On May 11, 2009, Sprawl-Busters narrated the case of West Kendall, Florida, a suburb of Miami-Dade County. The West Kendall Community Council took up a request from Wal-Mart Stores East to expand its discount store #1680 located at SW 88th Street. This is the continuation of a hearing that began at the Council’s April 2 meeting. Wal-Mart wants to convert its discount store, which is currently 117,847 s.f., into a superstore with 177,126 s.f. This increase of roughly 60,000 s.f. represents a 34% increase in store size. According to the Miami Herald, the new site plan for the project would push the project to within 56 feet of nearby residential properties. The superstore would have an uncovered garden center surrounded only by fencing. The Chairwoman of the Community Council, Patricia Davis, told the Miami Herald that she is concerned about the project expansion because the parking capacity of the store is not increasing. Community Councils were created as part of Miami-Dade County government to make zoning and land use decisions in a setting more accessible to the community. Community Councils are the advisory liaisons to the Board of County Commissioners. Each council is comprised of six members elected by the community and one appointed by the County Commissioners. Councils meet once a month to discuss zoning matters. Wal-Mart East has submitted a revised site plan to the Council, showing an addition to their existing building, and an expansion of their outdoor sales areas. Wal-Mart wants a waiver to the county’s zoning regulations, which require all uses to be conducted within enclosed buildings. Wal-Mart needs a waiver because they want their garden center to be without walls, with only a fence and wind-screening. County staff at the Department of Planning and Zoning recommended the waiver. But 214 protests were filed against the plan. There are already 8 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of this site. On June 16, 2009, the Miami Herald wrote that “the promise of more jobs has trumped compatibility issues” in this application. By one vote, 3-2, the West Kendall Community Council approved the Wal-Mart expansion. People at the hearing complained that the current big box design was an “eyesore.” The members of the Council who favored the larger store “were swayed by the need for job creation and by the changes Wal-Mart made to its original proposal in order to appease neighbors,” the newspaper wrote. Wal-Mart’s lawyer said the retailer met with representatives of two abutting communities last month, and agreed to shave off 9,100 s.f., to create a wider landscaping buffer on its west side, and to build a 15 foot wall to cut down on noise from its truck bays behind the store. These minor concessions will not change the daily traffic impacts, which opponents said would congest the area. But the leadership from one of the communities had clearly bought into the program. She testified that the superstore would give her neighbors “the convenience we need. We cannot be against an improvement to our community.” The Kendall Gate community submitted a petition with 77 signatures from neighbors in support of the plan. Wal-Mart told the Community Council that it had retained a political science professor at a nearby university to conduct a telephone poll of 300 registered voters living around the store. “75% of respondents were in approval and 13% were opposed,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer said. Another 12% had no opinion of the plan. The actual wording of the survey was not presented. But Maria Fuentes, who lives in Lago Mar South, said the Wal-Mart “is in my backyard,” and that she has had problems with rats, roaches, truck noise and flashing security lights coming from the back of the current store. Opponents argued that there were many superstores near this site, including Florida City, Hialeah and Miami Gardens. “These stores are on lots between 21 and 32 acres of land, while this property is only 14 acres,” one opponent testified. Wal-Mart’s claim of ‘new’ jobs was also challenged by opponents. “The amount of jobs that would be generated would have an adverse effect on surrounding businesses like small groceries,” opponents said. The total number of protests entered into the record has risen to 310. But Council Vice Chairman Jeff Wander said that if Wal-Mart forces smaller mom-and-pop stores out of business, they should fail “if they can’t compete in a free market.” Council Chair Patricia Davis and Beatriz Suarez voted against the plan, saying the store was out of scale with its surrounding neighborhood. But the worst blow came when member Nelson Diaz left the meeting before the Wal-Mart item was discussed. Had Diaz stayed and voted against the expansion, it would have failed.
Residents in West Kendall, Florida who are addicted to cheap, Chinese merchandise, already have their Wal-Mart on SW 88th street. There is also a Wal-Mart discount store a few miles away on NW 13th Terrace in Miami, and a Wal-Mart superstore a short drive away in Hialeah Gardens. Rather than encroaching further on nearby homes, Wal-Mart East could simply take its existing discount store and convert it into a supercenter, without adding a single square foot — including the enclosed garden center. This is called an “in-box conversion,” and is being done to avoid the messy permitting battles that happen when Wal-Mart tries to expand to the detriment of its neighbors. In this case, Wal-Mart is already in a dense urban environment, and its store — two times the size of a football field — would add another space the size of a football field. Naturally, the people already living in the neighborhood are not too pleased with the idea, and will fight it to the County Commissioners. This is not an economic development project for West Kendall, because the jobs and sales taxes it will bring are already in the area at other merchants. The addition of a garden center and grocery component will transfer sales from existing businesses, and add no value to the bottom line economic picture. Wal-Mart could side-step this controversy, and avoid another unpleasant encounter with upset residents, by announcing that it will do an in-box conversion and leave the neighbors alone. As it stands now, the additional traffic brought to the site — which will mean more cars, more often — is having to fit in the same size parking lot. Superstores, because of their grocery component, attract shoppers more frequently than discount stores. The resulting traffic problems will further tie up the site and erode home values along the way. Readers are urged to cut and email this article to the Chairman of the Miami Dade County Commissioners, Dennis C. Moss at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Moss, I hope the County Commissioners will take up the West Kendall Community Council vote on expansion of the area Wal-Mart. There were 310 protests filed in this case, and the Council allowed the expansion on a 3-2 vote, with one member walking out before the vote. There is no need for this enormous store so close to established neighborhoods. The Chairman of the Council, Patricia Davis, voted against it because it is too large for the site. The County should ask Wal-Mart to do an ‘in-box conversion’ of their existing store, and turn it into a supercenter without adding one new square foot to the building. They have done this elsewhere. The West Kendall site is already crowded, and this expansion will come at the expense of homeowners, whose property values will fall, and whose taxes should be abated downwards. No new jobs will be created, since most of the ‘new’ jobs will come from existing businesses that will be weakened, or die. It’s up to the County to protect the neighbors from this suburban sprawl threatening their homes.”