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How did Centerville get boxed into store?

Published January 17, 2005 12:16 am

Wal-Mart: Envision Utah had chosen the parcel as a pilot project, but it appears apathy won out
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CENTERVILLE - The Wal-Mart that has residents riled in this south Davis County city will sit on a swath of property that once was held up as a poster of urban planning in Utah.

And, no, a 200,000-square-foot big-box store was not in the picture. So why is it there now, especially since an earlier proposal from Envision Utah called for a walkable wonderland of tree-lined streets, shops, offices, theaters and townhomes?

"Our intention was to give people an opportunity to have input on what is one of the last major pieces of developable land in their city," recalls Stephen Holbrook, former executive director of Envision Utah, the state's idea factory for smart growth.

Along with a section of old-town Provo and Ogden's transportation hub, Centerville's gateway district was chosen as one of Envision Utah's pilot projects to receive a $10,000 grant to put into action Utah's Quality Growth Act of 1999.

After several brainstorming sessions attended by Centerville's civic, religious and cultural leaders, a plan was born. In 2000, the nearly 60-acre site was transformed - on paper - into a pedestrian-friendly Village Center.

Now, that site is slated to become a Wal-Mart with a sea of parking stalls on one end and an Ivory Homes subdivision on the other.

"If it wasn't what people wanted, we didn't hear about it," Holbrook says. "With local politics, you never know. But Centerville is the only instance I can think of where something [Envision Utah] took on a life of its own."

Many participants in the Envision effort - Mayor Frank Hirschi, City Council members and, most notably, the city planner, who was fired in 2003 - are gone and not talking about what was and, still is, a painful experience for many residents.

Thomas Irwin, a University of Utah student, recently used the Centerville Wal-Mart flap as a case study for a public consensus-building class. He says public apathy and "fear of the unknown" paved the road to Wal-Mart.

"There was an effort made to get people involved," he says. "The residents had no problem saying no to what they didn't like but never took the time to say what they wanted."

Steve Blackham, a former Centerville resident who served on the Village Center steering committee, says it was difficult getting people out to public meetings.

"We had those meetings with the 55 people, but it wasn't a real cross section of the community," Blackham says. "We had other open houses later on and no one showed up."

The plan did give officials a jumping-off point. In 2001, the City Council voted to pursue a second Envision Utah grant to continue studying the village concept.

Several council members and planning commissioners took field trips to visit urban villages in the suburbs of Northern California and Boise, Idaho. One of the landowners, John Hepworth, went along. He has never given an interview on the subject and now only contacts the city through real estate agents and attorneys.

"That first plan was not really workable," Blackham says. "But it told us that people were interested in some kind of town center and gathering place.

"Centerville is still lacking opportunities for empty nesters who want to give up on their big homes and yards yet still want to be part of the community," Blackham says.

Word soon spread that city officials were jetting off to California to look at apartments and cafes - two words that don't sit well with current Centerville Mayor Michael Deamer, a Salt Lake City attorney who ran on a low-density platform.

Residents - upset over high-density housing such as apartments and condos - started a letter-writing campaign that led to a City Council vote to fire longtime City Planner Paul Allred.

In the early 1990s, Allred designed Centerville's "power center," featuring Home Depot and SuperTarget. The village center, located across the street from the commercial district, was to be Allred's next project.

Deamer says a village wouldn't work in Centerville.

"There's a reason why there isn't anything like [an urban village] in Utah and it's because it is not conducive to our culture," Deamer says. "Centerville is a place where families can prosper and our gathering places are our soccer fields and our high school auditoriums."

Apathy reigned again during the 2003 planning sessions in which Centerville rewrote the zoning code.

Only one resident, Sherri Lindstrom, then a council candidate, spoke at the public hearing before the council OK'd zoning codes that placed a "commercial, very high" designation on the area in question.

City records show Lindstrom "approved" of the designs that show a big square on the north as the site of "future retail." Lindstrom couldn't be reached to ask her current opinion now that Wal-Mart has been penciled into that spot.

The city was courting Costco when the code was rewritten, recalls Aric Jensen, who worked as Centerville planner for a time before taking a job with Bountiful.

Jensen says the difference between "commercial high" and "commercial, very high" in the new code is anything over 50,000-square feet.

"They were thinking 100,000-square-foot Costco and once that door was opened, 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart walked in," Jensen says.

Costco eventually decided to locate a couple of miles away in West Bountiful and Wal-Mart won Centerville's nod last fall.

"We weren't zoning for [sales tax] dollars," Deamer says. "Costco presented us with a design. We soon came to believe they were playing us against West Bountiful and we immediately got out of the game."

Deamer points out that a recent city audit shows Centerville is operating in the black and doesn't need a sales tax boost.

Officials just announced plans to spend $4 million to improve parks and build a new one - featuring a new Davis County library - just south of the Wal-Mart site.

Rewriting the code actually gave the city more say in what went on the site, Deamer says. An integral part gives City Council members authority to issue conditional-use permits, meaning they can set standards for building design.

That's what the council and Planning Commission have been doing for the past 12 months. But it has been a very long and publicly rancorous process.

"Wal-Mart could have come in all along," Deamer says. "There were no designations, just a commercial zone. It could have been anything."

lorib@sltrib.com

What's next

After more than a year of studying crime, traffic and the economics of having a Wal-Mart in their city, Centerville officials are awaiting the retailer's response to the conditions set down by the Planning Commission. Wal-Mart will have to comply with the city's requests for reduced noise, curtailed storage, lighting and landscaping before it receives a building permit.