signature gatherers to put a ballot question called the “Consumer Choice Initiative” in front of Tucson voters. The reality is that this initiative would have been the “Wal-Mart’s Choice” proposal, because the company had the choice for years to build a 99,000 s.f. superstore, like any other retailer. It was their “choice” to use a business model that builds stores larger than Tucson allows. This was not Tucson’s problem — it was Wal-Mart’s problem. In 2005, Tucson, city leaders fought over whether to give a developer, Eastbourne Investments, a waiver from the big box law. In March, 2007, the city council ignored big box opponents, and granted the waiver in the first real test of the law. Most voters in Tucson have no idea how large supercenters can be. Wal-Mart’s latest plan to shrink their stores to get into Tucson is a major victory for citizen activists who fought to get the size cap ordinance passed in the first place. But now its time to lower the bar in response to Wal-Mart’s new strategy. Readers are urged to email Ward 4 City Councilor Shirley Scott at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Councilor Scott, It’s only taken Wal-Mart ten years to figure out that they could build superstores below the Tucson big box size cap. Instead of attempting to challenge the ordinance in court, and on the ballot, they could have spent the last decade actually building more appropriately scaled buildings. In response to Wal-Mart’s latest move, perhaps its time for the City’s Economic Development committee to take a new look at the size cap, and lower the cap to two acres, roughly 86,000 s.f. Before you dismiss the idea out of hand — consider the fact that Wal-Mart this past week told Wall Street analysts that it was ‘comfortable’ with 70,000 s.f. superstores. Keep in mind that Wal-Mart has built and abandoned some stores after less than ten years — so what they build today in Tucson could be dark within a decade. Given that, how large do you want these ‘dark stores’ to be if the city ends up having to find a new developer or tear down the building? The fact is, Wal-Mart can build stores that are 70,000 s.f. or less — but they will never do it until cities like Tucson draw the line in the dirt. There is no reason why Tucson can’t lower the size cap now, given the fact that ten years have passed since you last examined this issue, and Wal-Mart is now saying smaller stores are viable. You can help prevent big box sprawl by adjusting your cap to meet the new realities in the development world. After all, these limits should be set to meet Tucson’s needs, not based on the developer’s greatest profits. I urge you to lower the building size cap to two acres. And as for your dreams of revenue — remember that as much as 80% of Wal-Mart’s sales come from existing merchants. So this is not a case of pure economic development. A good share is economic displacement that yields little or no new revenues.”