Wal-Mart has eight stores located within Tucson, Arizona, including 4 of its smaller Neighborhood Markets, two discount stores, plus a superststore on North Valencia Road and a second superstore on LaCholla Boulevard. The city is saturated with sprawling big boxes — but the company has been fixated on one location it wants for more than a decade.
For 11 years now, Wal-Mart has been trying to squeeze its way into the El Con Mall in Tucson. On June 28, 1999, Sprawl-Busters reported from Tucson that Wal-Mart wanted to build a superstore, along with a Home Depot and a 20 screen theater complex. Neighbors in the abutting El Encanto neighborhood — which is on the national historic registry — forcefully opposed the over-sized plan.
Within two months of Wal-Mart’s appearance, the Tucson City Council voted unanimously to ask the City Manager to write an ordinance banning the construction of big box retail stores of 100,000 s.f. or more, and to limit outdoor activities at retail stores. One city councilman said at the time the new ordinance was aimed at making sure that the city didn’t lose its sense of “community identity and sense of place.”
On September 15, 1999, Wal-Mart saw the writing on Tucson’s WAL, and pulled out of the project. Within two weeks of Wal-Mart’s withdrawal, Tucson had passed its new ordinance, which took effect October 27, 1999. The ordinance required developers of stores over 100,000 s.f. to file plans with the city addressing standards for such commonplace zoning issues as noise, traffic, lights and hours of operation. The new law also required a public hearing before a zoning examiner, with the final decision resting with the Mayor and City Council. The Tucson ordinance also limited non-taxable grocery items to no more than 10% of a superstore’s floor space.
Home Depot stayed in the fray throughout, and today there is a Home Depot store — and a Target — in the El Con mall where Wal-Mart now wants to build.
Despite its departure in 1999, Wal-Mart did not give up on locating in the El Con. In 2003, the giant retailer tried — and failed — to get the courts in Arizona to overturn the “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 Tucson’s big box law.
Ten years after its El Con defeat, Wal-Mart reappeared in an article by the Arizona Daily Star. The newspaper revealed that Wal-Mart was turning its attention to smaller superstores as a way to come in below the size cap in Tucson. The giant retailer had proposed a 91,000 s.f. store at the corner of Golf Links and Houghton Roads. “It’s a grocery store,” a Wal-Mart spokesperson said. “General merchandise and grocery to provide that value and convenience to our Tucson customers.” Apparently Wal-Mart was 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. “There is a lot of speculation about El Con. We would be interested in serving that community.”
This past week, roughly 7 months after the El Con rumors had hit the media, Wal-Mart officially announced that it wanted to build a 102,000 s.f. superstore in the west end of the El Con Mall, building a new store about the same size as the closed three-story Macy’s store at the mall. One of the provisions in the 1999 Tucson big box law specifically dealt with El Con. It allows a new store to be built if it fits into an existing footprint.
Wal-Mart hopes to have the project open for business by the middle of 2012. “El Con Mall is an area that’s been looking to revitalize and we have a chance now to make that happen,” a Wal-Mart spokesperson told the Arizona Daily Star.
The city’s Planning Administrator has already told the media that if the store fits into the Macy’s footprint, it will not require approval by the city council — despite the fact that the Wal-Mart will generate significantly higher traffic and crime than Macy’s ever did.
The current president of El Encanto Estates Homeowners Association had mostly positive comments to make about the existing big box stores like Target and The Home Depot, and the City Councilor who represents the El Encanto neighborhood,Steve Kozachik, even suggested that the store will lower neighbor’s anxiety about empty stores attracting crime. The same Councilor said Wal-Mart would attract local businesses to the El Con mall.
Apparently Councilor Kozachik has not read Wal-Mart’s rap sheet: it eats local businesses for lunch, and attracts a high level of crime to its parking lots across the nation.
Wal-Mart has promised the city that their new store will ‘create’ 250 new jobs. “It’s big news for Tucson,” the Wal-Mart spokesman told Inside Tucon Business. “We’ll be bringing jobs and sales tax revenue that the city sorely needs. A number of our customers are currently driving from mid-town to our stores outside the city limits,” the retailer said.
Such misleading statements are classic “Wal-Math.” In Wal-Mart’s arithmetic, one job created at Wal-Mart, minus one job destroyed at a local retailer, equals one job gained. Wal-Mart has no minus pad on their calculator. Any local official who thinks that Wal-Mart creates a significant net gain in jobs or revenue simply is suffering from economic illiteracy. As the researcher Retail Forward wrote seven years ago, for every one Wal-Mart superstore that is created, two existing grocery stores will close.
The Macy’s building is 22 years old. It was built around the same time as Richard Nixon was elected President. As retail buildings go, the Macy’s building still has plenty of life remaining in it, and its has the advantage of being three stories, which means more square footage of selling space than a one-story Wal-Mart. The Macy’s building is more appropriate for an urban area, while a one-store big box is more of a suburban model. The El Con is being transformed into a land-consumptive big box power center, surrounded by several historic neighborhoods. This is simply bad land use planning.
Wal-Mart’s latest plan to shrink their store 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 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, and the fact remains that this new project will be very dissimilar to Macy’s. The world’s largest retail discounter will bring increased traffic and crime that will leave city planner’s flat-footed unless they plan now for the true impact of this store.
Readers are urged to email Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup at: [email protected] and Ward 6 Councilor Steve Kozachik at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Walkup and Councilor Kozachik, I was taken aback by Councilor Kozachik’s enthusiastic support for the Wal-Mart superstore project in El Con. Yes, it is a victory for neighbors that this store will come in at 102,000 s.f. But are you both prepared for the increase in crime and traffic that this addition will bring to El Con?
In terms of design, it would be better to urge Wal-Mart to build a two story building with 50,000 s.f. per floor, and to incorporate many of the historic building elements found in the El Encanto neighborhood and other historic neighborhoods abutting this mall. What Tucson has done is create a suburban big box power center in the middle of historic city neighborhoods. Retail areas should have thematic connectivity to the homes that surround them.
You might also insist on operating hours that require this store to close by 11 pm, and not open before 8 am, with no overnight deliveries. Wal-Mart should also be required to sign a demolition bond, so that if they abandon this store and leave it empty for 12 consecutive months, they have to tear it down at their expense.
I certainly hope you will not repeat the voodoo economics from Wal-Mart that somehow this store will create 250 new jobs. In fact, this project adds no value to the mid-town economy, since most of its sales will come from existing merchants — including some already located at El Con. You will gain some ‘dark stores’ from this oversaturation of big box retail.
This kind of suburban, big box power center is so out of character with the surrounding land uses, that one has to wonder when will Tucson grasp that the quality of life and character of a neighborhood is more important than access to cheap Chinese products?
Wal-Mart knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. This seems to be the reining philosophy at the Tucson City Council as well.