An appeal of a proposed Walmart Supercenter on the edge of downtown will likely come down to two words — department store.
The core issue at the Feb. 19 appeal before the City Commission is whether the 97,000-square-foot Walmart is, in fact, a department store, a type of commercial use that is prohibited at the current Ringling Shopping Center. The Walmart would replace an empty Publix and mostly shuttered storefronts at the shopping center.
Thus far, some opponents of the big-box store and Walmart representatives have publically made their arguments.
A group of nearby residents appealing the planning board’s approval of the site plan for the Walmart says the store is not compatible with the neighborhood and doesn’t belong so close to downtown.
Wal-Mart representatives and city officials contend the supercenter would bring an economic boost to the area.
“Our project will generate new jobs for the community, help revitalize one of the city’s oldest shopping centers and provide customers with a new convenient choice for all their shopping needs,” said William Wertz, director of community and media relations for Wal-Mart’s east district.
Mike Taylor, former city planner, who has been representing the Alta Vista neighborhood in the appeal said it “seems logical” that one of the main factors in the appeal hearing will be the question of whether the proposed Walmart meets the definition of a department store.
Throughout the city, there are about 60 different zones, including three different kinds of zones for shopping centers.
The 9.7-acre Ringling Shopping Center is zoned Commercial Shopping Center Neighborhood (CSC-N).
The six residents appealing the store point to the zoning regulations for CSC-N property that allow small-scale commercial projects and prohibit a larger “single use” commercial building, including department stores.
The CSC-N zoning that prohibits department stores is designed to create a kind of neighborhood shopping center, smaller in scale than larger commercial centers, said Taylor.
According to the city’s zoning code, a department store is “a store of 15,000 or more square feet of gross floor area selling a wide variety of retail goods arranged in general departments.”
Taylor has stated previously that he believes city planners made an oversight in recommending that the planning board approve Wal-Mart’s site plan.
“This has nothing to do with Walmart,” Taylor said last week. “This could be X, Y or Z store. The issue is what the code says?”
When asked if Walmart is a department store, Wertz responded that the proposed Walmart “would have a full range of groceries, including fresh produce, meat and deli items,” in addition to general merchandise.
The proposed supercenter on Ringling Avenue is less than half the size of Wal-Mart’s typical supercenters, including the Walmart in South Sarasota.
“In a smaller supercenter, there would be less general merchandise,” Wertz said.
City attorney Bob Fournier declined to discuss the specifics of the appeal or either side’s case before Feb. 18, because of the quasi-judicial nature of the hearing.
The city attorney said the appeal was scheduled later in February, instead of the first City Commission meeting in February, to give some “breathing room” in case the city manager could set up a meeting between opponents and Walmart representatives beforehand and try to work out a compromise.
In a prepared statement sent after the City Commission voted Jan. 7, to hold an appeal hearing, Wal-Mart representatives wrote that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had already made compromises.
“We voluntarily held a well-attended community meeting and met on other occasions with individuals and members of neighborhood groups,” the statement read. “Based on input we received, our proposed site plan was modified to move the store closer to Ringling Boulevard and to create parking in the rear of the store. We also modified the exterior of the store to better reflect Sarasota’s design character and added several pedestrian-friendly features to the plan.”
Several residents who now oppose the project said they were initially willing to work with Walmart because they were under the impression that the city’s zoning code allowed the store.
“We didn’t have a clue it wasn’t zoned properly,” said Candy Spaulding, president of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association.
Spaulding said she thinks there is still time for Wal-Mart to address some of the residents’ concerns: including traffic in the area and its 24-hour operation. Some residents also want a pathway through the Walmart project to Payne Park.
“We’re hoping that it (the appeal hearing) will bring Wal-Mart to the table and that they will come up with another plan,” Spaulding said.