Daily Archives: January 10, 2008

A Tale of Two Wal-Marts

The scene is familiar. A new Wal-Mart is coming, and concerns about traffic and sprawl and the prospect of more Big Boxes (and small boxes) in its wake are ignited. Talk turns to the need for a new master plan, new zoning, and renewed attention to the community’s future and vision.

Though this is precisely what has happened in the Village since the opening of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in August 2005, the scene I describe above is actually from the Town of Geneseo, circa 1992.

Over the past few days, I have been reading through the minutes of the Town Planning Board in the 1990s. In so doing, I’ve been struck by two things. First, that board has been the battleground of every major controversy in this community in the past two decades, from the Wal-Mart/Wegman’s plaza, to Akzo, to Balconi, to the present Lowe’s battle.

Second, that history is repeating itself, at least in broad form.

The prospect of a sprawling retail development on the edge of town, a 250,000 square foot strip mall bookended by the two largest stores in the community, changed the landscape of Geneseo in the early 1990s. After decades of piecemeal retail development in the Village, the Town was suddenly opened to development.

Town and Village officials expressed concerns about the extension of water and sewer, about the prospect that leapfrogging development would lead to dark stores in the Village, about traffic, and about the threats to the character of historic, small town Geneseo.

Of particular concern was what this new development would mean for the large swaths of farmland across 20A from the new plaza, referred to then as the Frew farm and now as the Gateway. At the time, that land was zoned to match the south side of 20A, allowing large-scale retail development. Much to their credit, Town officials recognized the need to plan for that area before the forces of sprawl arrived.

Theirs was not an anti-development position, as any advocate of planning is sometimes characterized. Rather, they acted to insure they got the type of development, in both form and appearance, which would enhance Geneseo and contribute to its long-term viability. They were concerned about the burdens of traffic-intensive development, about ensuring that developed was not limited to the road frontage, and about the quality and mix of jobs and services that would be provided.

The first step was to draft and enact a new master plan. That plan, which focused on mixed uses and limiting sprawl in the Gateway, was enacted in 1992. The next, much more significant and specific step, was to give specific meaning and legal force to that master plan by enacting new zoning for the Gateway. With the assistance of planners from Phoenix Associates, the Town Planning Board, which served as the committee to draft new zoning, worked for more than two years to review their zoning options and recommend new zoning to the Town Board.

Those deliberations, recorded in minutes that are so detailed that they read like seconds, are remarkable for their clarity. The intention of the Town Planning Board to prevent Big Box development and retail sprawl is clear and unambiguous. Specifically, they proposed that retail buildings be limited to 35,000 square feet, that only one road cut on 20A be permitted, and that all development face the new internal road that would be developed.

Their deliberations ended on April 10, 1995, when Planning Board member Trish Jones made two motions. The first was to approve the zoning changes that they had drafted and forward them to the Town Board for review and action. The second was to recommend that the Town Board adopt a moratorium on development in the Gateway until the new zoning could be enacted. Both motions passed unanimously.

Funny how history repeats itself, isn’t it? Less funny is how poorly we remember that history.

[This is the first of a series of columns that will explore the origins of the Gateway zoning and its significance for today’s big box battle.]