Hercules vs. Wal-Mart 

What better way to squash a city's dreams of smart growth than to allow construction of a giant retail store in its midst?

Around the country, city planners enamored of smart growth have been talking up the tiny suburb of Hercules. Once just another sprawling bedroom community of cul-de-sacs and ranch homes, Hercules has embarked upon an unprecedented plan to remake itself in dense Main Street-style neighborhoods adjacent to transit. To finish the job, the city's leaders have taken on the largest employer in the United States, Wal-Mart, by trying to seize land, via eminent domain, on which the company had planned to build a vast megastore. At first glance, it's a charming story of a scrappy little town going toe to toe with the biggest catalyst of sprawl in the entire world. But behind the headlines, it gets a lot weirder.

Nothing would wipe out Hercules' plans for a new kind of suburban living more efficiently than a vast sea of parking spaces luring thousands of cars and choking the streets with traffic. And according to Gale Connor, an attorney representing Hercules in the coming lawsuits, Wal-Mart officials knew as much when the bought the land last year. City officials had made it clear that they would never allow a store larger than 64,000 square feet on the site. Nonetheless, the company first submitted plans to build a 168,000-square-foot store, and then one as big as 99,000 square feet.

"When Wal-Mart bought the property, they agreed to be bound by the plan," Connor says. "There was apparently some disconnect, because Wal-Mart acted genuinely surprised when they were informed that the plan has some serious limitations." A December 4 editorial in the Contra Costa Times expressed a similar sense of bemusement. "Which part of 'no' does Wal-Mart not understand?" it read. "If the company wants to build a store in Hercules, it needs to work with the local community, rather than attempt to bulldoze its way to what it wants."

But according to Wal-Mart representative Kevin Loscotoff, there is no documented restriction on how large the new store could be, and company officials were genuinely mystified when city leaders rejected their plans out of hand. "There's no documentation that limits the size of the building at that site to 64,000 square feet," he says. "It wasn't in any staff report, it's not written into their code or plans, it's just not written out. Since it's something that they continually mention, you'd expect to see it itemized in a written document."

When asked about this, Connor replies that in fact, it was spelled out in a city document — just not the way you usually expect it. When Wal-Mart bought the property, the company also bought the development agreement, explaining what can and can't be done with the land. And in a schematic drawing in the agreement, which runs to more than one hundred pages, you can see a building sketched out to be no more than 64,000 square feet in size.

So is Wal-Mart trying a bully a small town that's just trying to develop some authentic urban character? Or did officials in Hercules get sloppy with their plans, and are they covering up their ineptitude with a big dose of brinkmanship? It depends on whether you think a land-use schematic constitutes a good-faith warning.

That's not the only bizarre detail in this fight. Consider the eminent domain action the city is bringing against Wal-Mart, in which leaders are trying to declare the land blighted in order to seize it from the company. Here, the blight is the failure on the part of the city and the company to reach an agreement. As long as Hercules and Wal-Mart can't agree on how big the store can be, nothing can be built there, and the land will sit empty. "This property was going to continue to lay fallow for the indefinite future," Connor says. "The people have made it very, very clear that they want the property developed in accordance with the redevelopment plan ... and they wanted to see this happen in the near future." It doesn't matter that Wal-Mart fully intends to build something there — what matters is that it's not building anything now. Stalled negotiations means undeveloped land, which means blight.

Despite the surreal aspects of this fight, there's no denying the elegance and wisdom of the Hercules vision. According to a recent study by the Association of Bay Area Governments, two million new people are projected to move into the Bay Area in the next thirty years, and unless local cities voluntarily grow more dense, get more crowded, these new residents will turn the freeways into rivers of smog and gridlock. At three in the afternoon on a recent Thursday, the stretch of I-80 near Hercules was packed with commuters, and cars slowed to an utter stop in places. But if the city manages to complete its plans, Hercules will boast a ferry depot, a stop for Amtrak's Capitol line, and express bus service to San Francisco. The city even intends to reserve a swath of land for a BART station in the distant future. Its leaders will have done more to ease traffic than most other Bay Area cities.

Dense new residential neighborhoods could utterly change the rhythm and culture of suburban life. In one Hercules neighborhood, the "Seagate at Bayside," four-story townhouses snuggle against one another along narrow streets, creating a public space that encourages residents to know their neighbors instead of hiding from them. With clapboard facades, tiny or nonexistent yards, and small parks every few blocks, the homes replicate a New England Yankee sense of community, even as Asian and Latino homeowners putter in their herb boxes. Walking to the new library and shopping district is a pleasant five-minute effort along parkways and bridges that rise above federally protected wetlands. The overall effect improves upon the soulless suburban norm with a world in which residents have no choice but to engage with the world outside their family rooms.

Wal-Mart is just fine with this, at least in theory. The company is known for opening stores everywhere it can — even in Oakland, which most retailers avoid like the plague. In fact, the company has lately gotten religion on New Urbanism, thanks to Laura Hall, an urban designer based in Santa Rosa. A month after Hurricane Katrina wiped out numerous Wal-Mart outlets along the Gulf Coast, Hall flew down to Pass Christian, Mississippi, where she met with the head of Wal-Mart's architecture department and floated the idea of replacing the old, sprawling supercenters with "Wal-Mart villages," a collection of small stores, condos, and townhouses that would surround and complement the store, as well as compress the parking.

According to Hall, the company has agreed to move forward with the plans and will open a "New Urbanist" Wal-Mart in Pass Christian in 2008. "They are very interested in doing mixed-use projects with Wal-Mart as an anchor," she says. "Others will follow, I'm certain of this. They're hitting a wall, and this is an avenue where they can be welcomed into communities. Ninety percent of their real estate is surface parking lots. Once they figure out this model, they don't even have to buy the land."

In both Hercules and Mississippi, the same New Urbanist schemes are on the table. Here, Wal-Mart is about to send an army of lawyers to fight to the death. In Pass Christian, they can't stop hugging each other. Maybe the discount giant and the suburb with big dreams can find a way to get along after all.

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