Walmart moved a step closer to building in trendy Midtown Miami this week when city Planning Director Francisco Garcia said the giant retailer’s plan fits local land and development regulations.
Before construction begins, the company still needs a building permit, which must pass muster with several city departments, including building, fire and public works. Garcia’s decision came with several conditions Walmart must meet before a building permit is issued. Opponents have 15 days to appeal the decision before the city’s Planning & Zoning Appeals Board.
“They have complied with the minimum set of requirements,” Garcia said.
Opposition to the plan has been fierce, with local activists contending that Walmart would ruin nearby small businesses, snarl traffic, hurt local food growers and destroy the vibe of the Midtown community adjacent to artsy Wynwood and just a few blocks west of Biscayne Boulevard.
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Opinions of nearby residents, however, are mixed regarding the controversial superstore, which offers low prices on everything from food to clothing. Some believe it would offer jobs and a cheaper alternative to some of the expensive stores in the Midtown Miami complex, which runs from Northeast 29th to 36th streets just east of North Miami Avenue.
The 203,000-square-foot, three-story project would be built on about two blocks on the southwest corner of Midtown. The ground level would offer retail. There would be 577 parking spaces on the second and third floors, with glass facades facing the street.
In a prepared statement, Walmart’s director of community affairs, Steven Restivo, said the retail chain is excited to have the chance to move forward.
“Our Midtown Miami store will provide residents with new job opportunities and shopping options while complementing the existing retail corridor,” he said.
In addition to the building permit, Walmart still has another hurdle to clear. Opponents vow a final appeal of Garcia’s decision before the planning board by Aug. 27.
Grant Stern, who leads the opposition and created a website called NoWalmartMidtown, said the design concept doesn’t adhere to Midtown’s architectural guidelines. He also said the planned loading bays along Northeast 31st Street would render the road inoperable, and big noisy trucks delivering Walmart’s goods would destroy Midtown’s atmosphere.
“This is not going to stand on appeal,” he said. “They’re going to be running big rigs through Midtown at all hours of the day.”
Garcia’s decision that Walmart’s plans comply with Midtown zoning rules was not unexpected. He had said in April that he would probably give the retailer the go-ahead. The delay in issuing the development permit, he said, was in large part because the plan had to be accepted by two property owners.
Garcia set several conditions that must be accepted before the city issues a building permit. They include filing final construction plans, replacing any trees that are removed, and not allowing delivery vehicles to enter Midtown Boulevard from Northeast 31st Street.
Other conditions: placing signs at an entrance on North Miami Avenue that will stop delivery vehicles from entering, no commercial graphics on the building facing Midtown Boulevard and the approval by the city of all decorative screens on the building before an occupational license is issued.
Kelly Penton, a spokeswoman for the Miami project, said the retailer has agreed to meet all the conditions.
Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo said it could take several months before a building permit is issued.
An intense fight ensued soon after Walmart announced plans to build about 18 months ago. During one meeting of the planning board last year, more than 200 people flooded the City Hall commission chamber, spending hours speaking passionately for and against the plan.
In February, Walmart’s proposal hit a roadblock when the city’s architectural advisory panel, in an unusual move, unanimously rejected a version of the plan because of decorative planters that would be used to cover the garages from view instead of screening.
Walmart’s response was unusual as well: The retailer refused an offer to allow it to rework its plans and return for another hearing — instead leaving its fate solely up to Garcia. The company said it would take its chances without a recommendation from the board because the process was taking too long.
Most city leaders, though sensitive to public concerns, support the plan to build at Midtown.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said Tuesday that Walmart has as much a right to be in Midtown as any other retailer.
“We cannot discriminate against any company because it caters to a certain part of society with less money,” Regalado said.
“To me, it conforms with the architecture and the environment in Midtown.”