In a unanimous late-night vote earlier
this month, the Pittsfield Township Planning Commission approved
initial construction phases of a new Wal-Mart store south of Ann
Arbor.

Janna Hutz

The store is set to be built at the intersection of State Road
(a continuation of State Street) and Michigan Avenue immediately
east of Saline. Despite the vocal objections of Pittsfield
citizens, the commission has showed no sign of folding the
project.

Wal-Mart’s presence undeniably changes the character of a
community, and as a public entity, the planning commission has the
obligation to carefully consider the implications of such an
enormous commercial real estate endeavor. The Pittsfield Planning
Commission, in inviting Wal-Mart into the township, needs to
consider the communally destructive baggage that usually
accompanies the mega-retailer’s arrival in a small town.

Wal-Mart’s work with the Pittsfield Planning Commission
has lasted several years. The most recent proposal is a shrewdly
deceptive one — a conventional trait of similar Wal-Mart
construction propositions. Wal-Mart’s army of attorneys
submitted a series of proposals for small sections of the store. In
fact, commission members only approved the store’s pharmacy,
garden center and tire facility. This approach obscures the true
scale of a Wal-Mart development plan, to the disadvantage of
watchful voters.

Numerous citizens at the commission meeting objected to the
project on various grounds, only to be readily assuaged with
piecemeal concessions by local officials. The commission chair,
upon hearing a complaint that the store would adversely affect
traffic in the area, noted that the local and state road
commissions already approved the development project. Concerns
about the store’s environmental impact were met by the
guarantee that the development would reserve a few acres of open
space and natural property on-site. While the development threatens
the viability of Saline’s localized commercial district, the
planning commission has made sure that the store will at least
sport a distinguishable brick facade. These games of political
give-and-take ignore the larger implications of Wal-Mart’s
presence in a community.

While the store’s development may be technically compliant
with state and local regulations, its presence will inevitably have
more profound impacts on a community. Wal-Mart-sized mega stores
usually intrude on the local environment — paving vast
parking lots and uprooting natural drainage systems in the process.
The store’s ability to take advantage of economies of scale
permits it to out-price local businesses until it drives them out
of competition. Its effect on traffic is considerable on its own,
but the presence of a Wal-Mart tends to attract similar commercial
giants, which further exacerbates congestion.

And to assume that the Pittsfield Wal-Mart won’t be
followed by other Wal-Mart excavations would be naïve. The
mega-store chain travels in fleets, inundating an area of bordering
rural towns and sparring with local business, and when revenue
projections allow it, a Super Wal-Mart is constructed in the
nucleus of the now Wal-Mart-dependent district.

If the Planning Commission wants to act in the best interests of
the community it represents, it will pay attention to the real
implications of a Wal-Mart in the neighborhood. Instead of focusing
on small design tweaks and cosmetic changes, the commission should
consider the broad strokes of its friendly relationship with
Wal-Mart. At closer look, it may discover Wal-Mart is no friend at
all.

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