Wal-Mart supercenter on its way?

BIG BOX THEORY <br>Wal-Mart plans to expand its Forest Avenue store to nearly double its current 97,000 square footage, as indicated by the gray area.

Wal-Mart plans to expand its Forest Avenue store to nearly double its current 97,000 square footage, as indicated by the gray area.

Wal-Mart, the retail giant looking to expand its Forest Avenue store, crept a bit closer to that end Feb. 19, even though four Chico planning commissioners did all they could to slow the efforts of the mighty beast from Bentonville, Ark.

Last summer Wal-Mart’s plans to expand to a supercenter, which would add shelves of groceries to the usual fare of cheap merchandise, were temporarily derailed by a lawsuit and a curious lack of cooperation between the companies that own the properties involved with the expansion. Where the store sits and where owners want it to expand are actually two lots owned by two separate entities—Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Wal-Mart Real Estate Trust. City law says a building may not cross property lines.

At that June 5, 2003, sparsely attended meeting, the commission approved on a 4-3 vote a lot split to subdivide some of the property owned by Wal-Mart Inc. into two commercial lots.

Attorney Brett Jolley, representing local union interests, appealed that decision to the City Council, arguing that the lot split was a way of “piecemealing” two projects that would result in the expansion. After the council denied the appeal, Jolley filed a lawsuit arguing the expansion would have a detrimental effect on existing businesses, including the downtown. Such considerations, he said, must be made under the California Environmental Quality Act.

He said the expansion warrants a full environmental-impact report (EIR).

But the expansion couldn’t go forward until the property boundaries were realigned. And up until about three months ago, the two Wal-Mart companies apparently could not negotiate an agreement to adjust the property line.

On Feb. 19, in front of a packed house, most of which had come to bury Wal-Mart rather than praise it, the commission, against staff recommendations, voted 4-3 to require a full EIR, which will cost the company about $100,000. That amount will most likely not alter Wal-Mart’s plans; the cost of the EIR is fairly insignificant for a company that ranks as China’s eighth-largest trading partner.

Last year’s commission and council meetings had few in attendance, besides Wal-Mart’s battery of attorneys and Jolley and his client John Shannon. That is because for those meetings the agenda listed the issue as a routine lot split and appeal rather than the expansion of the store. That change was made a few days before the meeting, at the request of Wal-Mart. Attorney Jolley suggested at the time this was done to divert public attention away from the matter.

This year, however, the plans to expand were included on the commission agenda, and the council chambers were filled. Planner Pat Murphy told the commission that though some in the community expressed fear that Wal-Mart could have a detrimental effect on the downtown and other businesses, CEQA says that “economic impacts themselves shall not be treated as a significant impact” without direct evidence of “physical deterioration or physical blight” of a business district.

Staff, he said, has determined that Chico’s existing business community is strong enough to weather an expanded Wal-Mart. (Wal-Mart is reportedly looking to establish a second supercenter in north Chico, but at this point that has nothing to do with the expansion of the Forest Avenue store.)

Downtown businesses cater to a different market, and big stores help establish Chico’s role as a regional shopping area, Murphy said. And, while a Wal-Mart supercenter may have an impact on other grocery chains, Murphy said, there is no evidence that the closure of such stores leads to urban decay.

He held up as an example the fact that last June Sports LTD filled the vacancy left by Safeway on Mangrove when it moved into its new digs next door. The huge downtown vacancy left by Sports LTD was recently taken over by an antiques store.

Still, many in the audience didn’t buy into the rationale that Wal-Mart’s expansion would not have significant impact on business or traffic.

Commissioner Irv Schiffman said he was concerned about the supercenter’s potential effect on neighborhood commercial zones. Grocery stores like Safeway and Albertson’s act as the anchor tenant for such shopping areas. Their closings, he said, will have a detrimental effect on the shopping area possibly forcing shoppers to drive to other areas for their groceries.

“Would that not have a physical effect on the environment if those stores have to close because of a superstore coming in?” he asked.

“Staff doesn’t have a crystal ball,” Murphy answered, reiterating that another business could move into the vacant store.

Wal-Mart’s attorney assured the commission the supercenter would have no dire impact on surrounding grocery stores. There is no evidence of this happening elsewhere in the state, she said. (Of course, Chico is on the front lines of supercenter stores in California, so there is no anecdotal evidence to examine yet in this regard.)

Supercenter protesters, and there were plenty, for the most part voiced opposition based on the perceived philosophical stance of Wal-Mart as a low-wage, heartless, multinational corporation looking to expand without regard to the impact on the community.

The Green Party of Butte County weighed in against, as did the Trinity United Methodist Church; there was a call for a boycott and protests that the commission considerations were much too narrow and did not take in the community as a whole.

A couple of Wal-Mart workers stood up and said their job conditions were misunderstood.

Raymond Richter, brother of the late Assemblyman Bernie Richter, recounted the good life of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and said that while Wal-Mart’s existence may drain jobs initially, it also creates lower prices for groceries leading to more spending on other items and as a result more jobs in other industries.

“In the end,” he said, “everybody benefits” and Wal-Mart’s expanded store will raise the quality of life in Chico. His remarks were not well received by the anti-Wal-Mart folks.

When it was over, four commissioners—Schiffman, Jon Luvaas, Kirk Monfort and Mary Brownell—voted to require Wal-Mart to conduct a complete EIR.

According to Jolley, that will take up to a year to bring back to the commission.

“If significant and unavoidable effects such as traffic, air quality or urban decay are identified,” Jolley said, “the city decision makers will be required to adopt a document called a ‘statement of overriding consideration’ in which they find that the benefits of the supercenter expansion overcome the environmental burdens created by the significant environmental impacts. If they can’t make this finding, the project cannot be approved.”

If approved, the expansion will also necessitate improvements along Forest Avenue, widening Wittmeier Drive and Baney Lane, a traffic signal at Wittmeier and Forest and improvements to Forest at East 20th Street, Baney Lane and Wittmeier Drive.