Wal-Mart foes question strategy

Some now say 17-acre alternative preferable to larger store
Wednesday, January 5, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:14 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On Park de Ville Drive, near the site where Columbia’s next Wal-Mart Supercenter will be constructed, front lawns are still dotted with “No Wal-Mart on West Broadway” signs.

Less than 24 hours after Wal-Mart defeated residents in a bitter rezoning fight, some members of the losing side are beginning to question the methods used trying to fend off the world’s largest retailer.

“We just stuck to, ‘We don’t want it there no matter what, and that’s it,’” said Andy Bromert, who lives about one block from the proposed development. Other opponents echoed those sentiments.

Columbia’s City Council voted 5-2 Monday night to rezone 23 acres of residentially and commercially zoned property to allow The Kroenke Group to develop more than 200,000 square feet of retail space, which will include a Wal-Mart Supercenter and other, smaller retail outlets.

“I’m not happy with it,” said Amanda Davis, another Park de Ville resident. “I felt like the city let the citizens down.”

Had the rezoning failed, a Supercenter of the same size would have been built by the retail giant on 17 West Broadway acres already zoned for commercial use.

Bromert, who opposed the rezoning, said he thinks too much time was spent fighting the idea of a Wal-Mart rather than trying to convince the council that a 17-acre development was, in fact, preferable.

“I think some of the people in our community really thought that they were going to be able to prevent a Wal-Mart from being there at all, and that was unrealistic,” he said.

Mayor Darwin Hindman and Third Ward Councilman Bob Hutton said at Monday’s meeting that they hadn’t heard any compelling arguments in favor of the smaller tract.

Building the stores will require the developer to buy and raze five homes. Harrold Ankeney, whose home will be torn down, said all five homeowners supported the 23-acre version. Several spoke before the council.

“They were going to build it anyway, and it makes a lot more sense to have the City Council have a say in the final plans,” he said. “It just makes more sense.”

Ankeney said the developer made each homeowner an initial offer, which he said was lower than an estimate he got on the cost of rebuilding his house elsewhere but higher than the home’s resale value. His property is assessed at $133,900 by the Boone County Assessor’s Office.

Ankeney said that with the Hy-Vee development across Broadway and an inevitable Wal-Mart, it’s time for those who live in the neighborhood to accept that commercial developments are a part of their lives.

“It’s never going to be single-family housing,” he said. “It’s just not that neighborhood any more.”

In exchange for the larger tract, the developer has promised to encase the Supercenter in brick, improve nearby roads to compensate for increased traffic and maintain a seven-acre natural buffer between homes and the development.

At Monday’s meeting, Hindman proposed shrinking the Supercenter by 10,000 square feet and moving that space to the other retail outlets on the site. Craig Van Matre, the developer’s lawyer, had said previously that limiting the store’s size would be a deal-breaker but agreed to Hindman’s request.

“When it came down to the wire, we decided it would be better to have Wal-Mart mad at us than the city,” he said.

Making that decision wasn’t easy.

“There were many conference calls and much beating of breasts and pounding on tables, and the bottom line was we have to go the extra mile because it’s a Wal-Mart,” Van Matre said.

Hindman and Hutton voted to rezone, as did First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton, Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless and Fifth Ward Councilman John John.

Chris Janku and Brian Ash, of the second and sixth wards, respectively, voted against rezoning.

After casting his vote, Ash said he thought the city needs a better way to determine where so-called “big box” stores can be built and asked the city staff to compile a report on zoning ordinances in other cities that include specific provisions for large retailers.

“I want to be very clear upfront: I’m not trying to stop big-box stores,” he said.

Council members took no action beyond requesting the report, meaning no finite changes will come in the near future.

Dave Evans, the opponents’ lawyer, called the reduction of 10,000 feet a “pittance” and said he still doesn’t believe Wal-Mart would have built on the 17-acre site if zoning had been denied. He acknowledged it would have been difficult to ask council members to gamble with that possibility.

“You can’t tell someone to take a chance. We were hoping they would. We were willing to. We were willing to live with a blue and gray and red one,” he said, referring to Wal-Mart’s traditional color patterns rather than the brick façade planned for the West Broadway store.

Evans said he’s not sure what role he or the organizations that formed to oppose rezoning will play as the development proceeds.

Developers must now draw up a development plan that details every square foot of the land, down to individual trees and parking spaces. Van Matre said his clients expect to break ground in August, and he doesn’t think stores will be open for business until late summer 2006.

“I think my clients are resigned to the fact that it’s going to take some time, but they’re used to it.”

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