Wal-Mart carries with it three reputations in Albuquerque: It has really low prices, pays really low wages and every time they put in a new one, it causes quite a stir. At least when it comes to this last generality, the proposed Supercenter on Wyoming and Menaul proves to be no exception. Only this time, Wal-Mart is shaking up more than the local neighborhoods, it's wedging its way right into the District 7 race for City Council.
None of the four Council candidates seem particularly thrilled about the mega-box store that will inevitably rise from the ashes of the mostly abandoned Wyoming Mall. But at this point in the game, the four candidates' qualms are less about principle and more about policy.
The candidate most riled up over the new, smiley-faced neighbor is Ed Glenn, who said the way the proposal for the new store was dealt with at City Hall motivated him to run for office. "I don't want people to think I'm anti-Wal-Mart," he said, "because I'm not, but I'm against this particular development, as they designed it. This typifies the problem of what the city is not doing for our community."
Glenn is upset because he feels that neighbors were not adequately listened to by the city and by developers. His main contentions are that he, and other neighbors, wanted the store to be smaller, to face Wyoming (the position the Mall is currently in) instead of facing south, as the plans are currently slated, and to not be open 24 hours a day. Glenn has filed an appeal against the Environmental Planning Commission's approval of the project that lists his concerns; the appeal, along with another appeal by resident Marci Swezy that deals with traffic concerns, is scheduled to be heard by the City Council on Sept. 19.
Glenn is running for the Council seat because he is unsatisfied with how the situation was handled by City Councilor Sally Mayer, who is also running for re-election. Glenn thinks Mayer should have been more involved in advocating against Wal-Mart in accordance to residents' wishes. As it stands now, Mayer was asked to recuse herself from the Council vote on Sept. 19, after she admitted to taking a campaign contribution from a local engineering firm, Tierra West, that is acting on Wal-Mart's behalf.
"She should have brought everyone together and asked what they could live with, but a lot of people tried to ask her about it and she just threw up her hands, saying she couldn't talk about it," said Glenn. "A councilor is supposed to help their constituents. If she had done more, I wouldn't be running."
Still, other neighbors think Mayer did a good job of bringing people together to have ideas heard. "Without Sally, we wouldn't have had the clout to have city people come to our meetings—traffic engineers, the planning department—I think she did her best to do her job, and bring people together for discussion," said Evelyn Feltner, president of the Inez Neighborhood Association. Feltner said she thinks it was wrong for Mayer to recuse herself, citing that she thought the councilor had remained very balanced throughout the process.
Mayer's perspective is that she did the best job she could advocating for all sides, adding that local businesses in the nearby Hoffmantown shopping center support the new Wal-Mart.
"Half of the people concerned about the issue are mad because they think I'm against Wal-Mart; the other half are mad because they think I'm for Wal-Mart. The only conclusion is that I must be doing a good job—this isn't an issue where I can have a personal opinion. My concern was that I wanted the neighborhoods to be heard by the developers, and I feel like that happened."
Feltner agrees. In fact, both Inez and the NEAR Neighborhood Association were able to have most of their demands met by Tierra West, such as putting in landscaping with trees and benches, designing the color scheme for the store and getting rid of the tire and lube center that Wal-Mart wanted to put in. The corporation also agreed to pay for any traffic mitigation that needs to be added after the store is built and said they wouldn't seek to make any changes to the structure for five and a half years.
At least some of the neighbors seem unperturbed over the proposal. Instead, they just want to see something go in to replace the Wyoming Mall. The owner of the Mall, Weingarten Realty, stopped renewing leases three years ago, only allowing stores to sign month-to-month leases, and as a result, approximately 90 percent of the businesses have moved out. Within the last few months, transients have begun to frequent the area.
Still, Marianne Dickinson, another candidate for the District 7 race, thinks that more could have been done with the site if planning had begun a couple years ago.
"It's time that we have higher standards," she said. Dickinson thinks the space would have been an ideal place to put a community model of redevelopment, which could have included housing, shopping, cafés, or anything else neighborhoods asked for, and could have been transit-oriented. "Usually, no one is asking the local community what they want, but [this kind of planning] needs to be results-oriented. If you get everyone together, show them pictures, ask them what they'd rather have, you can have a win-win situation. People get what they want and property values increase, so everyone benefits."
But in order for such an option to have been available, the process would have needed to begin a couple years ago, said Dickinson. "That was a wonderful site to consider for redevelopment, but now that's lost."
At this point, there don't seem to be any legal ways to keep Wal-Mart from moving in, since there are no prohibitive zoning requirements standing in the way.
"From a legal fairness standpoint, Wal-Mart is a permissive use [in the zoning for the site,]" said Wayne Johnson, the fourth candidate running in District 7. Johnson said that if the Council votes to uphold the appeals on Sept. 19, Wal-Mart could sue the city and cost taxpayers excessive court fees.
"I'm afraid that if it goes to the Council, and they uphold (the appeal), Wal-Mart will go to court, and everyone will lose," said Johnson. "It's important for neighborhoods to get ahead of this sort of thing, not behind it."
But in order to get ahead of these issues, Dickinson said the city needs to start acting.
"We've done the Planned Growth Strategy, we've had the discussions, but we haven't moved forward. The Wyoming Mall should have been rezoned and redeveloped long before Wal-Mart came in."