Sunday, May 13, 2007
Resentment surfaces in the Wal-Mart brawl
- A great community needs great leaders
- A fresh vision for downtown Christiansburg
- The Black House will be an eyesore no more
- Del. Yost wants to clean up Virginia's laws
From the RoundTable blog
Blacksburg's South Main development might, maybe, probably will contain a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and many residents are waging a grassroots fight against it. Meanwhile, the rest of the New River Valley looks on and wonders what the fuss is.
Let's get one thing straight. No one has confirmed that Wal-Mart will be part of the project behind and around the Gables Shopping Center. Wal-Mart's corporate minions did not return multiple calls for comment last week.
What we do know is that the site plan shows a whopping big building. At 187,000 square feet, few businesses could fill it. The site plan describes space devoted to retail, a grocery, a pharmacy and more, all under one roof. That sure sounds like a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and if it is not, then it will still be something monstrously large.
A sea of asphalt, trucks making deliveries, increased traffic and, well, the Wal-Martness of it all have Blacksburg residents railing against the plan. Speakers approached the podium one after another for more than an hour at last week's town council meeting, urging officials to make it go away.
Opponents' strategy right now -- aside from hosting a bake sale fundraiser outside Gillies yesterday and today -- is a proposed ordinance that would require large retailers to get council approval before building. It would not ban a big-box, but it is hard to imagine the current council signing off on one.
Unfortunately for the opponents, Virginia courts frown on retroactive standards. They must be kicking themselves that they did not think to pass a law years ago.
Nevertheless, the battle has begun and it will likely last months, perhaps years. Opponents have other maneuvers in the works. Developers plan counterstrikes and have filed a lawsuit.
It's quite the show.
Blacksburg has always stood apart in the New River Valley, a progressive town plopped down in a region brimming with conservative values. Much of the difference -- the blame, if you prefer -- rests with Virginia Tech.
Blacksburg is a college town in the purest sense. It attracts people from diverse places and welcomes free thinking. Vocal opposition to a big-box development, especially in a project originally touted as pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, new urbanism, should surprise no one.
Yet many people who live in the rest of the New River Valley seem baffled, even offended by Blacksburg's outrage.
Those Blacksburg whiners take themselves too seriously, the chorus sounds. The snobs scorn Christiansburg. They need to get a grip. If big-boxes are good enough for the rest of us, then they should be good enough for Blacksburg. Don't they want to increase their tax base?
In other words, Blacksburg should stop complaining and let developers do whatever they want, the side effects be damned. That's the Southwest Virginia way.
To hell with that. Blacksburg's citizens like their town the way it is. They like their tree-lined streets, local shops, expansive parks and clean air.
Some people choose not to live amidst unmanaged growth. They prize other things along with a robust economy and willingly restrain commercial development to preserve them.
Is it so shocking that they oppose turning Main Street into a strip-mall, big-box Hades like the one at the north end of Christiansburg?
It is no accident that Blacksburg has some of the priciest property in the region. People pay a premium to live there. For the same money, they could buy a lot more house in Christiansburg, Radford or the county, but they want what Blacksburg offers.
It takes a particularly bitter person to fault them for wishing to protect their investment and their community from a perceived threat. Maybe big-box fears are baseless. Maybe a gargantuan retailer would be good for the town, could be tastefully built or is just paranoia. Maybe not.
It's a debate worth having, but slamming residents for expressing their doubts contributes nothing useful.
Blacksburg is no Blue Ridge Elysium. It has its problems. The high home prices are a barrier to living there, especially for the people who fill the town's service jobs. Its downtown is in a rut. And anti-growth sentiments -- some call it smart-growth -- hold dangerous sway over town government. Moderation is one thing, but the current political leadership often appears more dogmatic than cautious.
Yet a big-box is an unlikely solution to any of those issues.
Christiansburg's leaders, rightly or wrongly, made a rational decision to welcome freewheeling commercial development years ago. As a result, they enjoy strong tax revenue and, let's be honest, some truly hideous areas.
Now the big-boxes are trying to move up U.S. 460, and Blacksburg residents should get to make their own rational decision without being called elitist if they choose anything but capitulation.
Christian Trejbal is an editorial writer for The Roanoke Times based in the New River Valley bureau in Christiansburg.