Fayetteville City Council members on Tuesday approved a rezoning request for about 5 acres along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, clearing the way for a planned Walmart Neighborhood Market.
The plan is to build a 40,000-square-foot grocery store and fueling station at the northwest corner of King Boulevard and Government Avenue where Robert’s Auto Repair and several other buildings are located.
Tuesday’s decision came after months of debate over whether the property should be rezoned from I-1 (Heavy Commercial/Light Industrial) to C-2 (Thoroughfare Commercial). The request was originally denied by the Planning Commission in October before being appealed to the City Council.
Opponents of the rezoning said while a grocery store is needed in that area, the neighborhood would be better off if the property were developed using one of the city’s form-based zoning districts like Urban Thoroughfare, which allows for grocery stores, but encourages pedestrian safety by requiring that buildings be constructed along the streetside sidewalks with driveways and parking lots tucked away in the rear.
The south Fayetteville area has seen recent revitalization, including an overhaul of the nearby Mill District which is now home to several new houses, shops and restaurants. The city’s trail system was also recently expanded to run through the area when an extension of Frisco Trail connected pedestrians and cyclists to Walker Park and Tsa La Gi Trail.
Residents who live near the property said a traditional “big box” store was out of step with the growing character of the neighborhood, and might set a precedent for similar developments throughout the area.
Others said they fear what will happen to the property if Walmart abandons the building like the company did when it closed locations at Southgate Shopping Center on West 15th Street and Fiesta Square Shopping Center on North College Avenue. They said if the development were built using form-based design, the property would remain attractive to both residents and future investors if Walmart ever pulled out of the neighborhood.
Supporters of the rezoning argued that any “downzoning” of the property was better than the industrial zone that encompassed the land. They said while the property is mostly home to several quiet warehouse buildings, the I-1 zoning would allow anyone who purchased the property to build a number of undesirable businesses including bulk petroleum storage facilities or manufacturing plants.
The requested C-2 zoning also carries allowable uses that some neighbors said weren’t compatible with the neighborhood, but the property owners submitted a bill of assurance to the city that guarantees those types of developments – like adult live entertainment clubs, sexually oriented businesses, and dance halls – won’t be the primary use of the property.
Walmart officials also promised to include expanded landscaping, a bicycle repair station, sidewalk setbacks along King Boulevard, covered seating areas for public transit users, and a public art display.
Council members object
City Council members Sarah Marsh, Mark Kinion and Matthew Petty sided with the neighbors in attendance Tuesday night and argued that Walmart should be willing to compromise by building a form-based development, partly because it’s what the residents are most comfortable with, but also because pedestrian-friendly, form-based zoning is prioritized in the city’s long-range master planning documents.
Walmart officials, however, said the site’s topography would make it more expensive to build their store with a parking lot in the rear.
Alderman Petty said he knows form-based zoning would require Walmart to think outside the box that is used to build so many stores each year.
“But they’ve done it and they’ve demonstrated their willingness to do it,” said Petty, who pointed to a form-based Neighborhood Market planned on the northwest corner of the downtown Bentonville square, and others that were recently opened in Washington D.C. and Chicago.
“I also understand that it might cost a little more, but they make a million dollars every minute,” said Petty. “I think they can afford to do what communities like Bentonville or Washington D.C. or Chicago ask them to do.”
Marsh agreed, and said Urban Thoroughfare would be the best compromise for everyone.
“It’s clear that the neighborhood needs (a grocery store), but the neighbors want a form-based zoning,” said Marsh. “The Planning Commission is against C-2 and city staff are against C-2. By going to Urban Thoroughfare, we could satisfy the needs of many of the parties.”
Attempted “force” rezoning
When property owner Thad Hanna said he would not consider anything other than C-2 zoning, Alderwoman Marsh made a motion to rezone the land to Urban Thoroughfare despite Hanna’s objection.
“I can’t believe that we’re on the third reading and a City Council member tries to force a zoning request change on me without giving us any input,” said Hanna. “This is a democracy. I have property for sale in the city of Fayetteville. And I have a potential buyer who asked us to rezone it.”
City Attorney Kit Williams told Marsh while state law does allow a City Council to change the zone of any piece of property it wants, he’s never heard of an alderman making a spur-of-the-moment motion to force a rezoning upon a property owner against their will.
“This would be unusual,” said Williams.
Both Petty and Kinion were in support of Marsh’s idea, but the motion failed with Adella Gray, Justin Tennant, Martin Schoppmeyer, and Alan Long voting against the force rezoning.
The final vote
The final vote echoed that decision, with Marsh, Petty, and Kinion voting against the C-2 rezoning and the remainder of the council voting in support of Hanna’s request. Alderwoman Rhonda Adams was absent.
Before the vote, Alderwoman Gray, who represents south Fayetteville alongside Marsh, said she was “very torn” on the issue, especially after such a large turnout from residents who opposed the C-2 request.
“But I’m a City Council person that believes in doing what is best for Fayetteville and I think Fayetteville needs this grocery store,” said Gray. “I understand all the research that says it won’t be as walkable, but I have to say that I think it’s a beautiful plan.”
Mayor Jordan, who was not required to cast a vote in Adams’ absence, opted to weigh in on the issue anyway.
“It has not been an easy decision for me because the property is located on the edge of the Downtown and Mill District,” said Jordan. “However, the benefits gained – a destination site, a sidewalk, accessibility improvements, and overall beautification of an area that, to me, looks extremely run down – will hopefully spur additional economic investment, revitalization and infill. For those reasons, I will support this rezoning.”
Walmart officials must now present large-scale development plans to planning commissioners for approval before moving forward with any construction work.
Michael Lindsey, director of public affairs for Walmart, said he was pleased by the results of Tuesday’s vote.
“We believe the convenience and everyday low prices that we will offer will be well received in the community,” said Lindsey. “We look forward to working with the city of Fayetteville to finalize our design plans.”