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Big box talks

Big box talks

The struggle to keep Wal-Mart out of Keizer Station has reached critical mass. A recent move by Keizer City Council, according to critics, has opened the door for the store with the smiley face logo to come in.

A proposal before the City Council would change the way retail space is approved at Keizer Station.

The first reading of the proposed ordinance passed City Council with a vote of 5-2. Because the vote was not unanimous, a second reading will take place on June 7 and will be put to another vote. If approved, the ordinance will adjust the way that size is restricted in Keizer Station. A developer would be able to request changes to the maximum square footage in the already approved master plan.

The area of concern for critics is Area C of Keizer Station, which is 36 acres (135,000 square feet) of land at the southwest corner of Lockhaven and Chemawa roads, approved as a mixed-use site.

The struggle against “big box” stores in Keizer Station began in 2008. An organization of concerned citizens banded together to create “Keep Keizer Livable.” Representatives from that organization now say that decisions are being made to lead the way to Wal-Mart.

Critics who live near Area C are concerned over a big box store increasing traffic in their neighborhood, among other things.

According to Kevin Hohnbaum of Keep Keizer Livable, the change in process will lead to a speedier one and leave public participation out.

Councilor Cathy Clark, who voted against the ordinance, disagreed: “The change in the process would not make it easier or harder [to increase the square footage]; it’s still the same. All the caps and limitations are still in place as far as how much retail can go in areas.”

City Councilor David McKane, who voted for the ordinance, said that it would in fact require developers to provide more information about their proposals before they’re approved or denied. He explained the change with a house analogy:

“Let’s say you want to build a house in an empty lot. Everyone agreed that houses should be a certain size. Now, you want to build a bigger house. You’d go to the [council] and say, ‘I want to build a bigger house.’ Before, we would say yes, or no. But now, you’d have to say, ‘I want to build a bigger house, and this is how it’s gonna look like, these are the trees that will go on the property, [and present a detailed plan]. How can we make it bigger?’”

Hohnbaum questions the motivation toward making the changes.

“The major issue is transparency. Council takes marching orders from [City of Keizer] staff. Staff drives the train. Staff has this decision that they want to change [the process] and put a big box in there,” said Hohnbaum. “We just keep [trying to stop it by] throwing our bodies in front of the train.”

Hohnbaum believes that the motivation is money, particularly that the City of Keizer needs to recover the money that was spent on the new City Hall.

“City of Keizer owns property in Areas A, B and C. They need development to happen so they can repay the money they borrowed from the Urban Renewal fund.”

“I don’t think they [critics] completely understood what’s going on [with the amendment] and I don’t think they trust their city government,” said McKane.

Chuck Sides, managing member of National Northwest, LLC. and the developer of Keizer Station, said that they have had a difficult time finding tenants because of the economy: “It’s hard to get retailers wanting to take over, to purchase property, and the public is not buying as much.”

He also said that there are 21 potential retailers looking to get into the land located in Area C. Sides refused to give any examples of specific retailers, but wouldn’t rule out Wal-Mart.

“Absolutely not. They’re a very good company; they’re where America shops,” he said, adding that a survey of Keizer residents has indicated that 58 percent in that area shop at Wal-Mart and 93 percent of the people in Keizer shop at one of the three big stores [Wal-Mart, WinCo, Fred Meyer], which means they have to drive four to five miles.

Neither of the Keizer city councilors are sure that Wal-Mart’s smiley face will be making an appearance in Keizer.

“[I have only heard about a Wal-Mart coming to Keizer] through the Keep Keizer Livable organization. Nothing through planning, or from the developers,” Clark said.

“They’re uncomfortable with the idea of a Wal-Mart, [but] the owners of the property have not made any indication about who’s coming in. What we did has nothing to do with Wal-Mart. It could be Whole Foods, Fred Meyer, or Safeway,” said McKane.

But Hohnbaum’s fears are not limited to Wal-Mart.

“We aren’t anti-development. We aren’t anti-Wal-Mart. It’s just not appropriate [in the residential area] where they are placing it. We just want to be a part of the discussion,” said Hohnbaum.

Hohnbaum said that if the developer were looking at building an 80,000 square foot store, that his group would be more supportive of the development. However, the current restrictions are already at 135,000 square feet. He feels that the size of any of those facilities is where the problem lies.

“A store of that size does not belong adjacent to neighborhoods (a big box store), because of what it does to a neighborhood. Not just the looks; the traffic issues, garbage issues, noise issues, light pollution issues, plastic bags and carts in your yards,” he said.

Traffic impact has delayed construction in southern Medford, Oregon. The Oregon Supreme Court made a trip to Southern Oregon on May 18 to hear Medford Citizens for Responsible Development (MCRD), a citizens group that claims the city of Medford erred in giving Wal-Mart permission to build without a comprehensive traffic impact study. That case has been ongoing for six years, with the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals concluding that Wal-Mart should have conducted the study, but then a Court of Appeals overturned the decision. The appeals then continued to the Oregon Supreme Court.

“We don’t know what the traffic impacts are [in Medford], but we suspect that they’re significant. But the city didn’t want to require Wal-Mart do that study,” said Ken Helms, the attorney representing MCRD.

Hohnbaum said that cars would not be able to reach a Wal-Mart in Area C from the freeway, but would drive to the location through the nearby neighborhood.

“What would 6,000 cars a day do to any neighborhood?” he commented.

Also of concern to Hohnbaum is that Wal-Mart has earned a reputation for predatory pricing that damages small businesses. He said some businesses along River Road would be subjugated to fierce competition.

“Wal-Mart or any place that sells flowers for cheap is going to affect us. They buy in huge quantities and they get their flowers a lot cheaper than we do and we just can’t compete with something like that,” said Tammy Milne, lead designer at Keizer Florist.

Milne, who also lives in the neighborhood surrounding Keizer Station, said that traffic is also a concern for her.

“My opinion is that [Wal-Mart] shouldn’t go in there. I’m against [any big box store] that would cause a lot of traffic like that because the area is not equipped for that,” she said.

The potential Keizer development, whether Wal-Mart or any other retailer, is still in the early stages. Helms said that Wal-Mart would only send their representatives once an application is filed and the local government decides that it is complete and ready for a public hearing.

Hohnbaum’s organization has a website at keepkeizerlivable.org where interested citizens can receive email updates.

There is also a Facebook group, called “We Do Not Want a Wal-Mart in Keizer,” which, according to Hohnbaum, “A group of teens who are high school and college students. A week [after starting the page], there were around 700 fans.” At Salem Weekly deadline, the group stood at over 900 members. [ed. note: This story was updated to match our print edition. Area C is in the southwest portion of Keizer Station.]

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