LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – A long-debated Walmart store in Louisville's West End cleared its biggest hurdle Thursday when the Metro Planning Commission approved the project.
The commission voted 7-1, with another member abstaining from the vote, to approve waivers that Walmart Stores, Inc., had sought. The most controversial of the waivers was Walmart's request to build a suburban-style parking lot in front of its store, to be built on a vacant lot in the Russell neighborhood.
Community members and city officials have argued over the plan for months, with the debate ending in a four-hour meeting Thursday. Walmart attorneys said the company had made changes to its initial proposal in a compromise attempt, adding that Walmart wouldn't go further.
"They have pushed it to the limit of what they're comfortable moving forward with," said Deborah Bilitski, a Louisville-based attorney for Walmart.
The store would be build on the former site of a Phillip Morris plant at West Broadway and South 18th Street.
The Board of Zoning Adjustments still must vote on the proposal at an upcoming meeting, said Jessica Wethington, a spokeswoman for the Planning Commission.
Construction could start on the store later this year if Rogers, Arkansas-based Walmart receives the final regulatory approval it needs, said Kevin Thompson, a company spokesman.
Stores typically take about eight to 12 months to build, Thompson said.
At the meeting, activists and the president of the Russell Neighborhood Association voiced concerns about the project, saying Walmart's waiver request showed the company wasn't playing by the rules.
City regulatory code for urban areas require storefronts to be located close to the road, and Walmart asked for a store set back from West Broadway. Opponents proposed an alternative that kept the Walmart as planned but added smaller stores in the front parking lot near the road.
"The message (to other companies) is, 'Come to Louisville and walk all over us,'" said Jackie Green, who spoke in opposition to the plan.
Several religious leaders said they supported the project because of the 300 full- and part-time jobs Walmart promises. The city had stymied development in the West End for decades, they said.
"Black people with jobs are an endangered species in West Louisville," said the Rev. Kevin Cosby of St. Stephen Church. "We did not ask for Von Maur. We are asking for Walmart."
The faith leaders said the store would lead to additional development opportunities around the location at West Broadway and South 18th Street, the former home of a Phillip Morris plant.
But other activists said Walmart doesn't pay its workers well enough.
"These are not the kind of jobs the West End needs," Virginia Wilson told the commission. "The West End needs jobs with dignity."
Walmart pays its Kentucky employees an average of $13.13 an hour, Thompson said.
Commission member David Proffitt, an architect, voted against the three waiver requests. Member Chip White approved two of the requests and abstained from voting on the more-controversial suburban parking lot design.
In a statement late Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer praised the commission's decision.
"I am pleased that the Planning Commission listened to the community and voted to move forward with a new Walmart," Fischer said. "The people of western Louisville deserve to have the retail, services and jobs that Walmart will bring to this community."
Fischer said he urged the Board of Zoning Adjustment to also approve the project.