Wal-Mart officials dispelled rumors late last week that the national retailer was giving up plans to build a Super Center — or moving out of Hood River altogether.
After several months of silence from the company, local speculation has mounted that Wal-Mart was either dropping plans to build a new 185,000 square foot store or that the existing 72,000-square foot operation would relocate to The Dalles.
But Pete Kanelos, Wal-Mart community affairs manager, said on Friday that the first site plan review tentatively scheduled for January was put off by a few more months so that contested details could be addressed. That action followed September’s recommendation by Hood River County Planning Director Mike Benedict that the building application be denied because it failed to meet six key criteria.
“We have a store in Hood River and we are fully committed to staying here and working things out so we’re able to open the new site,” Kanelos said.
Last week, Wal-Mart architectural consultants met with county planners to provide an update on design modifications that now include a more rustic look for the exterior of the proposed new store. Kanelos said wood posts could be placed outside all entrances and the color scheme adjusted to earth tones, such as beige and a reddish brown, that would help the structure at the junction of Frankton and Country Club roads blend in with the environment. In addition, Wal-Mart is proposing to draw the north-facing loading docks closer to the building walls so they are less visible to passing freeway motorists.
Kanelos said Wal-Mart engineers are also redrafting schematics for a new intersection at Country Club Road and West Cascade Avenue to meet standards set by the Oregon Department of Transportation. In October a state advisory panel vetoed the original plans to move the existing intersection about 300 feet to the east. The state expressed “grave concerns” about the safety of that idea because of the potential for traffic backup since the stoplight would be located too near the Exit 62 freeway off-ramp. Because Cascade Avenue is part of the Historic Columbia River Highway, ODOT also registered concerns because the reconstruction was inconsistent with the city’s transportation plan and design changes would fail to preserve the roadway’s character.
At that time, the transportation agency said it was open to a discussion about relocating Country Club onto a public right of way from an old subdivision plat that runs along the current Stonehedge Gardens Restaurant driveway. That site would put the traffic light between 400-500 feet farther east than the old proposal and dovetail with city plans to eventually construct a street at that location which linked with Fairview Drive.
ODOT is also asking the retail giant to foot the estimated $1.2 million bill for the stoplight and fund an account for mitigation and maintenance that would offset changes to the historic highway.
Kanelos said Wal-Mart is currently negotiating to purchase additional properties and/or easements to accommodate the new placement of the intersection.
“We are confident an ultimate alignment for Country Club Road will be worked out soon,” he said.
Eric Walker, county senior planner, said Wal-Mart has indicated it will submit finalized plans within the next 10 weeks and the first review hearing before the Hood River County Planning Commission will likely take place between mid-May and early June.
The retailer is seeking to counter last fall’s 80-page staff report that outlined the following problems on the 16-acre property:
* Potential loss of habitat if Phelps Creek is relocated and no longer has mature riparian vegetation along its banks.
* The possibility that placement of 60,000 yards of fill materials could bring flooding problems to neighboring properties.
* Insufficient traffic information to ensure the added travel to and from the store would not create safety problems and vehicle congestion.
* Height, bulk and scale of the visible portions of the new Wal-Mart would dominate the surrounding landscape.
* Failure to meet aesthetic standards by making the north side of the building, facing Country Club Road, look like a main entrance and placing parking spaces to the side and rear of the building.
* Inadequate data to ensure that on-site development would not bring flooding to adjacent lands, particularly those located downstream.
After hearing these concerns, Wal-Mart requested a delay in its site plan review to work toward a resolution that would be agreeable to all parties. At that time, Will Carey, county land-use counsel, said the company was legally allowed that “flexibility” since it was seeking to build on a parcel of commercial ground where a store was already an outright permitted use if it met the proper criteria. He said because of the size and scope of Wal-Mart’s proposed project, the administrative review is much more complicated and takes longer to process, although the county plans to make sure all hearings are well advertised to ensure that local citizens are afforded ample opportunity for comment.