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Zionsville sticks with big-box ban despite growth push

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Even as retail development continues to proliferate just outside Zionsville’s borders, town officials say they remain committed to an 8-year-old zoning ordinance banning big-box stores.

The Boone County community is making an unprecedented push to attract commercial investment and has landed $60 million in projects in less than a year. Officials in the town of about 24,000, however, are confident they can achieve their goal of reducing the burden on residential taxpayers without opening the door to retail behemoths.

“Scale of development is very important,” said Town Manager Ed Mitro. “We want Zionsville to grow, certainly, but we still want the community to have the same character.”

zionsville-map.jpgBut not everyone thinks Zionsville’s hard line makes sense. Some argue the town is needlessly leaving money on the table.

Target Corp. pays more than $200,000 in property taxes annually for its 14-acre site on the Carmel side of Michigan Road, for example, and Meijer has a similar-size store under construction on Whitestown Parkway, just west of town.

“If you embrace commercial [development] with a lot of howevers and asterisks, you’re excluding quite a few likely users,” said Ross Reller, director of land services at Colliers International’s central Indiana office.

The town has been fending off proposals for a Walmart supercenter on the west side of Michigan Road since 2006. Last year, officials turned down a variance request that would have allowed the retail giant to build a 150,000-square-foot store—more than twice as large as allowed.

Adopted in 2006 after the first Walmart proposal failed, the big-box ordinance established size limits for retail development in certain zoning districts. Single users cannot exceed 60,000 square feet of space (about the size of an existing Marsh store on Michigan Road) and shopping centers are limited to 125,000 square feet (about the size of Boone Village) on Oak Street.

The restrictions apply along Michigan Road, where Walmart owns 23 acres straddling the Hamilton-Boone county line north of 106th Street. Officials say the idea is to provide a transition between the sprawling retail developments to the south and quaint Zionsville neighborhoods to the north.

“You’ve got to look at where you are in the community,” said longtime Plan Commission member Allan Rachles. “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t come build here.’ Quite the opposite.”

Rather, the emphasis is on attracting corporate users like FedEx, which is constructing a $40 million package-distribution center north of 96th Street, and Hat World, which last month said it will invest $19 million to build and equip a new headquarters in Zionsville.

Ramping up development without affecting Zionsville’s small-town charm is easier said than done, said Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, director of the university’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

“Zionsville is a really attractive place, trying to do what’s probably impossible,” he said, calling the town’s strategy “schizophrenic.” “It’s a laudable goal, but very few are successful at it.”

A developer planning a $90 million mixed-use project in Zionsville at the southwest corner of Michigan Road and Sycamore Street is not planning to test the town’s appetite for cavernous stores.

Pittman Partners in August won approval from the Town Council for a rezoning that will clear the way for The Farm, which will include up to 150,000 square feet of retail, plus offices, multifamily housing and some estate homes.

The largest retail space on the preliminary site plan was a 65,000-square-foot anchor store earmarked for a specialty grocer. The big-box ordinance doesn’t apply because of the property’s zoning status, but developer Steve Pittman said big boxes aren’t part of his vision.

“The days of putting in a big box and a sea of parking are over,” he said. “I’m happy with what we got approved. I’ve been approached by some big users and said no. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”

Instead, the goal is a “cool, neighborhood-infused” development with common areas and walking paths that draw pedestrians. He said he is working through the process of matching the right tenants with the right spaces.

Town staff worked with the Pittmans to finesse the project for about two years before they submitted a proposal, Rachles said. Officials “jawboned” with Walgreens for six months about plans for its Oak Street pharmacy before agreeing on a one-of-a-kind design that includes a brick façade, a covered porch and windows with shutters.

“We’re starting to see others come forward … instead of throwing something at us and seeing if it will fly,” Rachles said. “The town is getting quality development because we’re taking the time to talk it through.”

Big-box ordinances are increasingly common nationwide, said Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national not-for-profit that works to strengthen communities. Dozens of cities and towns have imposed size restrictions to control costs associated with increased traffic and other unintended consequences of no-holds-barred growth, she said.

“Setting limits on that kind of development is good for the community in the long term,” Mitchell said.

Colliers’ Reller disagrees, saying market demand should drive development. Retailers—and their customers—are looking for lucrative trade areas, municipal boundaries be darned. It makes no sense for Zionsville to impose size limitations on Walmart, he said, when there’s a big-box Target just down the road.

“It’s the same trade area, the same customer,” he said. “Why can’t Walmart offer the same merchandise in the same-size store? … It gets absurd very quickly.”

A Walmart representative declined to comment on the retailer’s plans for the site, but a lawsuit appealing the Plan Commission’s 2008 decision is still pending in Boone Superior Court. Both sides participated in a day-long mediation session in mid-January, to no avail.

