Asheville City Council

“Wal-Mart is terminating this project and will no longer be pursuing this site.”

— April 11 memo to the city from Wal-Mart’s attorneys

The word went out just before noon on Tuesday as neighborhood activists, Council members and staff, and the media were all steeling themselves for a long night: Wal-Mart had backed out.

The corporation, which seems to stir public outcry every time it comes to town, gave notice to the city that it is not going to pursue building a new superstore on the Smokey Park Highway in West Asheville at this time. Beyond the perennial pros and cons that typify Wal-Mart debates, this project sparked controversy because it would have uprooted a 50-unit trailer park.

Jennifer Fulford of Save West Asheville, a group that had rallied opposition to the store, said she was online gathering last-minute information for the public hearing when an e-mail from the city arrived. She was on the phone immediately, checking to see if anyone else had seen the message.

“It was like, ‘Wow! Is this for real?’ I had to read it to other people to solidify in my own mind that is was real.”

The e-mail pulled the plug on that night’s upcoming public hearing, leaving the activists with a mixed sense of victory and bewilderment. “A number of people I have talked to in the group have said: ‘Whew! What a big weight off our shoulders,'” Fulford told Xpress.

Quoting a letter from the retail giant’s Raleigh-based attorneys, Troutman Sanders LLP, the e-mail read, in part: “Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust (‘Wal-Mart’) is withdrawing its application for Conditional Zoning to be heard at the April 11, 2006, City Council meeting.”

The next line cleared up any ambiguities about what that might mean: “Wal-Mart is terminating this project and will no longer be pursuing this site.”

By Tuesday, the day the hearing had been scheduled, Wal-Mart spokesperson Tara Stewart was already on her way back to Raleigh when Mountain Xpress reached her by phone.

“We are disappointed,” she said. “We were looking forward to serving the people of Asheville.”

Stewart would not say what specifically had led to the retailer’s decision to abandon the project, noting only: “There are a lot of variables to make a site like this work. It is a complex site with a lot of issues. We couldn’t make the site a success.”

Down to the Wire

The e-mail was only the latest in a handful of strategic moves by both Wal-Mart and its opposition.

On Thursday, April 6, Asheville residents submitted a protest petition to the city signed by property owners bordering the site. Such petitions, often submitted at the last minute to dodge technical challenges by developers, require a supermajority — in Asheville’s case, a 6-1 City Council vote — for the project in question to gain approval.

That same day, Wal-Mart informally asked that the public comment scheduled for the April 11 meeting be delayed. But the required written request did not follow, and it’s uncertain whether Council would have approved a continuance. On Friday, Wal-Mart rescinded that request, in effect green-lighting the public hearing once again. Then, on Tuesday, mere hours before Council was to meet, notice came that the retailer had backed out altogether.

Only Wal-Mart knows how much the protest petition influenced its decision to back off, and the company isn’t saying. But marshaling six votes in support of the store would clearly have been a tall order.

“A supermajority is a very high bar to set, especially for such a controversial project,” noted Council member Brownie Newman before Tuesday’s meeting began.

Newman and fellow Council members Robin Cape and Bryan Freeborn had all expressed grave doubts about the project.

“I would like to think that the protest petition did have an impact,” Simone Wilson, who owns property adjacent to the proposed site, told Xpress. “I don’t think it was the only thing. We may never know all the things that went on politically.”

And protest petition or no, there may not have been enough votes to see the project through.

Council member Jan Davis said he saw some good sides to the store but didn’t think it would have won approval.

“I don’t think there was a will on Council to see it pass,” he told Xpress, though he aired some reservations about the wholesale rejection of Wal-Mart. The store, he said, “may have been a better part of the community than the organized opposition would like to say.”

Asheville resident Tim Peck, who attended the Council meeting intending to voice support for Wal-Mart, spoke during the meeting’s public-comment section. He said he was disappointed with Wal-Mart’s withdrawal, lamenting the loss of jobs and pointing out that the company had discussed some financial assistance to help relocate the current residents of the site, an offer that may not come around again.

Council member Carl Mumpower responded to the news by e-mail, chiding others on Council for what he saw as changing policies in midstream. “Through our policies and governing ordinances, we invited Wal-Mart to come to Asheville for dinner,” he wrote. “On their arrival it was apparent that a Council majority regretted that invitation.”

Cape, meanwhile, indicated that she would have like to have seen a public hearing where the fundamental issues related to the store’s presence could have been explored.

“For Wal-Mart to pull this tonight is a disservice to our community,” she declared.

There’s no telling what would have happened if the hearing had been held, but despite Wal-Mart’s retreat on this specific project, it seems clear that this won’t be the last time the smiley face comes to town.

“We know Wal-Mart is not done with this area. It’s too attractive for them to leave altogether,” Fulford told Xpress.

And company spokesperson Stewart confirmed that view, saying, “We’ll keep looking.”

In Wal-Mart’s wake

The last time Wal-Mart came to a Council meeting, in 2002, a high tide of demonstrators washed up on the steps of city hall. Media representatives gleefully soaked up slogans and sound bites from crowing crowds of pro- and anti- forces alike.

This time, however, it was only the press that gathered, baking in the sun outside the building’s marble front entrance.

Blame the Internet, or at least an organized phone network.

On the doors of City Hall, staff had posted a large sign announcing (in both English and Spanish, as many residents of the proposed site are Hispanic) that the hearing had been cancelled. But word must already have spread quickly through the area, because only a few people turned up.

Inside, Mayor Terry Bellamy read the letter from Troutman Sanders and announced that the hearing was officially removed from the Council agenda.

But Wal-Mart’s no-show did not prevent some residual conversation about the project’s implications. In the past few months, the Wal-Mart debate has exposed some soft spots in city policy that remain, even if the proposed superstore died a premature death.

Highway business-district zoning, noted Newman, limits Wal-Mart or similar stores to 75,000 square feet, but a structure with multiple tenants can be as large as 200,000 square feet. Under current codes, a Wal-Mart that adds a small retailer like a fast-food counter or an eyeglasses dealer would qualify the store for more than double that 75,000-square-foot floor space.

“They are applying for a 180,000 square foot store, claiming it is a multitenant store, like a mall,” Newman told Xpress. “The reality is, it is a gigantic Wal-Mart with a little McDonald’s in it.”

And though this is technically an acceptable interpretation of current policy, it goes wholly against the spirit of the Unified Development Ordinance, Newman said.

“If that had come before us, I think it would have been fair to consider them for that [interpretation of the zoning],” he continued, asking Council to find a way to tighten up that language.

A Cooper Boulevard mobile-home park was also at the heart of the debate. The complex is predominantly low-income, and a county ordinance prohibits moving trailers built before 1976 to a new location.

Because the park is not zoned residential, noted Newman, residents there are more likely to be booted out quickly if the property is sold to a developer. The current owner has said he would still sell the property, even if Wal-Mart weren’t involved. Newman asked city staff to identify other parks that might be similarly at risk. Both issues may come up again when Council considers land-use issues at its work session next month.

Also getting a word in was the Cooper Boulevard Community Support Network, a coalition of nonprofits that’s been working with the mobile-home community since the Wal-Mart project was announced a few months back. Group representatives Erin Krauss, Jill Rios and Craig White made two proposals for addressing what they called a policy issue: create a land trust headed up by local nonprofits that could purchase and preserve such clusters of affordable housing, and research ways to require developers buying such properties to give financial assistance to the evicted tenants.

Mumpower took a dim view of the idea, declaring, “If I owned property with a mobile home on it, my knees would be shaking right now.” But Newman and Cape called it a land-use issue that is therefore appropriate for discusion at the May work session.

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