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No Free Ride For Big Box Stores In Alexandria

A head-on confrontation between community values and the industrialization of retail marketing occurred at the recent meeting of the Alexandria Planning Commission. Community values won hands down.

On the docket of the Oct. 1, meeting was a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance dealing with commercial and mixed use zones. It recommended "a special use permit for large retail stores" usually referred to as "Big Box Retail."

It "creates a new use in each of the commercial and mixed use zones (where retail is permitted) retail shopping establishments over 30,000-gross-square-feet in size, and requires a special use permit for such uses. It simply moves those large retail stores from the permitted uses list to the list of uses in each zone that requires special use permit (SUP) approval."

As noted by Commission Chairman Eric R. Wagner, "This is not a prohibition. It is merely a requirement to submit a different form of SUP."

But that did not satisfy the those objecting to the requirement, mainly representatives of retailers, and their trade associations, that utilize "Big Box" type structures to market their products. Representatives of Wal Mart, Home Depot, and others expressed their objections to the proposed text change.

A spokesperson for the International Mass Retailing Association warned, "This will discourage retailers from coming to Alexandria and will deny Alexandria citizens the opportunity to shop at such stores."

COUNTERING THAT argument, Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, Jr. noted, "Fresh Fields, at 42,000-square-feet, just received approval and they were happy to comply." Wagner further explained, "The whole point of the ordinance is to bring uniformity to the SUP process."

Those in opposition kept returning to the argument that the change would raise their costs in developing such stores. This did not impress the Commission. As Commissioner Donna Fossum stated, "The SUP process develops community support. You need us and you need this text amendment."

Each of the citizen speakers supported the amendment. Some suggested the total square footage threshold, subject to the amendment, should be reduced to 15,000 square feet. Carolyn Merck, president, Old Town Civic Association, said the square feet requirement should be lowered "for the main city area."

In opening discussion on the amendment, Barbara Ross, deputy director, Department of Planning and Zoning, said, "Big Box is the opposite of smart growth." She further noted that such designs are "anathema" to a tight urban landscape where much of the remaining development is based on infill concepts.

The staff report explained there are four primary types of big box stores.

. Discount department stores. They offer a wide variety of merchandise and are typically 80,000- to 130,000- square-feet in size, although a new generation range from 100,000 to 210,000-square feet.

. Category killers. Offer a large selection of low-priced merchandise in a particular product category. There size range is 20,000 to 120,000-square feet.

. Outlet stores. Offer discount goods from a particular department store chain. Range in size from 20,000 to 80,000-square feet.

. Warehouse clubs. Offer a variety of goods in bulk at wholesale prices. Range in size from 104,000 to 170,000-square feet.

"Over the last 10 years, many communities across the country and in Virginia have adopted regulations to address unwanted impacts of big-box retail development," the staff report noted. "In general, the regulations have been designed to either prohibit big box stores altogether or to control the impacts associated with such uses. One of the most commonly used approaches is to require special review of stores larger that a certain size threshold."

The report further explained the new SUP would give the city "the opportunity to review each proposal on a case by case basis and determine whether the proposed location and the associated impacts are compatible with the surrounding area." The amendment was recommended for approval by a unanimous vote of seven to zero.

IN OTHER ACTION, the Commission approved:

. The subdivision of properties at 500 N. Columbus St. and allowed for a reduced requirement in off-street parking. The site is now developed with a single building divided into four dwelling units, that has the appearance of three townhouse dwellings. This will subdivide them into three units.

. A request for a development SUP amendment to allow parking garage user fees at the Potomac Club Residences, 1200 First St. and 950 N. Fayette St.

. An extension of an SUP dealing with an addition to the Durant Recreation Center, 1605 Cameron St. The project has been delayed because bids received last year by the city were over the estimated cost and budget for the project, according to the staff report.

. Extension of the SUP pertaining to the Dancing Peppers Restaurant, 4111 Duke St. It had been deferred from the July meeting.

. Operation of a children's learning center at 222 N. Lee St., a yoga studio at 210 N. Lee St., and a private club, known as Stepping Stones, at 3400 Commonwealth Ave.