Metropolis: Wednesday July 23, 2003
Lube Job

Raising a stink gets Wal-Mart to bend but not break over the development of a new store in Riverside.


Politics often involves a struggle between competing priorities. In April, the conflicting imperatives of economic development, public safety, and environmental preservation collided in city council chambers over a development project in the Riverside area of northeast Fort Worth.

The source of the controversy: a 25-acre plot on the northwest corner of the intersection of North Beach Street and Airport Freeway. Since 1965, the site has been the headquarters of Lubrication Engineers, a manufacturer of industrial lubricants. It’s also home to more than 800 old-growth trees that have been standing for close to a century. Not for long. This fall, retail giant Wal-Mart plans to break ground on a 220-square-foot store on the site.

Last week, Fort Worth interior designer and developer Kimberly Clark visited Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, to try to persuade corporate leaders to consider two alternate sites on Airport Freeway where cutting down trees would be unnecessary. Clark’s company, the Arbiter Group, specializes in “sustainable development” — the creation of multi-use spaces, utilizing recycled and natural materials.

Her attempts to plead her case to Wal-Mart bosses were unsuccessful. “Everyone was very nice, but I wasn’t able to talk to anyone,” she reported. Said Wal-Mart spokesperson Daphne Moore: “[Clark] didn’t have an appointment, she wasn’t expected, and by the time someone from our real estate division was ready to talk to her, she was gone.” Perhaps it was a case of too little, too late. After all, the council had already approved Wal-Mart’s rezoning application at an April 8 meeting, following months of discussion between the retailer and residents.

Clark said that cutting down the trees on the Wal-Mart site would create a “heat island” — an undesirable prospect in a city whose air quality was recently downgraded from moderate to serious by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While Fort Worth has no tree ordinance, the city’s landscape ordinance gives developers incentives for salvaging or reclaiming trees. Aware of these incentives, Wal-Mart’s Moore said, “We’re preserving about four acres of the site across from [Sylvania Park] adjacent to the neighbors.”

At the April 8 council meeting, Tom Galbraith, project manager for Wal-Mart’s developer, Dunaway and Associates, said that plans included four times the number of trees and shrubs required by the city for large retailers. But District 4 councilwoman Becky Haskin, who represents the neighborhoods closest to the site, pointed out that some trees identified for salvage in the site plan are in such poor condition they can’t be saved. Galbraith said he’d try to find a healthy tree to save in place of each sick one.

Said Sarah Walker, who heads the Riverside Alliance, a coalition of seven area neighborhood associations: “A lot of folks are concerned about the beautiful trees. But this development is well, long overdue.”

When Clark’s business partner, real estate broker Jyl DeHaven, went to the Alliance to talk about the environmental impact of the Wal-Mart development, some members were skeptical of her message. Earlier, Clark and DeHaven’s Arbiter Group had made an unsuccessful bid to construct a health center for autistic children on the site. “We’re not crying over spilt milk,” said DeHaven. “We want Wal-Mart to be a responsible steward.”

The Alliance had been talking with Wal-Mart and Dunaway about the development since November 2002. City planning director Fernando Costa said the Alliance’s endorsement of Wal-Mart’s plan influenced the council to approve the retailer’s rezoning request. However, opinion within the Alliance was far from unanimous.

Between November and March, Wal-Mart, Dunaway, and the Alliance met six times, including one forum that drew 200 people. Support for the development was strong in the surrounding neighborhoods. Wal-Mart promised the project would bring 450 jobs to the area. Many residents were excited at the prospect of attracting retail customers from Fort Worth’s burgeoning downtown. But one skeptic asked, “Does anyone who can afford to live downtown shop at Wal-Mart?”

Dunaway filed its rezoning application before neighborhood residents were able to see the site plan. Four days before the council was to consider Dunaway’s application, many still had lingering questions concerning the development.

On Friday, April 4, councilwoman Haskin met with Alliance members to hear their concerns. She came away with a list of 20 issues, which she relayed to Dunaway project manager Galbraith at a meeting that afternoon. Galbraith met with Haskin again on Monday morning and agreed to add 10 of the issues from the Alliance’s list to the site plan.

Haskin left that meeting for another one with the Alliance, where she identified five issues the group still considered critical. They didn’t want displays outside the store or a second large sign saying “Always” under the store’s name. They wanted trash receptacles in the parking lot. They wanted the retailer to plant 45 more trees, in addition to those listed in the site plan, and to pick up the tab for any necessary rerouting of streets around the site.

Before leaving the group, Haskin asked them to present a united front before the council to bolster her request for the changes to the site plan. “Please hang together, or I’ll have no leverage,” she said.

But when Alliance spokesperson Wendy Vann stood up before the council, she made no mention of the five issues, saying only, “We want and welcome this development. We believe all the issues have been effectively and efficiently addressed by Wal-Mart.” When Haskin repeatedly asked Vann whether the Alliance had voted to approve the site plan, Vann only repeated that the Alliance supported the Wal-Mart development and said she had the authority to speak for the Alliance.

Janis Michel, who introduced herself as “a charter member of the Riverside Alliance,” went even further: “I do not want Wal-Mart to decrease their parking requirements, put trash containers on the parking lot, save any more trees, or any other requirement brought up at the 11th hour to keep this development from becoming a reality.”

One of two dissenting voices heard by the council in April was Robert Chesser, president of the Bonnie Brae neighborhood association. He asked the council to delay their vote on the rezoning for a week so the Alliance could be sure that all the agreed issues were added to the site plan. His request went unanswered.

Ultimately, Wal-Mart agreed to forgo outside displays and plant the 45 extra trees. They refused to modify their signage, provide trash receptacles, or consider the option of curving Maurice Avenue into Sylvania Park Drive. At the end of the hearing, Haskin said, “I hope this case doesn’t, but I think it will prove to be an example for a tree protection ordinance when they start bulldozing over 600 trees on that site.”

Wal-Mart plans to break ground at the Lubrication Engineers site in October and open the store in late summer or early fall 2004. Today, the site is an island of green adjoining a strip that’s dominated by fast-food restaurants, an auto repair shop, and a row of public storage buildings. The ground near the street is littered with fast food trash and beer bottles.

Across Maurice Street to the north of the site is Sylvania Park, where on a summer’s day you can hear the shouts of kids splashing in the pool. Park patrons’ cars line the street. The quiet of the neighborhood is interrupted only by the hum of the generator from a snow cone truck, and the occasional roar of someone in the neighborhood working on a motorcycle. Two blocks east on Maurice is Saint George’s Catholic School. It’s hard to imagine how this narrow residential street will accommodate the traffic from a Super Wal-Mart.

Robert Chesser from Bonnie Brae says some Riverside Alliance members were reluctant to question Wal-Mart’s plans because they feared the developer would abandon their bid for the site and go elsewhere. But he believes “the decision [to build at Airport and Beach] was already made before they came to talk to us. They weren’t going anywhere.”

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