Who says money doesn’t open doors? Wal-Mart got off cheap in Swansea, Massachusetts, by making a small donation out of its petty cash in return for a multi-million land deal. On March 16, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had plans to abandon its ‘old’ store in Swansea, 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 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. Swansea’s Zoning Board was scheduled to meet in September of 2007 to take up the expansion request — but a company spokesman told the Providence Journal, “Wal-Mart has no publicly announced plans for Swansea at this time.” A formal site plan proposal submitted to a town is a “publicly announced plan,” yet the company was clearly not ready at that time to lift the veil from its proposal. 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. Almost 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 is 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.
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. 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. They’ve done it elsewhere, they could have done it in Swansea. It looks like the Swansea Planning Board was for sale for $50,000. A very cheap price for Wal-Mart to pay.”