Three years ago, citizens in Iowa City, Iowa stopped Wal-Mart in the courts. The citizens sued to block a superstore, and while the case was in the Iowa Supreme Court, Wal-Mart backed out. Could the same scenario happen again in Iowa City? On September 12, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that city officials in Iowa City, Iowa were poised to take their third — and final — vote to allow Wal-Mart to shut down an existing discount store, just to build a bigger one on the same property by taking down two other retail stores as well. Local residents in Iowa City, have been saturated with big box stores. Iowa City already has a 110,000 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store on Highway 1 West. The city also has a 122,000 s.f. Target at the Coral Ridge Mall, and a 128,000 s.f. Dillards. They have a 97,000 s.f. Kmart as well. There’s also a Wal-Mart supercenter less than 5 miles away in Coralville, Iowa. There are three Wal-Mart supercenters within 25 miles of Iowa City — so the city’s 63,000 population has easy access to cheap Chinese imports within a short drive. Wal-Mart’s plan is to tear down its current store, Staples and an abandoned Cub Foods to build the new supercenter. The Cub store was closed because of competition from Wal-Mart. The Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission in late June delayed for a second time the processing of a Wal-Mart supercenter proposal. According to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, a number of Commissioners just didn’t like the looks of the proposed 189,000 s.f. Wal-Mart. “It seems like you didn’t look at the code when you planned this — the big-box standards,” the commission’s chairwoman told the retailer. “We’re not even close to meeting the minimum on these things.” The Commission wanted Wal-Mart to put more green space into their plan, and said the proposal itself was not compatible with the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for an integrated, pedestrian-friendly community. In response to the criticism, one of Wal-Mart’s engineers said, “We will definitely take a look at it.” To approve this plan, the Commission had to change an agreement that already exists regarding the development of this site. The original agreement says that the site is supposed to have “individual, unrelated buildings.” On August 12, 2008, Sprawl-Busters learned that the city council was required to vote to amend a conditional zoning agreement signed on the property when it was first developed. That agreement says that the parcel is supposed to be configured with several smaller stores arranged like a shopping center — not one huge box store. The citizen’s group, Iowa City Stop Wal-Mart, hired attorney Wally Taylor, who told the city council that the project did not meet the ‘essence’ of that existing zoning agreement. He also indicated that if the city council chose to ignore that agreement — which all the neighbors have relied upon in making their investment decisions — the citizens would consider appealing to court. Wal-Mart began an effort to get shoppers in their Iowa City store to sign petitions in favor of the supercenter. The retailer said it had gathered 1,600 signatures. At their meeting in early August, the Iowa City Council took no action, voting instead to continue the public hearing until August 26th, giving both sides several weeks to lobby the council members. In early September, the Iowa City Council swung over to Wal-Mart’s side, approving a second consideration of the proposal on a vote of 6-1. The lone dissenter was city councilor Mike Wright, who said he had doubts that Wal-Mart would be a good corporate citizen. The Council received a letter from International Brother-hood of Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa, criticizing them for supporting the proposal, citing Wal-Mart’s “policies that discriminate against its workers, including female and minority employees.” But the city council said the Wal-Mart plan was a land use issue, not a decision based on Wal-Mart’s status as a corporate citizen. “The appropriate forum for grievances against a corporation are the courts system and the state legislature,” one Councilor said. On September 24th, the City Council took its third and final vote on the project, amending the existing zoning agreement on a 6-1 vote. Attorney Wallace Taylor, the lawyer for Iowa City Stop Wal-Mart, said the retailer should have to live within the terms of a zoning agreement with the city. “I’d ask you to rethink your decision,” he told Councilors. “You don’t have to follow what the planning department and city attorney have told you.” Taylor said the citizens’ group would consider litigation to stop construction of the store. Gary Sanders, who leads the group Iowa City Stop Wal-Mart, told the media before the final vote that he’d wait until after the third vote to decide whether to sue Wal-Mart again, as they did successfully three years ago. It was announced today that Wal-Mart Real Estate has purchased the former Cub Foods property from Supervalu Inc. for $3.6 million. Wal-Mart hopes to have the new superstore open by 2011.
In 2005, Wal-Mart wanted to buy a 22-acre site on Ruppert Road in Iowa City for $3 million to build a supercenter. But Iowa City Stop Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit that claimed city officials followed improper procedure. The lawsuit became mired in the Iowa Supreme Court, and Wal-Mart ultimately dropped its plans. Wal-Mart’s proposal in 2005 was to build a 214,000-square-foot store. It was met with opposition by some residents who claimed the company ruins local businesses and treats its employees poorly. Two lawsuits were filed to try to stop the supercenter from being built. Though it ultimately received a permit to build the store, Wal-Mart walked away in July 2006 from a $3.1 million land agreement with the city, which owned the proposed site near the Iowa City Municipal Airport. It did so out of fear of losing the litigation, because the land was in a flood plain. The new supercenter will be the single largest retail building in the history of Iowa City. The community describes itself as a “community of neighborhoods.” The city’s Comprehensive Plan says that “neighborhoods are the building blocks which make up the larger communitycompact neighborhood design creates village-like neighborhoods with housing for a diverse population, a mix of land use… integrated civic and commercial centers, and streets which are pleasant for both motorists and pedestrians to travel on.” The Plan focuses on “Neighborhood Commercial” uses, which “provide shopping opportunities within convenient walking distance for the residents of the immediate area… The design of the neighborhood commercial center should have a pedestrian orientation with the stores placed close to the street, but with sufficient open space to allow for outdoor cafes and patios and landscaping. Parking should be located to the rear and sides of stores with additional parking on the street.” In the Economic Development section of the Comprehensive Plan it says, “Given the construction of approximately 1.3 million s.f. of retail space at the new Coral Ridge Mall, it is unlikely and probably not prudent for Iowa City to consider the development of large, new commercial centers in the foreseeable future.” Readers are urged to email Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Bailey, The destruction of an existing Wal-Mart just to build a bigger one is really frivolous. A 189,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter is more than aesthetically wrong for your city — its totally incompatible with your Vision Statement and your Comprehensive Plan. You will end up with a huge store that bears no connection to Iowa City’s goal of preserving the city’s character and identity. Your Comprehensive Plan says its ‘probably not prudent’ to consider additional large, new commercial centers given the Coral Ridge Mall. One Wal-Mart in Iowa City is one more than enough. You have other big boxes, and you have existing grocery stores which will fold if this project is approved. Your Plan’s goal is to “nurture existing businesses by encouraging their retention and expansion.” This project adds no economic value to your city, and is incompatible with the ‘collection of neighborhoods’ approach in your land use plan. I hope local residents again challenge the Council’s approval in the courts, and that Wal-Mart is forced to abide by the existing zoning agreement at this site. Approval of a superstore at this site amounts to a bait-and-switch on all the neighbors, who never dreamed — or wanted — a big box store on that site.”