E. Stanley Kroenke sits on the Board of Directors of Wal-Mart. A prolific developer of Wal-Marts under the name The Kroenke Group, one of his expansion projects ran into the wall in the small town of Buffalo, Minnesota last night. I had a front row seat to watch the City Council in Buffalo vote 3-2 to reject a proposal to expand an existing Wal-Mart discount store on Route 25 from roughly 91,000 to a 195,000 s.f. supercenter. Area residents, wearing “Just Say NO to rezoning” stickers, spoke against the effort to convert the agricultural land to general commercial. The expansion site Wal-Mart wanted sits at the very end of development in Buffalo, roughly one mile northwest outside of the central business district. Wal-Mart’s major obstacle turned out to be the City’s Comprehensive Plan, a document written in 1996 — six years after the Wal-Mart discount store was built. That Comp Plan underscores the need for Buffalo to carefully manage its growth in order to maintain the desired “small town feel” of the community. The Plan also emphasizes the revitalization of the downtown, which has struggled for a decade as more and more highway development, including a Target, sprawled on the outskirts of Routes 55 and 25. The scale and intensity of use of the Kroenke proposal was clearly incompatible with the city’s economic development goals and growth management plan. Wal-Mart in defense of its plans, brought twenty or more of its employees to the hearing, most of whom got up and described how wonderful their store had been to the community, and how much they appreciated their job. The Wal-Mart manager depicted a store that desperately needed wider aisles, and a upgrade in appearance. The existing Wal-Mart is the largest retail building in the history of Buffalo — but according to Wal-Mart, the aisles just aren’t big enough. Most of the Wal-Mart testimony had no relevance to the issue of rezoning, and in the end, the City Council, which had to muster 4 out of 5 votes to rezone the land, fell two short, and defeated the amendment, citing incompatibility with the comprehensive plan as the major reason for denial. The Buffalo zoning code had 6 “evaluation criteria”, and I suggested to the Council that the Wal-Mart expansion violated two of them outright: the comp plan and the future land use goals. One Council member said he would rather rezone the land industrial and try to get higher paying jobs for the community. My estimates were that the Wal-Mart supercenter grocery would take away 24% of the market share from the two major grocery stores already in the city, one of which is the only grocery store left downtown. After two and a half hours of testimony, Buffalo became the 150th. community on my list to slam-dunk a big box.
The Mayor of Buffalo clearly wanted this Wal-Mart expansion. It appeared that some of the Planning staff felt the same. The problem was the City’s Comp Plan just didn’t fit this project, and rather than trying to make zoning fit the development, good planning calls for development to fit the zoning. One of the primary goals of Buffalo was to keep its central business district vital, and it was shown that another grocery store along the highway was not the way to do that. Suburban sprawl is not an acceptable growth form under the plan. Yet here it was on the table. The Comp Plan also specifically encouraged the maintenance of a grocery store downtown. The City Council kept their promise to the citizens of Buffalo, and made an important decision in support of land use plans. And for all the talk about competition I heard, no one seemed to realize that giants like Wal-Mart are the endof competition — not the beginning. If the two existing grocery stores had closed, the City would have lost more than $3 million in taxable property. For more information on the Wal-Mart defeat in Buffalo, contact [email protected]