Wal-Mart dispute hinged on parking

FORT WORTH -- In the end, the debate about zoning variances for a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market came down to 14 parking spaces.

At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Councilman Joel Burns, whose district includes the proposed store at Hemphill and West Berry streets, was willing to recommend approving the variances as long as 14 parking spaces were held back as an incentive for Wal-Mart to develop a parcel fronting West Berry to help conform with the urban village concept outlined for the area.

But the council voted 7-2 in favor of a substitute recommendation by Councilman Sal Espino to approve the variances with a restriction on fuel sales but without prohibitions on paving those 14 parking spaces.

The vote came after a Wal-Mart representative said that stipulation was unworkable and would actually take 25 spaces away from the store.

"I think that was the linchpin for Wal-Mart not to just sit on that property indefinitely," said Sandra Dennehy, chairwoman of the Berry Street Initiative, who was involved in negotiations with the company and had argued for maintaining the Hemphill/Berry Urban Village as a mechanism for reviving the intersection, a major south-side crossroads.

"I think Joel was blindsided by the council," she said. "I think it was very unfortunate."

Deputy Planning Director Dana Burghdoff said the site plan submitted by Wal-Mart includes a setback for green space along West Berry and the stipulation that the store will share parking spaces along with a restriction on selling fuel.

But it includes no incentives to develop the parcel on the northwest corner of the property along West Berry.

Burns didn't respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday but tweeted that he was on a flight to Washington, D.C. Burns was sitting next to Granbury Mayor Pro Tem Mickey Parson and said it was "bad timing for him to ask what it's like working w/ my Council."

After Tuesday's meeting, Burns said the vote by "Councilman Espino and others on our council have damaged the city's commitment to urban villages and the quality economic development that supports a strong tax base."

On Wednesday, Espino defended his stance, saying that council members can have "reasonable differences of opinion" and that almost all the calls he had received were in favor of the new Wal-Mart grocery store.

Espino noted that Wal-Mart had threatened to just rehab the old Safeway building on the site and that Wal-Mart was willing to share parking spaces with anyone who built on the lot facing West Berry.

"I'm comfortable with my decision," Espino said. "I felt that the compromise offered by Wal-Mart was reasonable, and they still have the ability to do urban development on that shared lot."

During the discussion at Tuesday's meeting, speakers appeared to be nearly evenly split on the Wal-Mart proposal.

Some commented that the issue had become so personal among neighborhood leaders that it might be difficult to work together on other matters.

Vicki Bargas, president of the Worth Heights Neighborhood Association, supported the store but was troubled by the strong emotions stirred up by the case.

"It was so upsetting that it was so divisive," Bargas said.

"It was upsetting that Councilman Burns was so upset about it. I think it got kind of personal, but I could never really figure out why the Berry Street Initiative was so opposed to that Wal-Mart. I understand about the urban village concept, but I also understand you're not always going to get everything you want."

Bargas said the placement of the store can still promote pedestrian-friendly traffic along Hemphill even if it doesn't achieve the same goals as its placement away from West Berry.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, who voted with Burns, said he hopes that the urban village concept can still happen at Hemphill and West Berry despite the hard feelings.

"When the anger settles out, I think everyone will realize in the long term it will be OK," Jordan said.

"The problem was, it could have been resolved in the short term so everyone could feel a little better about the result. It will be argued who has those parking spaces, but in the long run, we'll find a way to work it out."

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna