Consumer clash

Wal-Mart's coming? There goes the neighborhood

The area around the intersection of Columbia and Memorial drives, southeast of Decatur, would seem to need all the help it can get.

Home to a hodgepodge of rundown strip shopping centers, pawn shops, thrift stores and fast-food restaurants, the intersection has only slid downhill since the closing of its main retail draw, Avondale Mall, three years ago.

And yet, as a contentious Nov. 10 zoning meeting in Avondale Estates proved, many folks in this part of DeKalb County believe the arrival of the nation's largest retailer into the blighted stretch would only serve to bring the neighborhood further down.

The battle over whether to allow a 24-hour, 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter to occupy the now-vacant mall property could be seen as a skirmish in a larger cultural war between urban and suburban, high-brow and low, those who view Wal-Mart as a useful amenity and those who believe it's a monstrosity best banished OTP. Currently, there are no Wal-Mart stores inside I-285.

Of the roughly 400 people who showed up at an Avondale Estates zoning and planning meeting last week, most were there decked out in red paraphernalia and toting "Stop Wal-Mart" signs. That's typical — opponents almost always are more motivated than supporters. But some of the reasons that surfaced went beyond the usual gripes about traffic flow and commercial encroachment.

"I'm against Wal-Mart because of the way they treat their employees," says Christa Bowden, a resident of the nearby Belvedere community. "Their labor practices are horrible, and I don't want to support a place that advocates that."

Some opponents say they harbor a special dislike for the Bentonville, Ark., behemoth, which has been criticized nationally for its low wages, cutthroat sales tactics and contributions to global outsourcing. Several concede they wouldn't have had the same reaction if the proposed store were a Target or a Whole Foods supermarket.

"I'd prefer any other store to Wal-Mart," says Kim Barker, an Avondale Estates resident who was busy gathering signatures for a petition against the proposal. "Wal-Mart's got a reputation for being vile."

Predictably, the battle lines over the Wal-Mart proposal seem to fall along Memorial Drive, which serves as something of an unofficial dividing line between north and south DeKalb. Folks on the southern side seem to favor the store as a much-needed improvement over an empty mall that once housed a Macy's and Sears. Wal-Mart attorney Duane Pritchett echoed that sentiment and told the committee that the Wal-Mart wouldn't be "typical" and would have an "urban feel."

"Wal-Mart will provide jobs for our community, be an engine for economic development and give the people a place to shop within the city," says Alphonso Mallory, who also lives near the proposed Wal-Mart site. "Nothing is here right now. We need something."

Most of the opposition hails from the north side of Memorial, including a vocal group of Avondale Estates residents.

"The development proposed by Wal-Mart is inappropriate," says Terry Giager, a founder of Avondale's Stop Wal-Mart campaign.

"It fails the vision of Avondale and undermines our character and dignity," he says. "It's a conventional suburban model in a village context, and that's what makes it wrong."

It's an odd turn of events that brings Wal-Mart's proposal to this small city in the first place. Although Avondale Mall sits in unincorporated DeKalb, Wal-Mart officials never approached the county about rezoning the 23-acre property from mixed-use to general commercial, according to Matt Kalinsky, spokesman for DeKalb Commissioner Burrell Ellis, a vocal opponent of the Wal-Mart proposal.

Instead, the company filed an unsolicited annexation request with Avondale Estates in an apparent attempt to make an end-run around the DeKalb zoning process, Kalinsky explains.

The county has spent thousands in recent years drawing up revitalization plans for that stretch of Memorial Drive — plans built around the premise that the Avondale Mall property, now owned by Wal-Mart, would become a mixed-use development.

In fact, the county could be only weeks away from creating a tax-allocation district designed to spur development along the commercial corridor. If the mall site is snatched away by the city and rezoned for commercial use — as Wal-Mart hopes — it could throw a wrench in the county's plans, Kalinsky says.

One of the first planned communities in the South, with a strict set of development covenants and a population of only 4,500, Avondale Estates would seem an unlikely community to welcome a big-box retailer.

And Wal-Mart's sales pitch of increased tax revenues may have difficulty gaining traction in a city more interested in preserving the quality of life for its well-heeled residents.

"I can guarantee that any potential financial benefits from this [annexation] would not be a major factor in the commission's decision," says City Manager Warren Hutmacher, who nonetheless refrains from predicting the eventual outcome of the Wal-Mart proposal. "There's no overall push to expand the city — we're trying to stay a small, quiet community."

Many of the anti-Wal-Marters say they're willing to wait awhile longer for the eventual redevelopment of Avondale Mall if it means that the woebegone site will boast a mix of restaurants, condos and office space.

"Wal-Mart says they're going to help the community, but it's all talk, talk, talk," says Oliver Brown, who lives near Avondale Estates. "This Wal-Mart will be no different from any other one. You can put stripes on a monkey and it still won't be a zebra."

The Avondale zoning and planning committee has postponed its decision on Wal-Mart's proposal until at least Nov. 23.