Technically, last night's public meeting in Midtown's Roberto Clemente Park was a minor affair. The issue at hand: whether to rezone several blocks to allow -- among other things -- loading bays on North Miami Avenue.
In reality, however, the two-hour event was a wrestling match over the future and priorities of the neighborhood, with community members largely split along racial and class lines.
"Upper and middle-class people in Midtown can afford to say: 'We don't want Walmart,'" said Marilyn Denson, an older African-American woman who lives nearby. "But when it comes to the poorer people in the community, we need a store in this area that we can afford to shop in."
"In this economy, we need the jobs," she added after the meeting.
Walmart couldn't have said it better itself, but the megastore still tried. "We can be part of the solution for residents who want more job opportunities and affordable grocery options close to home, many of whom are now going out of their way to shop and work at Walmart," it said in a press release.
Denson spoke up several times during the event, which was led by Francisco Garcia, Planning Administrator for the City of Miami. Each time she did, her comments were applauded by half of the room.
"Give it a chance," said a middle-aged African-American man to the more skeptical members of the audience. "You gave Midtown a chance in the first place. Now give this a chance."
But others at the meeting lobbed tough questions at Garcia amid concerns that the zoning proposal will be the first step in the "suburbinization" of the neighborhood.
"How does this affect our pedestrian neighborhood?" asked local resident and business owner Jacob Pfeffer. "Midtown is going to become more like a strip mall."
Walmart has not officially filed any plans for developing the massive lot between 30th and 31st streets, Garcia said. But the big box store has held informal talks with the city. Because nothing official has been filed, there aren't any public records available -- making this meeting a proxy war for a much bigger battle looming on the horizon over whether or not Walmart belongs in inner-city Miami.
As the code is currently written, Walmart trucks would have to dock along 31st Street. Garcia and the city want to amend the code to allow for plans with loading bay entrances along North Miami Avenue. Since 31st Street already has parking garage entrances and trees, it's not ideal for a service entrance, he added.
"Sooner or later, (Walmart) trucks are going to be traveling north and south on North Miami Avenue," Garcia said. "If that is the case, then it makes sense for us to bring these trucks into the site without having to bring through any other streets."
But more than half a dozen Midtown residents and business owners told Garcia that they were worried that the changes were the death knell for the nascent neighborhood. Along with allowing the loading bays along North Miami, the proposed zoning changes could shrink lanes and sidewalks and eliminate shady medians in order to install a turning lane for the big rigs. Another traffic light along North Miami is likely, Garcia admitted.
"North Miami (Avenue) is already extremely congested and Walmart's 18-wheelers haven't even arrived yet," said local businessman Peter Ehrlich, Jr. to applause.
"For residents and business owners who live and work in the area the proposed Walmart is the worst news since Hurricane Andrew in 1992," he added in an email later last night. "The City lacks respect for what Midtown has become. Taxpayers were asked to contribute $169 million to the Midtown site and now the business killer Walmart is pounding on the door. Walmart is a bonanza for local lobbyists. It is a shame the residents are excluded from the decision making process."
Others in the audience agreed that Walmart was using its financial weight to get preferential treatment from the city.
"No other private landowner could get this type of special treatment," said local businessman Grant Stern. "We're simply asking them to stick to what's already been written in the city code."
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But Denson said Walmart's mostly white critics were "insulated" from the economic realities facing most Midtown residents.
"They just don't want Walmart, period," she said. "They think it's going to interrupt their lives. And it's not."
The city's Planning, Zoning, and Appeals board will hear the proposal tomorrow night. City commissioners could vote on it as soon as next Thursday.