Last night Wal-Mart spoke ten little words that made hundreds of its opponents in Cordova, Tennessee very happy: “We’re done. We’re not going to build a store here.” On September 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that things had come to a head in Cordova over a Wal-Mart project that was controversial from start to finish. In the process of pitching a superstore, Wal-Mart ended up having to shrink the plan and make other concesssions to neighbors. On July 8, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart had reduced the size of its proposed superstore, cut down the parking lot, and even offered to pay for road improvements — all to woo support. The story goes back to January of 2008, when Wal-Mart announced that it wanted to build a supercenter in Cordova — a community located on the northeast side of the City of Memphis with a population of roughly 53,000 people. When Wal-Mart’s plans became known in Cordova, a non-profit group, the Gray’s Creek Association (GCA), began putting up signs along a large area of unincorporated land that read: “Gray’s Creek Preservation Area.” The group pushed for smart growth development in Cordova — not Wal-Marts. The area is saturated with Wal-Marts. A total of 14 Wal-Mart stores are located within 20 miles of Cordova, including a Wal-Mart supercenter on Germantown Parkway just minutes away, and a supercenter in Bartlett 4 miles away. In fact, 8 of the 14 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Cordova are supercenters. There is no conceivable market need for additional Wal-Marts. The location of Wal-Mart’s latest proposal along Macon and Houston Levee roads, is located on land within the Gray’s Creek Plan, a set of guidelines that Memphis and Shelby County adopted to preserve the area’s property values and to protect it from intense commercial growth. Folks in Cordova had been hoping that Wal-Mart would build their store in the 1.2 million s.f. Mall of Memphis. The giant retailer was under contract to buy 22.5 acres of land there, and had submitted site plans for a 175,000 s.f. store with city and county officials. But last November, Wal-Mart announced that it was pulling out of the Mall of Memphis, citing the company’s national retrenchment of new superstore development. County planners recommended in December of 2007 that the Land Use Control Board (LUCB) toss out Wal-Mart’s plan, because the local roadways cannot handle the influx of projected traffic. As the neighbors got more upset, Wal-Mart began asking the LUCB for more time to work on their plan. The retailer asked the Board to delay its hearing until February, 2008. The Board had already agreed once to give county planners more time to review the project, and for community groups to meet with the Wal-Mart, to urge the company to come up with more of a “creative town center-style design.” County Planners agreed with neighbors that the Board should reject the plan because of worries of how the intersection of two lane roads would handle the cars. Wal-Mart’s reaction to these concerns showed more than a little corporate insensitivity. “We neither agree nor disagree,” said Wal-Mart’s senior manager of public affairs. “Traffic is a concern with that location for both sides. But it’s not incumbent upon Wal-Mart to fix the county’s traffic problem.” In mid July, the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development (OPD) recommended that the Wal-Mart supercenter in Cordova be rejected. The OPD said the intersection of Macon and Houston Levee would not work — even with the changes in Wal-Mart’s second proposal. The OPD staff wrote: “it remains the opinion of the staff that the existing public facilities (namely roads), cannot absorb the impact of introducing a regional-sized retail facility such as this Wal-Mart Super Center.” The OPD said the project “should be phased or of a smaller scale to permit the construction of public facilities to keep pace with development of the property and surrounding area… More mixed uses in smaller buildings or tenant spaces with varied business hours of operation, rather than a dominant single user, would better disperse traffic and lessen demand on the transportation infrastructure.” On July 10th, two days after its staff recommended thumbs down on the project, the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board approved Wal-Mart’s superstore. At the meeting, Chip Saliba, manager of land use controls at the OPD, presented OPD’s arguments against the development. Wal-Mart’s lawyer said that the retailer was prepared to make a $2.4 million investment to relieve the “current bad situation” on the two-lane intersection where the store will be located. Wal-Mart also claimed that the new supercenter would increase traffic by 11.2% — just 1.4% higher than the traffic increase expected from any other commercial development at the same location. The Gray’s Creek Association testified against the plan, saying the plan violated the intent of Mayor A.C. Wharton’s Sustainable Shelby initiative. Parents from the Macon Hall Elementary School said the project poses safety dangers to 1,100 students walking to and from school. The LUCB debated the issue of whether or not this project would serve a ‘regional’ trade area. One Board member said Wal-Mart did not have regional draw because a plan needed 800,000 s.f. to be considered regional. Gray’s Creek opponents said shoppers will have to travel for miles of rural roads to reach this store. The LUCB ended up voting against its own staff recommendations, saying