After more than two years of bitter debate between advocates of Walmart and opponents who said the world’s largest retailer will suck the life out of one of Miami’s newest and trendiest neighborhoods, city commissioners gave the company the green light to build a superstore in Midtown.
Yet even as supporters rejoiced, opponents of the plan gathered just outside Miami City Hall’s glass chamber doors cementing plans to fight the issue in court, convinced city leaders overstepped the boundaries by not requiring Walmart to apply for major zoning variances.
Commissioners listened to almost four hours of contentious testimony and debate Thursday before unanimously granting Walmart the Class II Special Permit it has long coveted. Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff and Commissioners Frank Carollo and Wifredo “Willy” Gort voted in favor. Commissioner Francis Suarez was absent, on vacation in Mexico, and Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones left before the vote, but not before publicly issuing her support for the plan.
Sarnoff said he promised while meeting with leaders of both sides before Thursday that his vote would be based solely on whether Walmart adhered to Midtown’s zoning rules. He said the four hours of testimony Thursday clearly showed it did.
“In my mind, it is clear,” said the chairman.
Walmart will build a 203,000-square-foot, three-story superstore, with 577 parking spaces and several loading bays in the site bounded by Northeast 29th and 31st streets, and North Miami Avenue and Midtown Boulevard, at Midtown Miami’s south end. Modernized with a pastel exterior, the new Walmart will be lined with retail shops on much of the ground level.
Thursday night, the historic City Hall chamber on Coconut Grove’s Dinner Key was filled with T-shirt wearing Walmart supporters who spoke passionately of the need for jobs, and opponents who expressed dismay with the company’s hiring practices, and who argue that the city planner erred when deciding Walmart does not need a major zoning variance in order to build.
“It’s a poster child for a Major Use Special Permit. It’s replete with variances,” said opposition attorney Paul Savage. Savage was hired by local mortgage broker and activist Grant Stern, leader of the anti-Walmart movement.
The friction between the sides was evident from the outset. When opponents asked if commissioners would waive a requirement for one of their attorneys to take a required ethics course because he had been hired at the last minute, Walmart attorney Richard Lydecker objected. When Savage began his case, arguing a Major Use Special Permit was required because Walmart wasn’t using the required lining on the upper floors of the project, Lydecker objected again.
When Savage brought up a zoning expert as his first witness, a Walmart attorney interrupted and tried to attack his credentials.
In the end, commissioners simply determined that Walmart had complied with the city’s Midtown Miami zoning rules, and didn’t need to seek a major zoning variance as opponents claimed.
The groups were before the commission Thursday because opponents were appealing a decision over the summer by the city’s Planning, Zoning & Appeals Board, which recommended Walmart be allowed to move forward with its plan.
“They’re fully in compliance,” said city Planning Director Francisco Garcia.
Savage’s main arguments were that variances were required because second- and third-floor lining is improper, that the façades surrounding the three-floor structure don’t match, and that a blank wall on the south side facing a body shop requires lining. He also argued that only three loading bays were allowed and that Walmart plans to build five.
Lydecker responded that Savage and Stern were asking commissioners to disregard the findings of the city planner and its zoning board. As for the blank wall facing the body shop, he said sprucing it up “would be about as useful as me going home and decorating my closet.” He said the façades on the three sides facing public rights-of-way matched, and that more than three loading bays were permitted.
“You couldn’t get David Copperfield, the great illusionist, to hide a Walmart store better than these guys did,” Lydecker said of the architect who designed the superstore. “It’s become darn-near park-like.”
Then Lydecker brought out Ana Gelabert-Sanchez, the city’s former planning director who was largely responsible for creating the zoning code that Midtown builders are now required to follow. “The standards comply with the Midtown special district,” she said.
The Walmart fight grew increasingly ugly as Thursday’s quasi-judicial hearing neared.
Earlier in the day, Miami New Times posted pictures from a blog called “People of Walmart” — which portrays Walmart customers in an unflattering light, usually overweight and underdressed — and said a city official had sent the pictures to fellow workers in March, with the caption, “Coming to Midtown.”
Miami officials confirmed that Enrique D. Nunez, the planning department’s chief of urban design, sent the email. Nunez retired at the end of September.
On Thursday, the chamber was packed with residents wearing Miami Loves Walmart T-shirts. One man, who wouldn’t give his name, said he wasn’t even aware of the Walmart issue when someone offered him $100 to show up at City Hall in support of the project. Walmart representatives flatly denied paying anyone.
Walmart’s plan to build in Midtown drew fierce opposition from the start.
Local activists complained of the retailer’s hiring practices, of how its low prices on everything from food to clothing could put small nearby mom and pop shops out of business, and how the chain’s cornering of the market would ultimately cause local produce prices to plunge, hurting local growers. They created anti-Walmart websites and fought the retailer at every turn. They appealed every ruling, spoke out against the retailer at hearings, and created anti-Walmart websites.
They won one hearing back in February when the city’s architectural advisory panel unanimously rejected a version of the plan because decorative planters would be used to cover the garages on the second and third floors instead of screening.
But Walmart, believing zoning laws were on its side, ignored the recommendation, hoping that Garcia, the planning director, would still approve the permit needed to build.
Walmart countered that building a superstore in Midtown would create upward of 300 jobs and boost the local economy. Its lawyers determined the construction plan, coupled with Midtown’s zoning code, meant the retailer didn’t have to request any major variances. City boards agreed with Walmart at almost every turn. In the summer, Garcia granted Walmart the permit, while demanding some concessions that Walmart ceded to.