The decision by the city of Fresno to allow a Walmart Supercenter to open in the former Mervyn's at Blackstone and Ashlan avenues, without any oversight from the Fresno Planning Department or notice to the public, represents the latest poor land-use decision by the city. It also reinforces the futility of Mayor Ashley Swearengin's preferred Alternative A in the General Plan Update.
Officials from the city who were quoted in The Bee's Feb. 5 story on the Walmart project explained that the decision to allow Walmart to open at Blackstone and Ashlan was not subject to a permit review by the city because Walmart is a new retail use in the same location as Mervyn's, which was also retail.
If this is correct, and Walmart is not subject to even a conditional use permit, the city has exposed a glaring loophole in its own planning process. If this is not true, the mayor and our elected officials should be embarrassed by their lack of diligence.
The idea that opening a Walmart Supercenter in the former Mervyn's is simply exchanging one retail store for another is ludicrous. Mervyn's sold clothing and housewares during limited hours. It was resupplied infrequently and generally during the day. The proposed Walmart Supercenter will sell not only clothing and housewares but also groceries, liquor, electronics, sporting goods, auto parts, firearms and ammunition, etc.
It will be open for extended hours and will be resupplied by large trucks running 24/7. Neither the city nor Walmart has proposed any steps to address the adverse traffic impacts of thousands of additional vehicle trips per day caused by the new supercenter, nor have any steps been proposed to mitigate the resulting air, noise and light pollution from this project. Walmart supporters also fail to explain why we should offer the homeless population who inhabit Blackstone and Ashlan with more ready access to alcohol and weapons.
The mayor and her supporters will justify more retail on the Blackstone Corridor by claiming it generates sales tax revenue for the city and creates jobs. These arguments fail. Those who shop at the new Walmart were already going to buy whatever it is we all buy at Walmart elsewhere. The sales tax revenue generated by the proposed Walmart does not represent incremental sales tax revenue that the city would not otherwise receive. Instead, the new Walmart will simply siphon sales tax revenue from existing merchants in the city. As far as jobs are concerned, the construction workers remodeling the Mervyn's store to accommodate Walmart will be paid far more for their temporary work than the employees to be hired at the new supercenter, most of whom will be part-time, low-wage workers with no health-care benefits.
The fact that the property will stay as traditional retail also exposes a fundamental flaw in the Alternative A option being advanced by the mayor in the ongoing General Plan Update. Instead of incentivizing private investment in infill projects, Alternative A forces mixed-use retail and commercial development into infill areas concentrated along the Blackstone and Kings Canyon corridors by mandating an unrealistic percentage of infill projects at the expense of building traditional residential neighborhoods in which most Fresnans choose to live.
The city has no answer for how to build higher-density, mixed-use development in areas where the water and sewer infrastructure is insufficient. The city has no answer for how it will build and maintain the elaborate landscaped medians called for in Alternative A. If there was truly a demand in the market for mixed-used residential and commercial infill projects, and an infrastructure to support it, the property at Blackstone and Ashlan would have been slated for such a project and not used for yet another Walmart. The market has spoken (again) and the city should listen.
Before it is too late, the Fresno City Council should closely scrutinize the proposed Walmart Supercenter at Blackstone and Ashlan to ensure that the project is compatible with established planning standards and can be a good neighbor to those who live nearby.
The City Council should also examine the other options provided to it as part of the General Plan Update, especially Alternative D. Following the mayor and her supporters blindly down the path of Alternative A will leave Fresno with a General Plan Update that is truly a "plan to nowhere."
Kurt Vote is an attorney and business owner who lives in Old Fig Garden.