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Wal-Mart looms in Providence

We all know that a distinctive sense of place is one of the things that makes Providence special. You only have to drive to any number of nearby destinations — Newport Avenue in East Providence, for example or Bald Hill Road in Warwick — to feel the mind-numbing sense of sprawl that comes with endless strip malls and cookie-cutter big-box development. Yet despite the downside of this dubious kind of growth, one of the worst fears of anti-gentrification activists — a Wal-Mart store — might soon be coming to Providence.

The pitch is being targeted for a Charles Street shopping plaza — close to where the majestic former Silver Spring mill complex was demolished a few years ago to make way for a Home Depot — that once included an Ames store. The City Plan Commission is scheduled to consider a site plan for the proposal on Tuesday, April 20.

"What I can tell you is that we have met with a developer who owns a parcel of land in the city that is zoned in such a way that would allow, that would permit, the development of a Wal-Mart store," Tom Deller, Providence’s director of planning and development, said in a telephone message. "The property at the present time has an old unused 1960s shopping center on it, and they are proposed to tear it down and build a 135,000-square-foot building." Deller could not be reached for further comment.

In the bland boilerplate of economic development, a Wal-Mart could represent additional tax revenue for the city, not to mention cheap goods for low-income residents of Providence and other customers of the colossal Arkansas-based retailer. "They cause serious harm to local business, but it seems lots of people want them anyway," as one observer puts it, describing the challenge facing the city. Since local zoning would allow for a Wal-Mart in the Charles Street location, pushing the retailer into a good site plan and better buildings than in its suburban sites might be the most that local officials can do.

Urban markets represent a new frontier for Wal-Mart, which operates about 3500 stores across the country. It has been accused, among other things, of depriving employees of overtime pay, and using illegal immigrants to clean its stores.

Making reference to the giant retailer’s track record, plan commission member Jennifer Cole Steele remains troubled by the city’s inability to control its own destiny when it comes to generic development. "The bigger picture is that the more the city hitches its wagon to big-box retail, the more Providence loses," she says. "It loses its character, when all these ugly things are barfed up upon the urban streetscape. It loses its ability to attract and retain small local businesses, which are so important to the health of Providence."

Ultimately, Cole Steele says, the city "loses its ability to make smart decisions about land use, sprawl, and pollution . . . If Wal-Mart wants to come to Providence and have an urban presence, they can move into a downtown building and have a store that is like an old time department store. We have to quit suburbanizing the city! I, for one, don’t want to live on Bald Hill Avenue, [so] why are we making Branch Avenue, Charles Street, and Atwells Avenue into the same thing?"

Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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