[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]
After three years of public debate and negotiations, a development that would bring another Wal-Mart Supercenter store to Columbia was unanimously approved Tuesday by the City Council.
But the decision to allow plans for Grindstone Plaza, a 53-acre shopping center along Grindstone Parkway, was marred by several council members’ discontent with the developers’ inability to fill retail space at Rock Bridge Shopping Center, at Providence Road and Nifong Boulevard, that will be empty when Wal-Mart vacates the property.
“I get a great deal of community response about large, empty retail buildings and the lack of maintenance that takes place,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said. “The idea that the space was going to be occupied was a serious factor in my decision to approve the rezoning of the property.”
In the end, a compromise was found that alleviated the concerns of Hindman and Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash by including an amendment that will restate Aspen Aquisitions’ intent to fill all the vacant property in the old shopping center.
Before reaching the decision, Hindman and Ash said Aspen Acquisitions and partner Otto Maly broke their promise of filling the vacant spaces when they went before the council last year. In 2003, Maly told the council that a hardware store would replace Wal-Mart when it moved to its new location and a “high-end” grocery store would fill a vacated Nowell’s grocery store.
Ash said he understood the promise would be a part of the development agreement between the city and the developers. He said he worried that approving the development would set a precedent that allowed petitioners to make promises to the council, only to later renege on them.
“For me, it’s not really so much about vacant buildings, or this plan in particular,” Ash said, “but the possibility that someone can just make a statement at the time of rezoning in order to get the decision they want and then say, ‘Well, I know we made the promise back then, but it turns out we can’t.’”
Ash said that any change to a development agreement would be more symbolic and exist as gesture of good faith, as opposed to something that would hold a party legally accountable.
Van Matre and Maly said they failed to see what such a change to the development agreement would accomplish. Maly said that it was in his best interest to find a tenant for both the vacant Nowell’s because it costs $500,000 a year to maintain an empty building. But he also said he had no control over whether would-tenants find the 80,000-square-foot property adequate and affordable.
Van Matre said that asking his clients to make such a promise seemed meaningless and that Aspen Acquisitions had been more than willing to do what it was asked to make the development acceptable to the city and residents. He cited reimbursing the city for the planned extension of Green Meadows Road to Grindstone Parkway, constructing a storm water detention pond, and reducing the number of parking spaces as examples of the developers’ willingness to make changes based on suggestions.
Although several possible tenants expressed interest, Maly said the Nowell’s property did not meet their needs. He said he plans to raze the old Wal-Mart when it is vacated and replace it with another building while renovating the exterior of the rest of Rock Bridge Shopping Center.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser shared Van Matre’s perspective on debating the inclusion of an unenforceable promise in the development agreement that was beyond a developer’s control.
“You can’t hold everything in a box and not expect things to change,” Nauser said. “I don’t see any reason why we should tell these people they can’t occupy their new building until the old one is filled — that just doesn’t make sense.”
In other action, the council approved the extension of Chapel Hill Road from Scott Boulevard to Gillespie Bridge Road. Besides the 4,700-foot extension, the project also includes a traffic signal at the Chapel Hill-Scott Boulevard intersection, as well as various features to enhance pedestrian access in the area. The project will cost $2,787,300.