Miami-Dade County

Walmart gets OK from zoning appeals board for Midtown store

A Miami zoning board denied an appeal by a group of activists Wednesday to stop giant retailer Walmart from building in Midtown Miami, all but guaranteeing a final showdown before Miami commissioners.

With its 6-4 vote, the city’s Planning & Zoning Appeals Board brushed aside residents’ concerns of traffic woes and limited green space, saying its scope was limited strictly to Midtown Miami’s zoning laws.

“What’s before us is the appeal. It’s not about Walmart,” said board member Juvenal Pina, who voted to deny the appeal.

Immediately after the vote, mortgage broker Grant Stern vowed yet another appeal, this time to Miami commissioners. He promised to take the issue a step further to the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, if the commission — like the zoning board — opts to follow the August ruling of Planning Director Francisco Garcia, who granted Walmart the permit needed to build.

“This is not the end of the fight,” said Stern. “We’ll take what we have, refine it, and send it on its way.”

Stern and a group of local residents and business owners have spent the past 18 months fighting Walmart’s plan to build a 203,000-square-foot superstore in funky Midtown Miami’s south end. Wednesday, they argued unsuccessfully that even though Garcia granted the permit, the Walmart plan requires a public hearing and variances because of a lack of setbacks, too many loading bays, and the changing of a street configuration.

More specifically, they argue the Walmart plan needs variances, which require public hearings, because the upper two floors are not set back the required 10 feet, because 31st Street is changing from two to three lanes, because Walmart is building five loading bays when only three are permitted, and because there is no liner on the blank south wall.

Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said he was confident city commissioners would support the appeal board’s ruling.

“We’ve already received approval, and we’re confident in our plan,” said Lopez.

Wednesday’s decision came after close to five hours of pleas and arguments from concerned citizens, Stern and his supporters, and a lengthy stream of attorneys on behalf of the retail giant. It marked the latest chapter in an 18-month ordeal that has seen recommended denials of the Walmart plan by two review boards, and several impromptu meetings as the sides squared off.

Walmart is seeking to build a three-level, 203,000-square-foot superstore, with parking for 577 vehicles on the top two floors. The retailer said it means 300 jobs and a shopping alternative for local customers. The building would be constructed between Northeast 29th and 31st streets, and Midtown Boulevard and North Miami Avenue. The architecture is slightly unconventional, with smaller retail outlets lining parts of the exterior and palm trees covering much of the parking area.

Residents on Wednesday said they were concerned with the company’s plan to eliminate parallel parking on tiny 31st Street, and to add a third lane. Walmart says it’s necessary because that’s where the delivery trucks will enter to the five loading bays that would be built.

“We want to be a livable, walkable, bikeable community,” said Midtown resident Francine Medera.

Walmart attorney Richard Lydecker said his client has conformed with virtually everything the city has requested. He took exception to a statement from attorney Paul Savage, who said the blank wall on the south side of the store requires a liner under the Midtown Miami zoning code. The wall sits adjacent to a car-repair shop, not the street.

“If there’s anything offensive, it’s Pyke’s Garage. You don’t have to design abutting walls,” said Lydecker.

Walmart opponents say they have a host of reasons for not wanting the world’s largest retailer in their neighborhood: They note the company has come under constant criticism for hiring temporary workers, for cornering the market of local growers, and forcing local smaller retailers who can’t compete out of business. Walmart argues it has changed some of the ways it does business by increasing pay and using local food suppliers to fill its shelves.

Since the plan was initiated almost two years ago, the opponents have packed meeting halls and set up an anti-Walmart website.

Yet they realize some of the criticisms of Walmart are political issues that have no sway during the legal process of seeking a building application. So the opponents have narrowed their fight to forcing the retailer to follow the city’s building code by centering the argument on the loading bays and setbacks.

“When you don’t conform, you need to go get a variance. You need to go to a public hearing,” said Savage, the attorney representing the local group of residents and business owners who would prefer a slimmed-down version of what the retailer is offering.

Garcia issued Walmart the Class II permit required under the Midtown overlay of the city’s Miami 21 zoning code in August, with conditions. He said the retailer must submit a building plan, replace uprooted trees, and change the plan for delivery trucks from entering the building on North Miami Avenue, to 31st Street. Walmart complied with the conditions.

One of the most-contentious issues Wednesday was the wording of the building code, which says Walmart must build a “total” of three loading bays. Garcia interpreted that to mean three as the minimum number of bays that could be built.

Said Stern: “The city has redefined the word total tonight.”