Dozens of South Side residents packed into a small briefing center in the lower level of City Hall last week to argue against developers who are trying to bring big-box retail to their Southgate Neighborhood.
The fight pits former friends who have spent the past decade trying to rein in development in the Moran Prairie area south of Ferris High School.
Three separate proposals for retail development are under consideration by the Plan Commission following the public hearing on Dec. 12. All three proposals are being pursued as amendments to the city’s 6-year-old “growth management” land use plan. They are not the result of a formal neighborhood planning effort.
“It was quite a drama in the bowels of City Hall,” said Greg Sweeney, a consultant for Black Development, which is seeking retail uses for two large properties on the east and west sides of Regal Street south of Palouse Highway. One of the sites is owned by KXLY.
Home Depot has been identified as a potential retailer at the third site along Palouse Highway east of an existing ShopKo.
Sweeney’s role as a consultant for Black Development puts him at odds with other neighbors with whom he once sided in earlier fights against retail growth in the area.
“I’m spawn of the devil,” Sweeney of his relationship with some of his neighbors now. But Sweeney said he has always favored well-planned growth, largely because growth has been inevitable in the area. He argued that Black Development represents an opportunity for improvements in storm water handling, open spaces, trail systems and traffic circulation.
He said apartment development, which is currently allowed on the properties, would have greater environmental impacts than retail development.
Sweeney’s history in the neighborhood dates back to the late 1990s and formation of the grass-roots Moran Prairie Neighborhood Association which fought potential retail development at 44th Avenue and Regal Street in the city along with a shopping center that was built at 57th Avenue and Regal. The 44th Avenue site, which remains undeveloped but is designated for retail use, was eyed by Wal-Mart for a potential store last year.
Sweeney was quoted in a news story in 1997 as saying “real meaningful planning around here is an oxymoron.”
That neighborhood activism led him to a position under former Mayor John Powers as director of public affairs and communications.
Susan Brudnicki, who also served in the Powers mayoral administration as director of neighborhood services, was the founding president of the MPNA in the late 1990s and an ally with Sweeney. She said Sweeney and the developers have overwhelmed the neighborhood in pushing for dramatic change without a more thorough neighborhood planning effort. But, she said, the neighborhood has rallied and now plans to continue the fight against the developers to the City Council and through appeals if necessary.
That makes the proposed land-use amendments a potentially divisive political issue for the City Council and newly seated Mayor Mary Verner.
Brudnicki and Cheryl Gwinn, another veteran MPNA activist, are among the residents who want a more complete neighborhood planning effort, which could take up to a year or longer, but would involve a greater number of residents, business owners, agencies and property owners. The opponents are mainly resisting big-box retail development.
Many of them live in unincorporated sections of the neighborhood. The City Council a few years ago voted to strip noncity residents of voting rights at city neighborhood council meetings, which led to the establishment of the Southgate Neighborhood Council and a weakening of MPNA.
Brudnicki and Gwinn originally got involved in trying to protect the neighborhood after heavy snow and rain in 1996 caused widespread flooding on Moran Prairie where soils are shallow and surface water is prone to pool in low areas and seep into basements. Those problems led to emergency building restrictions and development of evaporation ponds. At the same time, traffic problems have worsened, they said.
Brudnicki said the battle over Moran Prairie has wider implications. If developers win in this dispute, they will be able to establish a precedent for other parts of the city. “It’s just not about this neighborhood. It’s about all neighborhoods,” she said.
So far, the Plan Commission has postponed a vote on whether to recommend the retail land-use amendments to the City Council. That vote is expected in January, but a date had not been set.