Reading about Walmart’s flirtation with a possible Supercenter on Church Street brought back the memory of how vexed I felt, years ago, when the big box giant abandoned its Laurens Road megastore for the siren call of Woodruff Road.
What had once been a few blocks drive from Gower Estates suddenly demanded an interstate and gridlock traffic. Yes, yes, said gridlock equaled hundreds more potential Walmart shoppers. But every time I passed that empty box down from Michael’s I felt snubbed.
Times do change: sans Supercenter, the city of Greenville is now an “underserved market.” Walmart isn’t saying when a formal proposal for the corner of Church and University Ridge might appear at City Hall – but its execs have been meeting with the two neighborhoods likely to make the most noise, in favor and opposed.
Of those, the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association is more alarmed than pleased about the footprint Walmart would bestow. Haynie-Sirrine, on the other hand, is excited about abundant low prices right on their doorsteps, instead of two long bus rides away on gridlock row.
Alta Vista hasn’t committed to “no” or Haynie-Sirrine to “yes.” These are still flirting days. One big question looms over all, for neighborhoods and city alike: whether the big box giant will act like, well, a big box giant.
When Walmart’s proposal comes, spokesman Glen Wilkins told the Greenville News, it will be for a 100,000 square-foot store – 60,000 square feet larger than the city master plan for that block of Church Street allows. Told that’s too big, it won’t fit, you’ll have to go smaller, Wilkins says Walmart “couldn’t make a store work for much less.”
He has to know that to give his bosses 100,000 square feet, City Council would have to hand Walmart its very own Amazon moment and shred the city’s master plan. Toss the zoning, ignore the protests and forget all thought of the walkable, mixed-use “urban neighborhood village” the city and community conceived after weeks of public hearings, workshops and neighborhood charrettes.
If this is indeed what Walmart envisions, I have a word of caution: Greenville City Council is no state Legislature. I’m reminded of a quote from Greenville writer Ashley Warlick’s marvelous essay in the August issue of Garden & Gun magazine: “Greenville is a place that’s thought very carefully about itself and how it wants to grow.”
In a dozen years, she writes, city leaders have reimagined downtown to such an entrancing degree that people drive in “from the other country off Woodruff Road and its big-box stores” to enjoy it.
What City Council reimagines for Church Street is a tree-lined, median-divided boulevard with wide sidewalks, and for Haynie-Smith and Alta Vista, affordable housing, public green spaces and a series of compact, mixed-used buildings creating “a vibrant environment for living, working and shopping.”
Haynie-Sirrine Neighborhood Association president Felsie Harris was on the panel that created that plan. As she told The News, “Everybody wants (Walmart)” as long as the retailer respects the master plan.
Smaller is not an impossibility. Walmart recently rolled out two new store models elsewhere – Walmart Market and Walmart Express – that focus on groceries and limited general merchandise and average 40,000 square feet or less.
No, they’re not Supercenters, but Church Street is not Woodruff Road. Walmart can be a welcome neighbor, if it can bring itself to act like a neighbor. That means respecting the neighborhood’s plans and dreams – plans and dreams that don’t, by the way, have to include a big box giant.