In October of 2006, the Assembly in Anchorage, Alaska voted 8-2 to overturn a decision from its own Planning Commission that rejected a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter and a Sam’s Club on a parcel of 53 acres along Muldoon road. The Assembly unfroze the Wal-Mart project. Even by Alaska standards, this project was huge: a 228,000 s.f. supercenter and a 149,000 s.f. Sam’s Club. “This is a far better deal,” one assemblyman said at the time, “than anything that would happen should we say no.” More than 60% of the land Wal-Mart wanted was zoned for industry, which would have allowed a big box store — but a piece of the land was zoned for residential use — so the Assembly had to rezone that portion. Wal-Mart and city officials made a deal that they would rezone the land if Wal-Mart would “dress up” the fa??ade of the store, and give some land to the city for a park. Wal-Mart also was asked to construct a road with sidewalks, and other amenities — all bartered in exchange for a rezoning approval. Assembly members justified this deal by saying that if Wal-Mart was not allowed to build, the industrial land could end up being something worse — like an asphalt plant. “Boy, we’d hear from it then, wouldn’t we?” an Assemblyman told the Anchorage Daily News. But one Assembly member rejected the deal, saying, “The road work and the pocket park are not worth the harm of the rezone to this neighborhood.” Local residents in the Northeast Community Council also testified against it. “The process has been bought by Wal-Mart,” a member of the Community Council told the newspaper. The retailer promised the Assembly that their Wal-Mart was going to be ‘among the nicest in the country.’ “It’s going to be right up there,” said Wal-Mart’s marketing manager. “It’s going to be a beautiful store.” When the store was approved in the fall of 2006, the company said construction would begin sometime in 2008. But they were wrong. The head of a local union filed a lawsuit against the City in January of 2007. Wally Stuart, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1496, said in his lawsuit that one Assembly member had a ‘substantial financial interest’ in the zoning change and should have been recused from the vote. The Assemblyman in question revealed that he owned 30% of a mall located across the street from the proposed Wal-Mart. He admitted that the new project could increase the value of his mall. The other members of the Assembly saw no conflict, and the Assemblyman voted on the project, providing the critical 8th vote needed for the supermajority count required for a rezoning. The lawsuit said the Assemblyman “eventually became an advocate for the proposed rezoning ordinance.” The lawsuit also claimed that the Assembly made so many changes to the original plan, that it should have been sent back to the Planning Commission for review. On February 5, 2008, 15 months after the Wal-Mart store was approved, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wally Stuart won his case. A Superior Court judge ruled that the Anchorage Assembly broke its own rules when it rezoned the land for a Wal-Mart Supercenter and Sam’s Club. Judge Sharon Gleason wrote that Assembly members shouldn’t have allowed their colleague who owns part of a shopping mall near the proposed Wal-Mart, to cast the deciding vote on the project. “Our elected officials, our government, was operating improperly. … We had lost our voice,” Wally Stuart, told the Daily News. After their loss in court, Wal-Mart had to decide what to do with its property. They decided to build a smaller store on the property that is industrially zoned, rather than file again for rezoning. This week, it became clear that neither Wal-Mart nor the City Council has given up the project. This time, one of the opposing groups, the Northeast Community Council, has voted 25-8 in support of the project. Before the meeting, Wal-Mart mailed 11,000 “Hello from Wal-Mart” fliers to East Anchorage homes, asking residents if they supported the project and if they would be willing to speak at a public hearing, write a letter to the editor or send an e-mail to city officials. The flier claimed the store would hire more than 500 workers, and “will offer a greater selection of items to help folks save money and live better.” A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Daily News that 500 fliers were returned, and responses were 3 to 1 in favor of the stores. Wal-Mart said it sends out such mailers for just about every project it undertakes. In addition, Wal-Mart encouraged its 60 employees who live in the area to attend the Community Council meeting. “We let everybody in all of our stores know what was going on,” the company said. “Anytime we’re building anything we explain to the associates what’s going on, the processes. And if they want to go on their own time, they do.” The retailer said in an e-mail to reporters after the vote that the company was “very proud” to have the council’s recommendation. Some Community Council members noted that the meeting included “an unusual number of Wal-Mart employees,” the Daily News reported. “I didn’t like this plan nearly as much as the one that had been negotiated in the past,” said one Council member who voted for the project. “I had the feeling there were others who felt the same way.” The new site plan has been reduced from 53 acres to 29 acres. Wal-Mart has dropped the idea of a park, and the 200-foot ‘green buffer’ separating homes from the store. On the site itself, a landscaped boulevard through the site and a plaza are also gone. The reduced plan goes to the Planning & Zoning Commission on July 7th.
Wal-Mart has changed from a retailer selling cheap Chinese imports, to a community organizing machine. Borrowing tactics from political organizers, Wal-Mart now hires consultants regionally to help them identify their base of support, and then to turn them out at hearings. “Wal-Mart got much more organized this time around,” a Community Council member said. “The flier certainly caused or helped to encourage a lot of people who don’t usually come to community council meetings to come. I’ve always known a lot of people who do support Wal-Mart don’t come to the community council meetings.” The Community Council president, Mary Pedlow, said the vote was a reflection of the large number of Wal-Mart employees who showed up. “They had quite a showing of their employees,” she said. “There was a lot more people there than for a usual council meeting.” Anyone could vote at the meeting as long as they signed in with an address in the Council’s district. No check was made to assure the addresses used were valid. Wal-Mart is clearly highly invested in winning this store. It has already spent more than three years slipping on the ice in Anchorage — because of the legal actions of one private citizen. The Assemblyman who should have stepped down, told the newspaper he didn’t think a judge should decide if he had a conflict. The Judge quoted the Assemblyman in her decision, saying the official told his colleagues a rezone like the one being considered would be good for his property over time. He therefore had a conflict of interest that couldn’t be waived by the rest of the Assembly, the judge said. The Assemblyman told the newspaper, “I didn’t do it for personal gain. That isn’t, wasn’t and won’t ever be my motivation.” Ironically, Wal-Mart announced in February that it wants the city to hold off on another planned supercenter in Anchorage. This other project was expected to be Alaska’s first supercenter, but now Wal-Mart wants to delay its scheduled opening until sometime in 2009 or later. It was originally supposed to be open sometime in 2007. City staff said the project was hung up in “complex permitting and right-of-way and utility issues.” Readers are urged to email Mayor Mark Begich at [email protected] with the following message: “The new, smaller Wal-Mart site on Muldoon Road takes out all the amenities, and leaves Anchorage with just the big box. This makes the project even less desirable as a neighbor for residential homes. Wal-Mart loaded the Community Council vote with their own workers. The vote of 25 people should not be considered any kind of mandate. Remember: before Wal-Mart decided to send its own workers to the Community Council meeting, the store was rejected. The fact is: this project is still far too big, and in the wrong place. It will create a win/lose situation. Your taxpaying homeowners are the losers. A much smaller scale project, with more buffering to protect the neighbors might make sense. Even without a rezoning, the City Council can reject this plan for reasons that are scale-related. It’s too intense of a use, and is located too close to a residential community. It certainly is not a plus that this project is so close to the Begich Middle school. I urge you to reject Wal-Mart’s ‘smaller’ site when it comes before the Council.”