Apparently nothing pulls a crowd on the North Side quite like locals reeling from the idea of big-box giant Wal-Mart stomping around their backyard.
Wal-Mart's decision to build a Supercenter next to sprawling Hardberger Park at the corner of Wurzbach and Blanco has rankled residents in and around the neighborhood since plans first surfaced earlier this year. Local group San Antonians United for the Protection of Hardberger Park formed, pushing an online petition to stop the development that's since garnered over 5,400 signatures. The reaction out of District 9 was so loud that Councilwoman Elisa Chan took the rare step in February to float the idea of downzoning the proposed plot of land (Wal-Mart has yet to close on the property, Chan says), putting big San Antonio business and development on edge. The move, Chan says, was meant to prod Wal-Mart back to the negotiating table. “They walked away too soon," she said.
Since then, Chan's office has been in and out of talks with Wal-Mart reps trying to work out a plan agreeable to nearby residents and the big-box store. “Let's keep things in perspective,” she said at a packed meeting at the North Side's Jewish Community Center Tuesday night to update the neighbors on the negotiations. Chan then tried to sell the residents on a number of concessions Wal-Mart reps have said they're willing to make.
“This is a very complicated issue because there's a group of people talking about property rights, what this will do to business,” she said.
Chan spoke of Wal-Mart's original plan for the site, something that had not yet been disclosed, which incorporated a 180,000 square-foot Supercenter, open 24/7 and complete with an auto shop and gas station. Following talks Wal-Mart, Chan says, is now committed to one of two options: Either a 165,000 square-foot Supercenter with hours 6 a.m. to midnight, or a second, smaller 150,000 square-foot Supercenter open 24 hours a day – neither would have a gas station or auto-lube and tire shop. Chan also laid out a number of deed restrictions Wal-Mart has supposedly agreed to, keeping the space from ever turning into an adult video store, tattoo parlor, head shop, bar, funeral home, or (gasp!) a thrift store.
Judging from the crowd's reaction, Chan's pitch wasn't exactly a hit. More than concessions, many continue to insist the store simply doesn't belong there. As Chan finished detailing the deed restrictions (including a no-porn-theater provision) one gentleman shot out, “All of those things you named are preferable to Wal-Mart.” Others worried about the hundreds of trees on the 40-plus acre property, as well as drainage issues. One woman even worried having the new Supercenter nearby neighborhood schools would “encourage children to skip school.” (Don't worry, Councilwoman, our eyes rolled at that one too...).
And as the crowd continued to spill frustration, Chan eventually went on the defensive. “I'm not the one at fault. I inherited this.
It may be easy to say I'm folding here, but i'm not,” she said.
Eventually, some in the crowd asked if there's any way to block the store altogether. Chan's response: Residents could sue, but don't expect the city to jump in with support. Asked if she would follow through on her threat to downzone the property, which would essentially quash Wal-Mart's plans, Chan insisted she doesn't have the votes at City Hall to push it through.
-- By Michael Barajas, email@example.com