Developers are pulling a major bait-and-switch in Cecil Township, Pennsylvania, a community with a population of around 10,336 as of 2007. According to the Pittsburg Business Times, two developers, Horizon Properties Group LLC and Cullinan Properties Ltd. have joined up to do an extreme makeover of a project known as “Southpointe Town Center,” which is neither a town, nor a center. This project in Cecil Township is part of Southpointe II, a public-private partnership between Horizon Properties and Washington County, Pennsylvania, a new mixed-use community sitting on 589-acres in Cecil. But now the project team wants to convert a mixed use project into a retail center anchored by a Wal-Mart supercenter. Southpointe Town Center was supposed to be a “pedestrian-scale streetscape of boutiques and restaurants” according to the Business Times, complete with office space and a 14 screen Cineplex. But now Horizon and Cullinan have made a radical change: 500,000 s.f. of retail, showcased by a Wal-Mart supercenter. One insider on the Cecil deal said that these developers are trying to convince Wal-Mart to drop out of plans in North Strabane, Pennsylvania, and move to Southpointe in Cecil instead. The community of Cecil is already heavily saturated with Wal-Marts. There are 12 Wal-Mart stores within 25 miles of Cecil, including 7 superstores. There is a Wal-Mart discount store less than 6 miles away in Carnegie, and a superstore 8 miles away in Pittsburg. To date, the residents of Cecil have had little opportunity to respond to this dramatic switch, which only came to light within the past week. Nothing has been presented yet to the Board of Supervisors in Cecil. The Business Journal said the change to a big box format instead of a “lifestyle” center with upscale boutiques, is because the market is not strong for the “lifestyle retail center” with an “open-air walkable urban neighborhoods with a town center lined with a mix of stores that include fashion boutiques, restaurants and entertainment.” “It’s obviously a very dramatic change to what their original plan was and what the township bought into,” one real estate analyst said. “At the same time, the lifestyle development business has screeched to a halt. So what do you do?” Instead of stores like Orvis, American Eagle, and Coldwater Creek, the developers are playing it safe with Wal-Mart. So much for pedestrian scale.
The township manager in Cecil told the Business Times that neither Horizon nor Cullinan have approached the township with new plans yet. According to the Business Times, the township indicated that Cecil officials “will be disappointed if it diverges too much from the idyllic town center of bustling chain stores.” Yet the township official seemed resigned to the big box plan if it is submitted. “If Wal-Mart meets the basic requirements of the Planned Overlay District over there, I think it would be very difficult to keep Wal-Mart out,” he said. With this passive approach to zoning, the “idyllic town center” concept is about to die a cruel death. Readers are urged to call Kevin Camerson, the Chairman of the Cecil Board of Supervisors, at (724) 745-2227 with the following message: “Dear Chairman Camerson, Cecil is surrounded by Wal-Marts. Just minutes away in Carnegie, and a short drive to the supercenter in Pittsburg. Don’t let the developers turn your town center mixed use project into a big box mall. Because the plans for a big box store have not been filed yet, the township should immediately pass a zoning ordinance limiting the size of a retail building to 65,000 s.f. Failing that, you can adopt a six month moratorium to allow Cecil to push back from the table and come up with zoning changes that will make developers fit the scale of your small community. Don’t take the passive attitude that it would be hard to keep them out. It’s not hard — it can actually be done with a one sentence amendment to your zoning code. But you need to act now — before a proposal is foisted on you. The new Town Center plan is a real bait-and-switch — but I hope you won’t go for the bait.”