One Store Does Not a Shopping Center Make

Last Tuesday at City Hall, musicians and music lovers filled the city commission chambers to provide a united voice against the enforcement of the city’s controversial sound ordinance and outdoor music ban. Mayor Suzanne Atwell opened the second part of the day’s commission meeting by announcing that the commission had agreed unanimously in the earlier session to not enforce the ban, an announcement met with applause by the tightly packed group. Those who had signed up to speak on the issue thanked the commission for their decision, and reminded them of how vital music is to a community wishing to thrive. Though some left the meeting afterward, the majority of the participants remained, awaiting the appeal to Walmart’s inclusion in the downtown infrastructure.

Walmart’s legal representative began his argument by stating that the electronic appeal was illegitimate and that none of the appellants qualified as aggrieved, asking that the public hearing be dismissed. After the commissioners let the crickets chirp for a little while, possibly in fear of being lynched by the crowd that had gathered, City Attorney Robert Fournier waved off Walmart’s attempt at an easy out, and encouraged their lawyer to continue.

Five different representatives, the architect, engineer, et al, shared the work that had been done by Walmart to fit into what they thought was the proper zoning. I have to admit that it was impressive. They do very good work. Which is why I don’t mind asking them to do more.

During the rebuttal, the appellants’ lawyer was sure to point out, through a roundabout lawyer’s tactic, that none of the testimony given by Walmart’s squad of professionals had anything to do with the zoning of the property at hand. Although they had shared the work they had done, citing sustainability issues, areas screened with concrete, and how they hoped to make the gargantuan structure more aesthetically pleasing through the addition of foliage, knee walls, and places for murals, the Walmart team still did nothing to prove how their structure was suitable for a CSCN (Commercial Shopping Center Neighborhood) zoning.

Walmart did make many appeals to the idea that the worlds largest department store was not truly a department store, since that type of use is prohibited, and since Walmart doesn’t actually man each of its many departments with qualified individuals, such as a Macy’s or Dillard’s. The zoning does allow for a hardware store, a convenient store, a clothing store, and a variety of other uses, each confined to a footprint of less than thirty thousand square feet. Walmart’s response is to offer all of those smaller entities under one ninety-six thousand square foot roof.

Yet although they may attempt to use tricks of semantics to prove that Walmart is not a department store, the argument for its ability to conform to the required zoning still has one major flaw. Based upon the plans they offered, it is, in no way, shape, or form, a shopping center.

A shopping center consists of a variety of stores to accommodate the multiple needs of the neighborhood. Shopping centers not only provide for the needs of the consumer, but also the artisan and the entrepreneur. A single store is not a shopping center, regardless of how many departments, I mean “sections,” the store offers.

Should Walmart be allowed to create their monolithic entity of unbridled consumption in this area that has been designated as a shopping center for the last several decades, the property will lose its ability to offer any entrepreneurial ventures, small businesses, or locally owned stores. It will certainly be commercial, but will never again be a shopping center, and will never again be able to fully serve the neighborhood. The designated zoning was created because Sarasotans have historically cared about such things as independence, individuality, and entrepreneurialism. If we care about these aspects of our community, if we wish to respect the foresight of those who have gone before us, we must realize that a Walmart superstore is not an appropriate fit for this location.

That is not to say that Walmart cannot have a presence there, but they are going to have to be much more creative and truly care about what will benefit the neighborhood. Like the Neighborhood Market recently opened on 41 and Myrtle, Walmart has been expanding its services in order to fit into smaller niches and corner a bigger share of whatever possible market they are able to. If Walmart wishes to infiltrate every last nook and cranny of American society, we, as the people that comprise that society, must ensure that our needs are being met in the process. Basically, if Walmart wants to come play in our sandbox, they are going to have to build a much more suitable sandcastle.

The commission meeting adjourned after the appellants made their case. But with 44 citizens signed up to chime in with their thoughts on the decision to let Walmart build in spite of the zoning, Mayor Atwell stated that the hearing would be continued in a special session on Tuesday, February 26 at 6pm. Come take part in participatory democracy and let your voice be heard.

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