The debate over a Walmart that may come to Midtown Miami is once again heating up, this time because of a proposed change to a city ordinance regulating street access for service trucks.
The change seems innocuous: City rules currently prohibit loading bay entrances on North Miami Avenue south of Northeast 34th Street. The planning department wants to tweak the language to allow for entrances as far south as Northeast 29th Street.
That would be useful for Walmart, which is eyeing the southernmost block in the Midtown shopping district for a new megastore. If the ordinance is not changed, Walmart would have to route its trucks on Northeast 31st Street, a narrow road that bounds the north side of the property.
“Northeast 31st Street is not ideally suited to handle that load,” city Planning Director Francisco Garcia said.
Garcia said the proposed change makes sense, regardless of who sets up shop on the parcel.
But some neighborhood activists, many of whom have spoken out against Walmart, say the revised ordinance would encourage the low-price retail giant to build in Midtown. Others worry it would create a dangerous environment for pedestrians along North Miami Avenue.
“They are not only encouraging more trucks, they are encouraging the trucks to drive across pedestrian areas,” said Grant Stern, president of Morningside Mortgage. He opposes a Walmart in Midtown.
A public meeting on the proposed change is schedule for Monday. The Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board will consider the amendment to the ordinance Wednesday.
Walmart has expressed an interest in a vacant lot owned by DDR Corp., which owns and manages the commercial western half of the Midtown Miami district. The parcel sits between Northeast 29th Street and Northeast 31st Street, and runs from North Miami Avenue to Midtown Boulevard.
Despite having had informal talks with city officials, the big-box retailer has yet to submit a proposal for the necessary planning permits. The company expects to submit a proposal by the end of the year, Walmart spokesman Steven V. Restivo said.
“It’s no secret that we think a Walmart store can be part of the solution for folks in Midtown,” he said.
Both Walmart and DDR are advocating for the change to the zoning ordinance. They point out that the stores north of Northeast 34th Street can enter and exit their loading bays on North Miami Avenue, and that the entrances are safe and integrated into the design.
“The access would be designed so that it is better hidden from view and minimizes interference with pedestrians, just as it is done on the north block with Target today,” DDR Senior Vice President of Development Chris Erb wrote in a statement.
Earlier this year, DDR had asked the city to allow trucks to enter the property on Midtown Boulevard, the shopping district’s main pedestrian drag. They ultimately withdrew that request.
The idea of a Midtown Walmart has been electric from the start.
News that the megastore might come to Midtown set off a vitriolic debate late last year. Opponents argued that the big-box store would destroy the character of the trendy neighborhood. Supporters made the case that Walmart would bring hundreds of jobs to the area, and give residents greater access to affordable goods and fresh food.
Though the debate cooled for several months, it came back to life at a contentious community meeting last week.
The meeting was meant to address the amendment to the zoning code. But most of the attendees were there to oppose a Walmart store.
Garcia stressed that the amendment had nothing to do with Walmart. He said lifting the ban on access on North Miami Avenue would keep trucks on that corridor — and allow planners and architects greater flexibility to design a store in keeping with Midtown Miami’s pedestrian-friendly framework.
His assurances did little to satisfy opponents, some of whom angrily accused Garcia and the city of “paving the way” for Walmart. Several people said they opposed the amendment for the sake of making life difficult for Walmart and its executives. Others said they didn’t trust Walmart to build an urban-friendly store, noting its typical format of a big box surrounded by acres of asphalt.
Walmart has released architectural renderings that, while not set in stone, show a store designed in the same architectural mode as the Midtown Miami complex.
One attendee, who said he was part of the Occupy Miami movement, repeatedly attacked Walmart for destroying local businesses and jobs. Garcia had to ask him to stop derailing the discussion.
Despite the tone of the meeting, some community members support the Walmart.
“It is a good fit for the Wynwood community,” said America Medina, of the Wynwood Historical Homeowners Association. “It would not only help the struggling community to make ends meet, it would create 350 jobs.”
The more pressing issue, however, is far more narrow.
“This is about access for service trucks,” Garcia said.