Any new retailer who wishes to build a store with 20,000 square feet of space or more must now apply for a special use permit.
Council followed the Planning Commission’s lead and approved the measure unanimously at the Oct. 19, public hearing. When finalized, the city will have a “big box” ordinance.
Eileen Fogarty, the city’s director of planning, explained the rationale for the proposal. “The city is attempting to address and manage “big box” retail,” she said. “The city has dwindling sites available for development and redevelopment and this form of retail is more suburban and does not fit what we have been trying to do in our planning efforts over the past couple of years,” she said. “Because this type of retail draws a regional market, it brings traffic that needs to be managed and the need for extensive parking that also needs to be managed. This is really an issue of scale and compatibility with neighborhoods. We are not saying that we don’t want this type of retail in the city but that it needs to be managed.”
While the city’s civic associations supported the proposed change, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, its members and large-scale retailers opposed it. Tom Gallagher spoke on behalf of Home Depot, a chain that wishes to open a 60,000-square-foot store in North Old Town.
“First of all, I would like to say thank you for the dialogue,” he said. “It has been a good exchange of ideas. I am here to strongly urge that this legislation be tabled until the ramifications of its goals can be evaluated, especially on development here in the city. Assumptions have been made about the sea of parking and congestion and that these are land hungry projects. This legislation gives no latitude to those who would like to reinvent themselves. Home Depot is in the process of developing small home improvement store concepts to deal with urban environments. These stores would carry about 60 percent of the merchandise that is carried in our larger stores and would cater to the neighborhood in which they are located. We are looking at this type of store in response to our customer base here in Alexandria and have a location that would be more convenient to some of them than our store on S. Pickett.”
Carolyn Mirk represented the Old Town Civic Association. “Alexandria is a small city of only 15 square miles and we must be very careful about what we do with our limited land,” she said. “Having these stores go through the special use permit process is appropriate and a neighborhood preservation issue.”
COUNCILMAN David Speck urged further study of the matter. “Do we decide today to change the thresholds or leave them where they are,” he asked. “By asking businesses to go through the special use permit process, is this creating a problem from the standpoint of businesses where development of this sort has been by right? I don’t believe that there is anyone up here who doesn’t support some sort of text amendment. The question is what.”
While Councilman William Euille supported the text amendment, he was also concerned about the process. “This is certainly something that we need to protect neighborhoods,” he said. “I just wonder how it happened outside the collaborative process. Why wasn’t communication better?”
Council discussed the issue of placing a moratorium on “big box” proposals that might be submitted if action was deferred. Generally, a representative from the city attorney’s office said that there was really no clear way to do this.
Councilwoman Claire Eberwein asked that staff refine language in the proposed amendment clarify the grandfather clause. The amendment will allow those stores who are considered to be “big boxes” to expand up to 20,000 square feet without a special use permit and will allow stores that exist to be torn down and rebuilt at their same size with an additional 20,000 square feet of space without a special use permit. Stores that exist currently but change hands will also not be subject to the special use permit process.
“We expect little mom and pop stores to go through the special use permit process so I do not believe that this process will be onerous to large retailers such as Home Depot,” Eberwein said.
The text amendment will be brought to Council in November or December for final passage.