that Wal-Mart had “bent over backwards” to address the concerns of neighbors. Wal-Mart left the meeting telling the Memphis Business Journal it was “thrilled with the outcome,” and saying the positive outcome was “surprising in light of the hurdles the retailer has faced since first proposing a store on the site late last year,” according to the Business Journal. “It reflects the hard work and sincere effort to communicate with the neighbors and the government,” Wal-Mart said. The neighbors had only 10 days to file an appeal, which would then go to the Shelby County Commission. The Gray’s Creek Association vowed to appeal the decision — and on August 14th Sprawl-Busters reported that a group called the Citizens for Sustainable Growth, including the Grays Creek Association, the Cordova Leadership Council and the Parents and Friends of Macon Hall Elementary School had filed an appeal with the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which has to approve the supercenter. The Memphis City Council also has to sign off on the plan. Memphis lawyer Brian Stephens has been hired to represent the citizen’s group.”There’s certainly a lot of push across the entire U.S. for a way to create a more sustainable urban environment,” Stephens told the Daily News. “And our main points of opposition here are that there’s just a real lack of infrastructure… if we continue to have urban sprawl go farther and farther out (into the county), that means less money for the rest of the city. Stephens also repeated the fear that another supercenter means more stores closing — including some of Wal-Mart’s nearby discount stores. “The plans for the building look great, but it’s going to potentially shut down one of the other Wal-Marts in the vicinity,” Stephens explained. “We’ve already got two Supercenters nearby. And Wal-Mart has a history of when they open up a new Wal-Mart in an existing market, they shut down one of the other Wal-Marts. And we don’t want another empty big box retailer in Cordova or on Stage Road.” The county’s land use, planning, transportation and codes committees all decided not to make any recommendation on this politically hot button issue. Last night, Wal-Mart reached the end of the road. The Shelby County Commission rejected Wal-Mart’s plan. “The road situation cries out that we vote with the neighbors on this,” one Commissioner who represents the area, said. Attorney Stephens was quoted by the Memphis Appeal newspaper as saying that the store would promote the sprawl that blighted and drained communities. “We can do things a little smarter. We can do things a little brighter.” Wal-Mart’s lawyer insisted to the end that his client had worked hard to appease planners and neighbors since it first applied for the site plan approval, had reduced the building’s size from 176,305 s.f. and repositioned the store further from nearby homes. Wal-Mart even agreed not to use its blue and gray color on the exterior of the building, but to construct a mostly brick building with ‘earthtone’ signs and the company’s new logo. But apparently earthtones did not color the decision in Wal-Mart’s favor. “We’re done,” Wal-Mart said. We’re not going to build a store here,” Wal-Mart’s spokesman said right after the vote.
The Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council both needed to deny the citizen’s appeal in order for Wal-Mart to move forward. The store issue is on today’s Memphis City Council meeting — but since the Commission has rejected Wal-Mart, the city’s vote is now moot. The citizen’s group has said that Cordova should work to “tighten and improve” the land review process, especially in light of the county’s recent move toward sustainability. The group said the rural roads, the existing traffic congestion, and the nearby schools and homes around this site, make the location of a huge supercenter an incompatible land use. In this case, Wal-Mart said it had at least 2,000 signatures supporting the project — but the people who will have to live with the store night and day, the Gray’s Creek Association and the Cordova Leadership Council — never endorsed the first plan or the “smaller” revision. Wal-Mart claims that even though they already have one supercenter 5 miles away on Germantown Parkway, and a 2nd. supercenter 6 miles away on Route 64, that they still want this one. They need another supercenter to spread out the demand, they said. Readers are urged to email the Chairman of the Shelby County Commission, Deidre Malone, at [email protected] with the following message: “Chairman Malone, It’s great news that the Commission has rejected the Wal-Mart supercenter plan for the Gray’s Creek area. Cordova is already over-saturated with Wal-Mart supercenters, and the retailer clearly couldn’t care less about the traffic problems it will create. This project is like cramming a size 10 foot into a size 8 boot. It would have caused local residents nothing but pain and discomfort. This site should be used for smaller, mixed-use purposes. Neighbors have been expecting for years a mixed use project with smaller buildings on that site. That would mitigate the traffic concerns, and be easier for people to live with. The LUCB staff were right: the residents want a town center, mixed-use approach in Cordova — not more suburban sprawl.” Then, email the Mayor of Memphis, Dr. Willie Herenton at: mayor
@memphistn.gov, and tell him: “Great news about the Wal-Mart defeat in Cordova. The City Council should now join ranks with the County Commission and vote down this supercenter too!”