Unsatisfied with the confines of its 142,000-square-foot building in Blaine, Wal-Mart wants to build a new supersized store across the street.
The big-box retailer, which operates a store on the west side of Interstate 35W, wants to construct a superstore on the east side that would include a full line of groceries. The newly proposed 180,000-square-foot store would be less than a mile’s drive from the old store — about 2,000 feet as the crow flies.
It’s a short distance, but it could mean a big boost in sales for Wal-Mart. It would free the store from a development covenant that limits the sale of groceries at it current location in the Village of Blaine shopping complex, according to city planning staff. Cub Foods is in the same shopping complex with the existing Wal-Mart.
Opposition to a proposed Wal-Mart seems par for the course these days, and this store is no exception. Opposing community members say this proposal is big-box bullying at its worst because there’s already a Wal-Mart close by and another Wal-Mart superstore under construction on Blaine’s west side, just 5 miles away. Opposing neighbors, whose front doors would be steps from the proposed store, are now imploring the City Council to choose community interests over corporate ones.
“It’s ridiculous,” said homeowner Linda Larkin, who opposes the plan. “It’s just going to devastate this area.”
The city’s planning director said the Ball Road property that Wal-Mary is eyeing has long been zoned for commercial use. There’s already some manufacturing in the area.
“From a big-picture standpoint, it’s the remaining corner on a freeway interchange. It’s been commercially guided and zoned since the 1970s,” said Bryan Schafer, Blaine’s planning and community development director. “It was commercial when the homes went in.”
City Council members, who will ultimately decide, are bracing for controversy.
“I know it’s going to get nasty,” said Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan. “We have a ton to look at it, including the transportation part of it and environmental part of it.”
Wal-Mart’s representatives and the city of Blaine now will prepare an environmental assessment work sheet that looks at traffic, noise and other impacts if the store is built on the 39-acre lot on Ball Road. That’s the precursor to submitting a development plan.
Wal-Mart first opened its doors in the Village of Blaine in 2002 after muscling Target out of the site. The city was selling land that would become part of the Village shopping complex along Lexington Avenue just west of I-35W. Both Target and Wal-Mart wanted to build there.
Wal-Mart threw in a $500,000 parks donation and won the bid, Schafer confirmed. According to property records, Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust paid $4 million for the site.
“The irony is the Ball Road site was available in 2001,” Schafer said.
Schafer said Wal-Mart agreed to a deed restriction limiting grocery sales with the shopping center’s master developer. That was before the explosion of the 24-hour superstore concept where big boxes bolster sales with full-service grocery sections, Schafer explained.
“This issue between big-box stores and [grocery stores] is happening all over the country. All these stores like Target and Wal-Mart all went in next to grocery stores and signed these covenants back then. It didn’t matter. While that was not an issue in 2001, it is today,” Schafer said.
Schafer said he’s been told that Wal-Mart officials have approached Cub Foods about the grocery restriction, but he’s not privy to the details of that discussion.
“As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss contractual issues or the business decision of our competitors, but I can tell you that Cub is proud to be a part of the Blaine community and appreciates the opportunity we’ve had to serve the grocery needs of area residents in this location since 2001,” said Cub spokesman Mike Siemienas in a written statement.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia also declined to discus the covenant, but she did say customer demand drives their decisionmaking.
“We are limited in being able to expand at the current location,” Garcia said.
The Ball Road site would give Wal-Mart an additional 30,000-plus square feet of space. The new store also could be more visible to motorists on 35W. A new superstore would offer customers a broad range of products including “fresh produce and a full line of groceries including meat, dairy, dry good and staples,” Garcia said.
“It’s all about providing customers that one-stop shopping convenience,” Garcia said.
That convenience for customers will create congestion and blight, nearby homeowners counter.
If the supercenter goes in, traffic counts on Ball Road would rise from 2,000 to 14,000 vehicles a day.
Across the street from the proposed site are single-family home valued around $200,000.
Neighbors have formed the nonprofit Blaine Citizens For Smart Growth to fight the proposal. They say they’d fight any big box trying to shoehorn its way into their neighborhood. They argue that they’re a neighborhood caught in the crossfire of two corporations battling over profits.
Neighbors worry that a 24-hour superstore on Ball Road will generate round-the-clock traffic, noise, garbage, pollution and declining home values.
“We put money in our homes. We are proud of our neighborhood. We want to be able to get the equity out of our homes,” said Blaine Citizens For Smart Growth founder Cathy Harrison. “We are not against development. It could be doctors offices, a residential community — something that compliments our community and does not detract from it.”
Her home will be near the rear of the proposed Wal-Mart. As a retail supply chain logistics analyst, she said she knows she’ll be hearing the air brakes of delivery trailers at 3 a.m. and the idling of refrigeration trucks all night long.
Harrison also worries about Wal-Mart allowing travel trailers to park in their lot, which could lead to increased loitering and crime.
Harrison said she also wonders what will become of the building Wal-Mart owns and occupies in the Village if it opens a store on Ball Road. She worries that the big-box retailer will board it up, crippling the shopping center, and refuse to sell it, thus limiting competition.
“There are vacant Wal-Marts all across America,” Harrison said.
Wal-Mart’s spokeswoman said it’s too early to comment on what would happen to the Wal-Mart building in the Village if the Ball Road store is built.
“Those plans haven’t been finalized,” Garcia said.
Members of Blaine Citizens For Smart Growth fear that Wal-Mart’s $500,000 parks donation years ago will curry undue favor with the City Council now.
The group has found at least one ally on the City Council.
Council Member Wes Hovland said he doesn’t support building a Wal-Mart on Ball Road.
“At this time, I would have to say no. I honestly believe the impact on the adjacent neighborhood is just going to be too overwhelming,” Hovland said. “I think we are setting ourselves up for a lot of problems over there.”
The mayor says he hears the homeowners’ complaints, but he can’t ignore the rights of the site owner, either.
“Everyone there knew it was a piece of property that would be sold at one time,” Ryan said. “We have an obligation as elected persons to follow zoning, or they will sue.”
Traffic could be the biggest hurdle for Wal-Mart. Ball Road is close to the 35W and Lexington Avenue interchange. In December, Anoka County’s Highway Department, which maintains Lexington Avenue, sent a letter to the city outlining a dozen traffic issues that would be caused by the construction of a big-box store on Ball Road.
City Council Member Dave Clark said traffic at the Lexington/35W intersection is a critical issue. The intersection is a “gateway” to the northern part of the city, and he doesn’t want to see it become a pinch point. Clark said he has not taken a position on the proposed Wal-Mart, but he’ll be examining the traffic study closely.
“It’s a significant issue,” Clark said. “It’s going to have impacts beyond its borders. There are a lot of balls in play.”