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Dozens at City Hall speak their minds over Walmart at Midtown Miami

Miami city planners listened to intense opposition Wednesday night, then killed an attempt by the city to allow Walmart to build a cargo bay entrance on a main thoroughfare at Midtown Miami instead of a side street.

Their main concern was that the city, and not Walmart, had asked for the change even before Walmart submitted building plans.

“Clearly there’s a little bit more going on than just the text amendment,” said Patrick Goggins, a member of the city’s Planning & Zoning Appeals Board. “When things happen in the open you get the best result.”

The board voted to deny the amendment to the city zoning ordinance 9-0, with the packed City Hall chamber and many more watching on televisions in the hallway breaking into loud and lengthy applause. Wednesday’s two and a half hour discussion drew an overflowing crowd of about 200, many also speaking on behalf of the retail giant.

The issue of allowing the entrance to a cargo bay on a main thoroughfare instead of a side street was seemingly innocuous.

Yet throngs attended the meeting because the real issue was something else: Many Midtown residents simply don’t want a Walmart – the biggest of box stores, and one with a less-than-sterling reputation for past labor practices - in their backyard.

“We have a beautiful neighborhood,” said Midtown resident David Hartman, who spoke of taking walks and walking dogs. “It would be a tragedy to change that.”

Walmart, which historically builds in suburban neighborhoods or on the edge of towns, would like to construct a superstore with a large grocery outlet in the heart of Midtown Miami, a trendy, mixed-use enclave set between the city’s edgy Wynwood and Fashion districts.

Neisen Kasdin, a representative of the Midtown developer who owns the property, spoke of a decade-old study that called for big box stores anchoring a mixed-use development at the site, and how the city had already approved a similar cargo bay plan for a proposed JC Penney store there, though that plan later fell apart.

“This was specifically targeted for big box retail,” he said.

The issue before the board Wednesday was to amend a city ordinance that now only allows trucks to enter and unload goods on a small roadway, 31st Street, which serves mostly as an alley and also has an entrance to a large multi-tiered parking garage.

The board voted not to allow changing the loading zone to North Miami Avenue, a busy pedestrian and vehicular street on the western border of Midtown that also serves antique and furniture outlets.

The move would have made it easier for Walmart to get its large trucks in out of the area. Opponents say it would clog a pedestrian-friendly main artery.

Walmart representatives said the company still plans to build on a squarish property between North Miami Avenue, Midtown Boulevard, Northwest 29th and 31st streets.

Logistics aside, many in the crowd Wednesday argued that though Walmart had not yet submitted a plan to the city, moving the loading dock to North Miami Avenue would only encourage the retailer to finally do it. Walmart executives say they hope to have a plan in place by year end.

Attorney Richard Perez, whose client owns what vacant property remains at Midtown, including a large chunk across Midtown Boulevard that would face Walmart, said it was clear Walmart wanted to lock in plans by securing rights, first.

“The city should not give away its leverage,” said Perez. “Why approve this today without knowing what it will look like in the future?”

Countered Raymond Machado, executive director of the Wynwood Homeowners Association: “In Wynwood we’ve lived with nothing but drugs, so we’re used to traffic. We want this project for the sake of the community, and jobs.”

For much of this year Walmart and adversaries have dueled over building in Midtown. A store there would be one of only a few the world’s largest retailer has built in an urban core. Plans are in place for similar outlets in Chicago and the Washington D.C. areas.

The retailer says a shop at Midtown could mean up to 350 jobs, and would add another variety of retail to a growing neighborhood that could well absorb it. Proponents say they don’t need the behemoth that sucks the life out of nearby small businesses and doesn’t fit with new cool motif of central Miami.

A Midtown store could be as big as 150,000 square feet, with a grocery section that could take up one-third of the entire store.

Proposed renderings supplied to the Miami Herald show a storefront of brick and awnings that would fit with the Midtown look. There would also be a two-level parking garage on the site.

In their push for acceptance, representatives of the Little Rock, Ark.-based company visited with The Miami Herald’s editorial board this week and said not only would the a Midtown Walmart be open 24 hours a day, but that the retailer fully intends on becoming an “arts incubator.”

Michelle Belair, Walmart’s senior manager for public affairs, was addressing concerns by locals that Walmart would displace artists who inhabit the now vacant property during December’s ultra-popular Art Basel festival.

She said Walmart has met with several business and chamber groups about possibly adding some type of studio to a Midtown facility.

Admitting not everyone has jumped onboard, Belair said there remains an “open dialogue.”