Soaring tempers 

Surprise Wal-Mart plan riles up neighbors

The 26-acre field at Soaring Eagles, a new housing development in southeast Colorado Springs, stood vacant for four years while $300,000 homes shot up all around.

Many of the development's residents, such as Traci Rivera, say the agents who sold them their homes told them it would be filled with a supermarket and small shops befitting an upscale community.

That's why Rivera and others responded with anger this fall after receiving postcards announcing plans for their newest neighbor: a Wal-Mart SuperCenter.

"They never would have sold any houses had they disclosed this," she says about plans for a 200,000 square-foot combination supermarket, retail outlet, drive-thru pharmacy and gas station on the corner of Hancock Expressway and Silver Hawk Avenue, a stone's throw from the houses.

Noise, light pollution, traffic and increased crime will spill into the neighborhood, says Evelyn Campbell, who owns a home with upstairs windows directly overlooking the field.

"We're not on a stamp-out Wal-Mart campaign. We're on a campaign to get [the city] to take a serious look," she says, at potential problems such as danger to children walking to school through heavy traffic, and flooding due to runoff from a massive, 1,100-space parking lot.

Rivera, Campbell and others recently have formed the Soaring Eagles Community Coalition in opposition to the retailer's plan. They have collected hundreds of supporting signatures on petitions, which they plan to submit to the city.

Anger is nothing new

Brimming anger over the proposed Wal-Mart is nothing new. Clashes between the world's largest retailer and communities have erupted across Colorado and elsewhere in recent years.

Although Wal-Mart has yet to officially file its proposal to build next to Soaring Eagles, it has caused a major stir. Nearly 300 residents flooded a community meeting held in late September.

"Do I believe there are some legitimate concerns? Absolutely," says Doug Stimple, CEO of Classic Companies, one of the chief developers of the Soaring Eagles subdivision. "The concerns need to be directed to the [city] planning commission and Council."

Not a hangout

As for his customers being misled, Stimple maintains that buyers were warned of possible land use changes in their purchase paperwork.

"A lot of the concern is that it's a Wal-Mart," says Mike Schultz, the city planner who will study the proposal expected in the next two weeks.

Indeed, Wal-Mart has been embroiled in controversy for years over its union-busting tactics, low pay and scant benefits for employees.

But with eight stores in Colorado Springs and 3,292 employees, Wal-Mart is the city's largest private-sector employer and a major sales tax contributor. And the city may have little room to prevent plans to build on land already zoned as commercial.

"We don't have any discretion if it's a 10,000-foot retail or a 200,000-foot retail property," he says.

In 1998, when City Council voted to change the property's zoning to commercial, it stipulated that any use "create a strong sense of place for Soaring Eagles" and link to the neighborhood in a "cohesive park-like manner."

Homeowner Rivera rejects the idea that a Wal-Mart next door will create that sense of place. "We're not going to hang out in Wal-Mart," she says. "It's not going to be our community center."

-- Dan Wilcock


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