On June 2, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had made a a small donation out of its petty cash in return for a multi-million land deal. Wal-Mart had plans to abandon its ‘old’ store in Swansea, Massachusetts, and build a new superstore next door. Wal-Mart has seven supercenters in the state of Massachusetts, and 39 discount stores. Wal-Mart’s plan is to either expand their existing discount stores into supercenters, or build new supercenters and close the ‘old’ discount stores (which were built in the 1990s). It was reported in January of 2009 that a proposal to build a supercenter in Swansea, Massachusetts was moving forward, as the company prepared to present its proposal to the Swansea Planning Board for site plan review. Swansea, Massachusetts is a small community of roughly 16,000 people in southeastern Massachusetts, bordered by Barrington and Warren, Rhode Island, on the west and southwest, about 47 miles south of Boston, and 12 miles southeast of Providence, Rhode Island. The community already has an existing Wal-Mart discount store at the Swansea Mall, which calls itself “a complete entertainment experience.” Sprawl-Busters first reported on Swansea on September 8, 2007, when Wal-Mart applied to expand their existing Wal-Mart on Swansea Mall Drive into a 161,000 s.f. store, according to a site plan submitted to the town by the mall’s owner, the Carlyle Development Group, based in White Plains, New York. Carlyle has been around since 1982, and calls itself an “expert in identifying undervalued real estate.” Carlyle bought the Swansea Mall seven years ago from an insurance company, and the New York State Pension Fund. At that time, half of the four anchor spots at the Mall were vacant. Macy’s and Sears are two existing anchors in the Swansea Mall. Wal-Mart says it wants to build supercenters in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, in Woonsocket and Warwick, Rhode Island. These three supercenter proposals are relocations from existing stores — so three “dark stores” will be created by this power shift into larger boxes. Wal-Mart already has two supercenters in Rhode Island, which calls itself the “Ocean State,” but the ocean increasingly seems to refer to the ocean of asphalt created by big box developers. A Wal-Mart opened in the city of Providence, Rhode Island in 2007. Wal-Mart’s original plan in Swansea called for demolishing the current 93,000 s.f. Wal-Mart to build the larger one, with a larger parking lot. That store was in an old Caldor’s building that was bought by Wal-Mart after it drove Caldor’s out of business in New England. More than a year and a half has gone by since Wal-Mart first floated its plans in Swansea, but the new proposal has shaved off the store size to 158,519 s.f. Residents on one of the abutting streets complained about the original plan, and appealed a Zoning Board decision granting a parking variance for the proposal. Added to the 972 parking spaces in the original proposal, Wal-Mart now wants to add another 380 parking spaces to comply with the current parking bylaw. “This (additional parking) has come at considerable expense, to the tune of more than $1 million,” a Swansea official told The Fall River Herald News. Wal-Mart claims the new store will add 103 new jobs to the existing 222 jobs at the existing Wal-Mart. The town’s Conservation Commission was concerned about stormwater runoff created by the project and the expansion of the parking lot into an undeveloped area, but the town’s planner said Wal-Mart hopes to have the supercenter open for business by the spring of 2011. At a public hearing in January, many Swansea residents were forced to wait out in the hallway of the meeting room or have standing room only in the back of the room. “It’s Wal-Mart, so it’s going to attract a lot of people here who want to see the plans,” Swansea’s town Planner explained. Wal-Mart had confirmed that it plans to tear down the existing Caldor’s building, to create a parking lot big enough to handle the superstore traffic. Town residents complained in January about the design plans, and Wal-Mart agreed to pay for new stoplights at the Route 195 west and east ramps, and pay for other traffic management costs, including a Transportation Demand Management plan to promote the use of mass transit to the site. Wal-Mart hopes to begin building the store in April of 2010, with an opening 10 months later. The town’s Planner told the Herald News that a major concern for the town was pedestrian safety at the store. Instead of asking why a larger store is necessary, and what added value it brings to Swansea, the town focused on lighted crosswalks. On June 1st, Swansea’s planning board approved the site plans for the new Wal-Mart Supercenter. As part of the deal, Wal-Mart agreed to donate $50,000 to the town to use for the fire and police departments. New stoplights will be installed at the Interstate 195 east and westbound ramps, and Wal-Mart will replace the traffic signal controller at Route 6 and Route 118. In a triumph of dumb growth, the new supercenter will sit right next to the old Wal-Mart in the Swansea Mall parking lot. But first Wal-Mart has to get past Swansea neighbors. The Fall River Herald reports this week that residents have challenged the superstore in Superior Court, and the town meeting has just passed a new zoning bylaw reducing the required size of parking lots. Swansea’s Special Town Meeting means the store now requires only 551 parking spaces, instead of the nearly 800 required by the old zoning code. Under the new code, commercial developments will have to provide five spaces per 1,000 square feet for the first 25,000 square feet, four spaces per 1,000 square feet for the next 25,000 square feet, and three parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet after the first 50,000. Under the former zoning bylaws, written more than 50 years ago, a commercial development had to provide five parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet, no matter the size of the project. Wal-Mart’s current plan includes approval for 972 parking spaces — plus 380 additional spaces that cut into a hillside with trees. Residents on Maple Avenue in Swansea appealed the Zoning Board of decision, charging that the superstore “will be detrimental to the area” and will “result in significant impacts” to the property owners near the mall, including an increase in traffic, loss of parking spaces and interference with access to their properties. “Now, the new zoning bylaw has been passed, and I expect Wal-Mart to return to the Planning Board with a new site plan that will eliminate the 380 parking spaces,” a town planner said. Under the new zoning law, the superstore should have a minimum of 551 spaces in its parking lot (the store was approved at 158,519 s.f.), not 972. The project is still 421 spaces over the minimum. If you add in the extra 380 that Wal-Mart has not taken out yet, the parking area is officially 145% in excess of the new minimums — or nearly one and a half times larger than it needs to be.
What you can do: Neighbors of the Swansea Mall are justifiably concerned about how the project will kick up the traffic flow in and out of the mall, which will have an impact on the surrounding roadways. There are often other local zoning problems that such expansions trigger. The expansion from a discount store to a superstore also will do nothing economically for the area, because all that is being added is another grocery store, which will, in all likelihood, have the impact of stealing market share from other competitors in the area, like Stop & Shop, a unionized store. Readers are urged to leave a message for the Swansea Planning Board by calling (508) 324-6730 with the following message: “I’m calling to say how appalled I am at the Planning Board/Conservation Commission approval of Wal-Mart’s bid to tear down their existing store just to build a larger facility in the same mall. All this will bring to Swansea is more traffic, more crime, and more land covered with asphalt. The neighbors have already sued once over the issue of traffic and parking — and the new plan is almost the same size as the old one — so that’s not really a factor. The new plan adds more than 380 new parking spaces on undeveloped land, on top of the 972 spaces in the original plan. Swansea’s new zoning code requires only 551 spaces. This means Wal-Mart’s parking lot today is 145% above the required zoning. This is wasteful and unnecessary. All the larger Wal-Mart will do is steal market share from existing grocery stores. But it does not mean new jobs or revenues for Swansea. This is a frivolous project that offers little or nothing to taxpayers. Wal-Mart should have been made to do in ‘in-box conversion’ which would have changed the format of the store without requiring any increase in square footage. When Wal-Mart comes back into the Planning Board to shrink its parking lot, ask them to go down to the 551 space minimum. Then ask them if they’ve considered the idea of an ‘in-box conversion,’ which would allow them to convert their existing 105,000 s.f. discount store into a superstore, without upsetting all the neighbors, and ending the Superior Court appeal.”