Wondering about Wal-Mart

Earlier this week, the City Council approved a site plan for a new shopping center in East Albany.  This development proposal came to the City about a year ago and has gone through many changes since it first arrived.  Building location, traffic patterns, off-site improvements, and landscaping have all been adjusted to conform to city and state standards.  The process, from the developer’s perspective, has not been easy or quick.

Albany’s Development Code does not require a property owner to reveal who the user of a building will be after it is constructed.  The City regulates land uses but does not have the authority to exclude businesses by name.  Some communities have limited the size of commercial buildings which effectively keeps out companies that only locate in extremely large structures.  Albany’s City Council, like the overwhelming majority in the U.S., made a decision some years ago not to do this.

The Council heard testimony from a small number of citizens about the development in East Albany, with some speaking in favor of the project and several in opposition.  A few, but not all, who opposed the shopping center were concerned about the possibility of a Wal-Mart in Albany.  While the City Council can deny approval for reasons such as traffic congestion or infrastructure capacity, they cannot deny a proposal because they think the anchor tenant will be a Wal-Mart.  The argument about whether Wal-Mart is a force for good or evil in the world cannot be considered in a quasi-judicial land use proceeding if the local decision is expected to be upheld on appeal.

Recently, a developer met with staff about another proposed development.  Near the conclusion of the meeting, the developer said something to the effect that it was good to know that staff would be an advocate for the project.  I assured him that staff would not be an advocate.  Our role is to make as objective a determination as possible as to whether the project conforms to the requirements of the Development Code.  If it does, staff is obligated to recommend approval; and if it does not, we will recommend denial.  The large policy questions about whether development in general is good or bad need to be made by elected officials in close consultation with the community.  Unfortunately, when elected officials hold hearings to consider broad changes in the Development Code, very few people choose to attend.  People understand and relate to immediate development plans in their neighborhood.  Most of us have a more difficult time getting excited about zoning designations that may not occur on the ground for many years.

I do not know if the new development in East Albany will include a Wal-Mart, but there’s a good possibility that it will.  I do know that the development will meet the requirements of the Albany Development Code and the Oregon Department of Transportation.  If Albany residents feel that the Code is too permissive, or too restrictive for that matter, then that message needs to be delivered to the City Council for their consideration.