By Thomas R. Collins
For years, city planners in Boynton Beach have been trying to cultivate an urban feel to Federal Highway, with attractive buildings close to the roadways to make life more pleasant for walkers and to draw new residents to the east.
Now, here comes along a business that has a reputation of being about as un-urban as you can get: Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The big-box staple of small-town, rural life wants to build a store at the city’s southern entryway: the intersection of Federal Highway and Gulfstream Boulevard. The city’s planning board recently recommended approval. The topic goes to city commissioners on Feb. 16.
The 93,000-square-foot store, which is actually a little below the average Walmart size, would take the place of an abandoned strip mall and the old, crime-plagued Aphrodite’s strip joint and Club Ovation nightclub, all longstanding blotches on the city’s landscape.
Still, you can predict the response of residents in the town of Gulf Stream across the street: outrage. They say the city is pushing forward without making sure the appearance is acceptable and that disturbance to nearby neighborhoods is minimized.
“They seem to be rushing to a decision without several things finalized,” said Ned McDonald, who lives in the Place Au Soleil neighborhood nearby.
“We as residents are terribly concerned by the appearance,” said Bob Ganger, who leads the Gulf Stream Civic Association. And traffic. And crime, he said.
City planners say that because the property is already zoned as Walmart needs it — commercial — there’s little that can be done to prevent the store from coming in. So far, they’ve only tried to contain it, making the discount giant add architectural features to make it more compatible with what planners have in mind for the area.
The features include more windows to make it look like there’s a second floor, awnings and features to make it look like there’s more than one storefront.
The planning board’s approval recommendation is contingent on those changes being made. In the process, the board agreed with city planners that the Walmart could be farther away from the road than city regulations call for, saying it won’t impose a great hardship on surrounding properties. Even as his department recommended approval for the Walmart, Planning Director Mike Rumpf expressed some misgivings.
“My first choice would have been the project previously approved for this site,” Rumpf said, referring to plans for the Heritage Club, a combination of residences and shops, which fell through. Walmart officials are telling the city that it is becoming more accustomed to adapting to urban environments.
Community redevelopment officials in the city point out that the store is almost two miles from the heart of the city’s downtown near Boynton Beach Boulevard and say it will provide important services for eastern residents.
And they tout the roughly 300 jobs that Wal-Mart says will be created by the 24-hour store. The company could get $1.5 million from the Community Development Agency for coming — $5,000 per job.
“It doesn’t hurt the downtown, it helps bolster the downtown,” Assistant CRA Director Vivian Brooks said. “It’s going to draw more traffic to our area.”
That’s part of the worry, Ganger said. Part of that traffic will be delivery trucks. “Trucks are noisy and as they accelerate they spray a lot diesel smoke,” he said.
Residents at Place au Soleil, the Gulf Stream community just to the east of the site, are going to pay for their own landscaping plan to present to city commissioners, McDonald said.
Gulf Stream Town Manager Bill Thrasher said he wished the city had consulted with town officials before the planning board meeting. He said he hopes delivery trucks go in and out on Old Dixie, and not Federal.
“At that meeting, we weren’t afforded the opportunity to get into that part of the discussion,” he said. He said the nearly three dozen design conditions are a “nice thing,” while adding, “No matter what you do to it, it’s going to end up looking like a big box.”
Residents quote from a report, easily found with Google, in which a group called Wake-Up Wal-Mart concludes that Walmart stores had 400 percent more reported police incidents than nearby Target stores.
Brooks said the reaction is to be expected. But she said the days of shopping at mom-and-pops are long gone and the city is just accepting that reality.
“There’s always a knee-jerk reaction to a big-box store and I understand that,” she said. “Trust me, when it’s open, they’re going to shop there.”