Walmart returns with plans to expand Chico store
At the end of 2009, after a long-fought battle with concerned citizens and a divided Chico City Council, Walmart’s plans to expand its Forest Avenue store were denied. The ultimate decision, reached by a liberal-majority council, was that the environmental impacts outweighed any potential benefits of the project. The company was told it must wait at least a year before bringing the idea back to the city.
Now, six years later, the plan to expand Chico’s Walmart is back on the table. It appears it’s not the only one, either. Plans for a new 197,000-square-foot Supercenter in Oroville that were first submitted in 2006 are finally making headway. That project could break ground by the end of 2015. And there are rumblings of progress on plans for building a Walmart in Paradise—those also had their beginnings in the middle of the 2000s.
“It’s a new project, but it looks a lot the same,” Chico Associate Planner Mike Sawley said of the proposed Forest Avenue expansion. “We went back and forth [with Walmart] the past couple months. Now they’ve submitted complete applications. We understand what they want to do and are starting the process of environmental review.”
Current plans call for a 64,386-square-foot expansion of the existing store (about 20,000 square feet less than previously proposed), which would require merging with the large, empty swath of land between Walmart and Wittmeier Auto Center. That would bring the store to 190,275 square feet and would include the addition of a grocery entrance as well as increased grocery and general merchandise inside. A gas station is planned for the southeast corner of the now-empty lot—similar to the one at Costco, Sawley explained—and the store is proposing the addition of a drive-through pharmacy and merchandise pick-up window.
“The interior and exterior of the store will undergo a complete renovation, including parking lot lighting and signage, and landscaping,” reads a Walmart press release. “The proposed project will maintain solar panels that currently exist and incorporate sustainability features in building and site design with the goal of reaching a building efficiency rating that is greater than the Title 24 requirement.”
The release goes on to note that in 2014, the local store donated $13,000 to Chico nonprofits. “The store will be part of a local solution to create new jobs and economic opportunities, and bring about 85 new job opportunities to the community, plus construction jobs,” it continues.
Proponents of Walmart in the past have touted the expansion’s potential for increased sales tax revenue, as well as added discount merchandise and more local jobs. Opponents point to increased traffic—plus related greenhouse gas emissions—and the potential for urban blight as main reasons to deny an expansion.
“As an organization, we feel there are many aspects of a super Walmart that conflict with the goals of protecting the environment and supporting local economies, overall, in a broad sense,” said Robyn DiFalco, executive director of local eco-advocacy group Butte Environmental Council, adding that the group had not yet taken a position on the expansion.
Walmart has submitted several applications to the city related to the expansion project, Sawley said. They include altering the parcel map to allow the store to build on the lots north of Wittmeier; two use permits—one for the gas station, the other for the drive-through; and a planned development permit to allow more signage than what it’s zoned for. Sawley explained that in that location, Chico allows up to 850 square feet of signage; the Walmart project calls for “two- to three times that amount.”
Before permits are issued, the project must go through the environmental review process. The city has hired an outside firm, First Carbon Solutions, to conduct the review. It will then go back and forth between Sawley, who’s overseeing the project on the city’s end, and the firm until Sawley is satisfied with its comprehensiveness. Last time around, the EIR got contentious, Sawley said. He didn’t oversee it that time, but said, “It incurred delays because it didn’t reflect our existing policies and rules quite right. I know for a fact we had to go back and have them redo the traffic section. We basically said, ‘Get it right.’”
Using last time as an example, traffic and urban decay likely will be the big issues for the project, Sawley said. The previous EIR found that one or more retail grocers in the area likely would close due to Walmart’s expansion. (There are already a Winco, FoodMaxx and Costco in the area selling discount groceries.)
“I don’t know who might close down, but there is some possibility—there was last time—that if you approve a Walmart expansion, some other square footage could go out of business,” Sawley said.
Sawley said the city has many requirements in place for a project such as this. The environmental review process will consider each attribute of the project and its possible impacts, as well as mitigation measures that could be taken to minimize the affects. A scoping meeting will be held on Oct. 15, during which time city officials and members of the public can weigh in on which issues the firm should look at when considering the environmental impacts of the Walmart project.
“There should definitely be a number of environmental provisions included in the permitting process, such as fulfilling city goals, for example, of 50 percent tree coverage in commercial parking lots,” DiFalco said. “Those kinds of policies often do not get fulfilled in small projects, but in big projects like that they need to be.”