When Walmart went before Charleston's Commercial Corridor Design Review Board requesting approval to expand its James Island location in November, the big-box store received a chilly response from the city of Charleston's Commercial Corridor Design Review Board. But instead of going back to the drawing board, Walmart convinced the city that its expansion plans do not require board approval.
"It's true, and we should have caught it," says Tim Keane, the city's director of planning, preservation, and sustainabilty. "It's going to be way less than 50 percent of the value of the property."
Responsible for reviewing commercial buildings along routes like Folly Road, the design review board doesn't get involved with expansion projects unless the cost of the proposed construction project is more than 50 percent of the value of the property. Now, instead of the review board, Keane and other city planning staffers will examine the proposal.
Walmart plans to construct an entirely new wing to the James Island store in order to make room for the addition of a grocery section. As a result, the finished structure will be significantly closer to Folly Road. The retailer also intends to renovate the entrance to the building.
A longtime opponent of Walmart's plans and a James Island resident, Amy Fabri led the grassroots effort to stop Walmart's expansion plans in 2008. Those plans involved abandoning the current site and building a new store on an adjacent lot.
Fabri has contacted an attorney in hopes of challenging the city's decision. She argues that Walmart is significantly changing the store. "It's more than changing the color and moving a door," she says. "They're completely remodelling that store."
The Walmart opponent believes city staff should have erred on the side of caution and allowed the Commercial Corridor Design Review Board to review the proposal. She notes that in November board members criticized the uniform nature of the proposed addition; the newly remodeled store would essentially look like every other remodelled Walmart in the area. The board also noted that once the expansion was complete, the James Island Walmart — and the blank wall that now faces Folly Road — would be a few dozen feet closer to the well-travelled road.
Planning Director Keane says city staff will take those considerations into account and "require Walmart to dramatically improve the appearance of the building."
He argues that it's a testament to the work of Fabri and other James Islanders that Walmart abandoned its 2008 plan and that its current plan is below the 50-percent threshold requiring a review by the Commercial Corridor Design Review Board.
"Because of the actions of the people of James Island, Walmart has punted," Keane says.
He also notes that the big-box retailer will not request any zoning variances that would require design review board approval. "They know they wouldn't get them," Keane adds.