Economic development officials are focusing their attention on scoring more projects like the 300,000-square-foot FedEx facility and Hat World’s $19 million headquarters, planned for 15.6 acres in Zionsville’s new Creekside Corporate Park.

Both are bringing good-paying jobs, and even if the employees live elsewhere they’re likely to spend time (and money) in Zionsville, patronizing its mom-and-pop businesses.

“Those two deals alone are huge, and they didn’t upset the balance of what we have here,” said Town Council President Jeff Papa.

And of course, rules are meant to be broken. The town will consider any development proposal that’s brought forward, he said, but the bottom line is always the same: “Ultimately, it comes down to, ‘Does it make sense for the town? Is there a net benefit?’”•

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  • Zionsville is doing the right thing.
    Walmart is committed to forcing themselves in, whether or not the people representing Zionsville want them in or not.
  • Zionsville Rocks
    I moved to Zionsville precisely because they control their development. We do NOT want to be another Carmel or Fishers. In fact I would prefer that they be more restrictive -- we do not need the Pittman development, for example. That being said, it is the best little town in Indiana, and we plan to keep it that way, regardless of what Walmart wants.
  • Rick...
    Rick, I'm sorry to disagree. Walmart does not pay well, nor do they treat their employees well. No overtime.. you are given comp days, a department manage makes about $11 per hour. Forced to work Holidays without proper compensation. What women owned companies do they buy from.. in Bangladesh, India and China? If they really wanted to fight hunger they would pay a living wage. The women that work there are either single moms, retired and trying to supplement their Social Security or trying to help the family survive. Taxes? Of course they pay taxes, so do I.
  • Two Walmarts on Michigan Rd unnecessary
    Local control is a good thing. Development that is well planned and reflects community values is also a good thing. I wonder how building another store along the Michigan Rd corridor would effect the existing store on W 86th St. The abandoned Walgreen's above 79th St comes to mind. Folks in Z'ville gladly trek to Costco and Target is technically in Carmel. The skepticism of folks regarding the long-term benefit of building another Walmart is warranted.
  • walmart stinks
    I am a reformed libertarian. Screw the big corporations. They'll destroy the town, the politicos will siphon off the benefits of the big property tax payments-- if they really pan out-- and in 10-15 years everybody's property tax values will have gone to hell and you'll have a lot of unused parking lots. Use em and abuse em-- that's the story of this kind of socalled "development." same thing goes for Meijer except their stores are a heck of a lot nicer than walmart with a better selection and pricing than target and you can still find somebody to help you. But Meijer would be just fine somewhere else too.
  • Very Limited Views
    As I read the article, it occurred to me how few of these "experts" have any background in what goes on outside Indiana. Those who say we must allow the market to govern regardless of what it does to the quality of our life have never been to Vermont, to Long Grove, IL, Birmingham, MI, or one of the many communities that value character over commercialism. Zoning typically gives communities an "all or nothing" tool that either prevents development or lets in almost any development, regardless of how it changes the character of the town. I applaud the Town of Zionsville for sticking to their principles.
  • Time Will Tell
    "Those communities that decline to continually refine their product and improve their processes will lose momentum and focus & ultimately lose their competitive edge." I didn't say it, but I very much believe it.
  • Don't believe it
    Pittman partners will in the end, ask to go much larger for their grocery, just as they did at the Bridges on Spring Mill. Once the town council approves that, Walmart will move in. They are biding their time. If you think these developers have the best interest of the communities in mind, I have a bridge to sell you. Its the same public retoric they continue to espouse. Walking paths, community friendly, etc etc. Then, once they are approved, they build to their desires, with the council's blessing.
  • Short Sighted
    Let's see would you want a company that pays above average wage for the retail sector? Has a 401K match, promotes nearly 12% of their work force each year. Offers health insurance, that over 50% of the work force are women, over 25% of the management staff are women and 20% of their corporate board of directors are ladies? Also they buy several billion dollars of goods from women owned companies. Would you want a company that is committed to hiring veterans? A company that last year gave back to the communities they serve over 1 BILLION dollars in cash or in-kind contributions or a company that has committed 2 BILLION to fight hunger in the United States. Oh by the way, this same company has been working to be 100% renewable energy sufficient. Pays billions in real estate taxes, social security taxes and countless other taxes. Yeah I am guessing I would pass on this company too.
    • More to the story
      The documented high number of police, fire and ambulance visits to the Walmart on 86th & Michigan road is another reason Zionsville doesn't want Walmart to build. Their much publicized poor treatment of employees is another. Here's hoping the Zionsville Town Council continues to refuse this low quality big box retail juggernaut from building a store in the immediate area. What part of "We don't want Walmart" does this company not understand?
    • Well done
      Stay the course Zionsville, dare to be different. I applaud the direction!!

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