P&Z Commission: 'Pros outweigh the cons' for new Walmart on Spencer Street

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Wed., Jan. 9, 2013
The former K-Mart plaza on Spencer Street, currently home to Ocean State Job Lot and Pep Boys, is where Walmart hopes to place a second location in town. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
The former K-Mart plaza on Spencer Street, currently home to Ocean State Job Lot and Pep Boys, is where Walmart hopes to place a second location in town. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

The Planning & Zoning Commission determined that the “pros outweigh the cons” in approving WalMart's application to open a new location at 205 Spencer St., the site of the former Manchester K-Mart. Before voting to approve the application at their meeting on Monday, Jan. 7, the commission members deliberated on the matter, which saw vocal opposition from residents at a prior public hearing.

P&Z Chairman Joseph Diminico compared the Spencer Street commercial corridor to Broad Street, where he said there are evident signs of sprawl. In light of this, redeveloping the lot at Spencer Street would be a benefit. “It takes a piece of sprawl and redevelops it, as opposed to taking a green space and developing that,” he said.

He acknowledged the concerns of those who spoke against Walmart for a variety of reasons, including its business practices. However, he said, “Those are personal views not under the purview of Planning & Zoning.”

While Diminico still had doubts about traffic in the area, he is placing his trust in the town traffic engineer, who signed off on it. Seeing that it is a state road, the state will have the final say on the matter.

While many have spoken out about the out-of-town traffic a new Walmart location would generate, Horace Brown noted that 15,000 Manchester Community College commuters pass through the same area - “and not one of them a resident.”

While he said that traffic studies do not take into account Christmas season influxes, Brown said it was determined that it would be no more if K-Mart was there. “It's clearly consistent with the Plan of Conservation and Development,” said Brown. “It is the redevelopment of an existing area, as compared to taking new land.”

Eric Prause's concern with the application was its compliance with the special exception criteria commissioners needed to approve, “specifically, the civil location for use, that defines that the location and size of the proposed use and the nature of intensity of the use in relation to the size lot will be in harmony with the orderly development of the area, compatible with other existing uses, and will further the goal and objectives of the Plan of Conservation and Development,” he said.

While the lot was previously used for a similar purpose to Walmart's, the special exception approval is needed because the proposal is larger – more than 4 acres. While the building size of K-Mart was 92,000 square feet, the proposed Walmart building would be 152,000 square feet. This “increase in activity intensity” made Prause believe that the application did not meet the special exception criteria.

“I don't think you can make the argument that it will be harmonious with the existing area,” he said.

Andy Kidd expressed his empathy for other businesses that would be affected by a new Walmart even as he weighed how the increased competition might benefit consumers versus benefiting business in the area in general. While he said he would prefer to see the lot as mixed-use, he acknowledged that it has already been vacant for more than 10 years. “At this point, I can't see a reason to deny the application,” he said.

Michael Stebe said that while he understood the rationale of arguments made against Walmart by residents, and even agreed with some, they “do not enter into the equation” for what the P&Z Commission had to do. He said that redeveloping the spot will be very good for the area, and that the business structure of K-Mart and WalMart are similar. “Traffic is going to be a bear,” he said. “But if you do the improvements, and maintain all oversight, and the state does its oversight, I don't see traffic there being any worse than, or to the same level of, the two Buckland intersections during the holidays.”

With only Prause maintaining opposition to approval, Diminico expressed his concern with the idea of denying applications because the proposal increases the retail square footage from past use. “I'm very concerned about crossing the line of dictating a business plan or model,” he said. He said he is a firm believer in letting market forces drive the square footage decision.

“This is the first prospective applicant for quite a while, and it could be the last for quite a while,” Diminico said. “I think the pros outweigh the cons on this.”

The motion passed, with Prause voting nay.

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