A coalition of west Louisville neighborhood leaders on Friday night hammered Walmart for seeking to build a suburban-styled superstore in their community at the old Philip Morris site.
Since Mayor Greg Fischer announced the $25 million project, the debate on the big-box retailer’s emergence at 18th and Broadway has shifted from jobs and retail needs to the superstore’s design.
Several residents at a public meeting argued Walmart should build a store that fits the California neighborhood’s urban landscape and complies with a long-standing city land use rule.
Walmart is seeking a variance exemption from a key provision in Louisville’s land code that mandates developers conform to existing neighborhoods.
A standard Walmart store is being proposed for the West End site, according to plans filed with the city’s planning commission. It is proposed to be 3.4 acres with over 650 parking spaces and 400 feet back from the street.
Residents at the community meeting said the city should force Walmart to build an urban-style store that is friendlier to pedestrians.
“It’s definitely a deal-breaker,” said Donald Duncan, a Russell neighborhood resident who attended the forum. “I’ve just been to Los Angeles and they have several examples of streetscape development. It’s a no-brainer, you just have to get this corporation in line to what this community really wants.”
Neighborhood leaders are seeking for Walmart store designs like the ones opened up Washington, D.C., last year.
Earlier this week, the city asked Walmart to reduce its parking plan by 20 percent and add features along the wall on the 18th Street side of the store. Several residents at Friday’s meeting said they don’t believe the Fischer administration and Metro Council members will represent their views in the planning process.
City officials were expected at the community forum, but organizers told WFPL that city planning officials pulled out two hours before the meeting.
“It’s insufferable that the city of Louisville had unmitigated gall to back out of this meeting at the last minute,” said the Rev. Gerome Sutton of the African-American Think Tank, which organized the event.
“There is no excuse under God and heaven for them not to be here,” he added. “It’s sinful and shameful.”
A panel of community activists and experts fielded questions from the audience in a discussion moderated by Chickasaw neighborhood president Donovan Taylor.
The panelists included Russell Neighborhood Association President Haven Harrington, Metro Neighborhood Planning and Preservation Director Martina Kunnecke, land use attorney Steve Porter and former city economic development officer Cassia Herron.
Most of the nearly 60 residents who attended the forum at West Chestnut Street Baptist Church favored an urban Walmart. One resident who could not be identified to WFPL, however, openly criticized the meeting and argued it may scare away much-needed jobs and retail options in the community.
“We have to drive 10 miles to get to a Walmart,” the man said before storming out. “No one cares about it being 400 feet away from the street or how many parking spaces it has.”
Metro Government has invested $1.8 million for six lots of land that were purchased to help finalize the deal. It is also providing a $500,000 grant to Walmart paid in $100,000 installments over five years, if the retailer meets a threshold of at least 225 new jobs.
Former Louisville planning director Charles Cash attended the meeting. He told WFPL that residents who are trying to convince Walmart to change its West End design are facing an uphill battle.
“It’s a very daunting task,” he said. “Most large scale companies like that have a template they use for their development sites and it goes way beyond the building. It’s all the way down to how their products are stocked.”
In 2002, Louisville was one of the largest and first cities to adopt a “form-based” provision in its land code.
The rule essentially creates a zoning district where a new Louisville business has to design its building to fit the surrounding community.
For dense urban corridors that usually means building a storefront facade that comes up to the sidewalk.
Cash said the form-based rule has been applied to small businesses and big-box retailers coming to other areas such as downtown or the Highlands.
By seeking a variance exemption, Walmart is seeking to go in the opposite direction and companies such as Walmart usually get their way, Cash said.
“The rule needs to be more stringently enforced,” Cash said. “When developers apply for waivers, the reviewing body, whoever it is, needs to think more carefully about the impact that’s going to have over the long-term.”