A glance at Wal-Mart’s impact

PLAYING THROUGH?<br> Wal-Mart has proposed a supercenter along the Esplanade in north Chico where the Sunset Hills Golf Course now stands.

Wal-Mart has proposed a supercenter along the Esplanade in north Chico where the Sunset Hills Golf Course now stands.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Voice your opinion There will be a public meeting to discuss the DEIRs at 6 p.m. on Jan. 30 in the City Council chambers. Check out the full documents online at the city of Chico Web site: www.chico.ca.us. There is also a public comment period that will end Feb. 19 for the north site and March 2 for the south expansion. Address your concerns to Patrick Murphy at pjmurphy@ci.chico.ca.us.

North Chico “Supercenter” DEIR
Forest Avenue expansion

Wal-Mart has two proposals on the table for Chico, and draft environmental-impact reports on both were released within the past two weeks. The term environmental-impact report is enough to turn most people off of reading one. But inside these meaty documents (the one for the north site is more than 550 pages long) is information that spells out just how Wal-Mart’s proposals would affect Chico.

The DEIRs look at a number of areas—land use, traffic and circulation, air quality, biological resources, aesthetics and economics—and rate the proposals based on their impact. When necessary and possible to lessen negative effects, mitigation is recommended.

Here’s a quick primer on both reports:

North Chico “Supercenter”
The proposal: The all-new store, which would include a large grocery section, would span about 210,000 square feet. There would also be about 1,000 parking spaces on the 18.5 acres off The Esplanade north of Garner Lane. The development would include the extension of a water main because there is no main that reaches the site, and would require the annexation of about 148 acres into the city of Chico.

Aesthetics: Putting a huge big-box store in a semi-rural area is certain to change the look of the place. It would be a significant change, but the city’s general plan calls for commercial development on that site.

Traffic and circulation: North Chico is simply not equipped to handle the large influx of traffic that is inevitable if Wal-Mart opens there. Significant changes in roads and placement of signal lights would be called for. Wal-Mart would be required to pay its fair share of the costs.

Land use: The proposed site is currently zoned for commercial use, but Wal-Mart’s proposal calls for it to be annexed into the city. “The forecast is that that site will be retail,” said Senior Planner Patrick Murphy, the Planning Department’s point person for the Wal-Mart projects. “But part of the issue when you look at the annexation is: Is this an appropriate time to annex that land? Are the roads adequate? What about the sewers and drainage? Is it the right time given the infrastructure?” The question of annexation will go before the City Council before the plan is handed over to the Planning Commission.

Economics: About half of the store’s total sales would be diverted from existing Chico businesses—that’s almost $49 million a year. The 24-hour supermarkets, like Safeway and WinCo, would likely take the biggest hit. As far as general merchandise is concerned, if stores can’t sustain a temporary dip in sales, one or two could close.

Forest Avenue expansion
The proposal: To expand the current Wal-Mart by adding 97,556 square feet of retail space (the existing store is about 125,890 square feet). The new store would include a large grocery section. The parking lot would also be expanded to include 504 additional parking spaces.

Traffic and circulation: A bigger store means more traffic. A number of road improvements have been outlined to ease congestion due to increased business and residential use of the area. Most of these improvements will go forward whether Wal-Mart’s expansion is approved or not, and the store would be expected to pay its fair share of the costs.

Economics: A max of $11.1 million in general sales and $8.3 million in grocery sales could be diverted from existing stores and result in the closure of one grocery store. Because the retail market in Chico is healthy and the closed store will not likely stay empty, it wouldn’t contribute to urban decay.

Land use: The biggest issue regarding land use is a public-policy one. “The city’s general plan has policies in place that encourage supermarkets to serve the daily needs of neighborhoods,” Murphy explained. The Planning Commission will have to look at the question: “If Wal-Mart may cause one of these neighborhood-serving supermarkets to close, what does that mean in regard to the general plan?”

The DEIRs also examine what the economic impact would be if both sites were approved. “At minimum one mid-sized store in Chico is at risk of closing, with the maximum potential of two to three stores, depending on their size,” it reads, in reference to general-merchandise shops. Also, one existing grocery store could close if it can’t make it through a three- to four-year slump.

Heather Schlaff, who heads Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy, says it’s important to look at both sites together. Her group, which opposes the Wal-Mart proposals, will not focus on just one.

“We really think that the changes would be significant to the character and quality of life of Chico,” she said. CARE has been gearing up over the past few months in preparation for the release of the DEIRs. Now she has her work (and reading) cut out for her.