Approval of Wal-Mart Supercenter in Bowie in doubt


An artist’s rendering is seen of a proposed 186,000-square-f0t Wal-Mart Supercenter in Bowie, Md. (Courtesy of Wal-Mart)
December 12, 2013

Wal-Mart faces a major hurdle in its plan to open a new, bigger store in Bowie.

The chain wants to build a Supercenter as part of a development at the corner of U.S. 301 and Mill Branch Road. But Prince George’s County planners reviewing the proposal say a Wal-Mart is not what the county envisions for the 74-acre site.

The county planners’ recommendation to reject the project is at odds with the position of Bowie’s City Council, which voted recently in support of the new store. The city can make recommendations, but it has no legal authority over land-use matters.

County planner Thomas Lockard said the county’s 2006 master plan for Bowie discourages big-box discount stores at the site and calls for “high-quality commercial retail” and “quality department stores.” The plan does not specify what kind of store would meet that criteria.

The proposed 186,000-square-foot store would replace a 20-year-old, 117,000 square-foot Wal-Mart just across the street, at 3300 Crain Highway.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said the 250 employees at the old Wal-Mart would relocate to the new store and the company would hire an additional 80 workers. The design of the proposed store has three entrances and features a lot of glass to provide a modern feel, with skylights throughout the building, she said. The store would contain a grocery.

“Grocery is an area that customers have come to expect from Wal-Mart because they know it’s an area where we can offer a broad assortment of fresh food at a low price,” she said.

The Prince George’s County Council passed legislation last year limiting the size of big-box stores with groceries to 85,000 square feet, so Wal-Mart is seeking an exception.

Such cases are reviewed by the county’s zoning hearing examiner, who could hear the case early next year. If Wal-Mart’s request is approved by spring, the new store could open as early as fall 2015.

The expansion is one of several Wal-Mart is pursuing in the region. In the District, the company is building one store and is planning to build three others. It has proposed a store in Aspen Hill in Montgomery County. And in Prince George’s, where it operates three stores, it wants to build a Supercenter in Oxon Hill, near National Harbor.

The chain, which has about 30 stores in the area, recently opened two new stores in the District and one in Tysons Corner.

The new Bowie Wal-Mart is planned as an anchor tenant for Mill Branch Crossing, a proposed development that will include retail and office space and a hotel, said developer Bill Chesley, of the Crofton-based firm W.F. Chesley Real Estate.

Chesley said the Wal-Mart is key to advancing the entire project, which he said includes improvements to U.S. 301.

“The market is there, and the need is there,” he said. “It would make a very good anchor, and it will also make possible the road improvements that are needed for the area.”

Lockard, the county planner, said Wal-Mart’s proposal would “substantially impair the integrity” of the county’s vision for the site. He said the architecture proposed by Wal-Mart doesn’t set a high-quality tone for the development of the property.

Bowie City Manager David J. Deutsch said the city sees no reason for denying the application. Besides providing jobs, a new Wal-Mart would boost the city’s tax base because a bigger store would mean more sales, real estate and personal property taxes, Deutsch said.

“Wal-Mart is already here in Bowie. . . . Moving across the street to a new building was not a big leap of faith for us,” he said.

“We disagree with the county staff, clearly,” Deutsch said. “The county staff seem to place a lot of emphasis on the master plan. The master plan is a guide, it is a not a mandate. I am not sure that most residents are concerned whether the store they are shopping in is 125,000 square feet, 124,999 or 186,000.”

Bowie, which, with 56,000 residents, is one of the largest cities in the state, has had long-standing disagreements with the county over land-use decisions. City leaders have lobbied for years for Bowie to have its own zoning authority.

The Bowie City Council’s support for the Wal-Mart project, however, also differs with a Bowie advisory board’s voted in November to recommend rejecting the proposal, siding with some residents who oppose the store.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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