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Gargantuan Wal-Mart faces yeah or nay

A decision could come today on whether "the most beautiful Wal-Mart Supercenter in all of Florida" will sprout at 3501 U.S. 19 S.

By JON WILSON
Published June 4, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Another chapter in Wal-Mart's yearslong effort to open south of Central Avenue plays out today.

A proposed 208,000-square-foot supercenter, the largest commercial development in years along U.S. 19 S, faces approval or rejection at a 2 p.m. City Hall hearing before the Environmental Development Commission.

The EDC's decision could be final. Unless it is appealed, no City Council vote is required.

Also on today's agenda are two items related to the Lake Maggiore muck removal project. Jahna Dredging Inc. wants permission to build a "dewatering" plant beside the lake and a road for hauling out dredge material. Both elements are considered temporary.

If the supercenter wins approval - and city planners have recommended thumbs-up - it could open next year, according to city documents.

Store officials say they don't have a specific date in mind.

"Right now we don't have a real definitive construction timeline. It typically takes about 10 months once we start building a store," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Moore.

Plans call for a restaurant on the site's northeast corner, away from the main building. Planners also recommended approval for a seasonal, outdoor garden center, which requires an exception to development rules.

City officials and residents have said they prefer a name sit-down restaurant such as Carrabba's or Outback, but planning documents show that a fast-food restaurant with a drive-through window is under consideration.

Planners predicated their support on a list of conditions they expect Wal-Mart to meet, including tree preservation, attractive architecture and traffic improvements on U.S. 19.

"Of course, Wal-Mart is sometimes the poster child for the big-box retailers," said zoning official John Hixenbaugh. "But my opinion is that we've made this the most beautiful Wal-Mart Supercenter in all of Florida. I'm very, very pleased with this project. We've made it the best it can be."

Five years ago, residential opposition helped crumble Wal-Mart plans for a megastore on 54th Avenue S. One of the problems the world's largest retailer faced was that the site required a zoning and land-use change.

This time, the right zoning already is in place and opposition has been less active, although some has emerged among smaller business owners and residents near the proposed site, 3501 U.S. 19 S.

In a letter to Mayor Rick Baker, Broadwater resident Chris Wardrum raised concerns about increased traffic.

The supercenter "will also create extra expense for the city in terms of additional road repair costs, additional signage and additional police," Wardrum wrote.

Planners estimate the new store would generate 735 new trips on U.S. 19 near 34th Avenue S during peak hours.

Other residents say they look forward to the enhanced shopping and awakening of a relatively sleepy retail area.

"Go look at the Tyrone area. Look at the Gateway area. They're jam-packed with cars. Then go across Central and go down to the south side and look at what they've got. I don't think (opponents) are looking at the long view," said Elaine M. Baroni, a Pinellas Point resident.

"I think it will be an asset more than people think."

Meanwhile, Broadwater resident Penny Flaherty is one of about 30 people scattered in several neighborhoods who say they simply want the new store to be attractive.

They will hold the store's feet to the fire in terms of its landscaping, preservation efforts and aesthetic impact.

"We want it to be so concealed that when you drive from Ceridian, which is beautifully landscaped, all the way to the Skyway, you don't even know Wal-Mart is there," Flaherty said.

"Our goal is not to be adversarial to Wal-Mart but to be suggestive as to how they can be good neighbors.

"If they build it right, we will come."

[Last modified June 4, 2003, 02:03:39]


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