Latest Mission Gateway plan, centered around 24-hour Walmart, gets planning commission approval

Mission Gateway developer Tom Valenti. File photo courtesy Bill Nichols.
Mission Gateway developer Tom Valenti. File photo courtesy Bill Nichols.

By Jerry LaMartina

A fresh set of plans for the long-stalled Mission Gateway project is headed to the Mission City Council.

At its meeting Monday night, the Mission Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval for developer Tom Valenti’s latest attempt to get a project moving forward on the site after a decade of false starts.

The revised plan keeps many of the last plan’s features but adds 74 studio and one-bedroom market-rate apartments on two levels above a proposed 24-hour Walmart store, which would anchor the development’s east end and has sparked opposition since it was added to the site plan in 2012. The development would have a total of 274 market-rate apartments.

“They will hopefully compete with residential units on the Plaza – a price point a little less than the Plaza, but that kind of quality,” Valenti told the planning commission.

The addition of the apartments above the Walmart store attempts to address criticism that the 155,000-square-foot single-story building conflicted with the city’s mixed-use zoning guidelines, which restrict the size to 50,000 square feet. The site plan also includes 150 boutique hotel rooms and 50 extended-stay rooms; a three-story, above-ground parking garage, amended from the prior four-story garage; the removal of a linear public plaza along Roeland Drive, which was part of the 2012-2013 plan; and an office building, contingent on finding a tenant.

If the new plan were to earn council approval, Valenti’s company, Cameron Group LLC, based in East Syracuse, NY, would submit a final site plan to the council in the coming months. Valenti told the commission he hopes to start construction later this year.

Though Valenti’s latest plan passed the commission without a vote against it, questions about whether the project adheres to the city’s guidelines for mixed-use developments persisted. Pete Heaven, a Lathrop & Gage LLC land-use lawyer who represents the city, said in response to a question from Scott Babcock, who represents Ward II on the planning commission, that if a building is larger than 50,000 feet and meets the spirit and intent of the mixed-use guidelines, then it may be approved.

Serious concern from residents remains as well. The proposed Walmart store is an ongoing sticking point for Mission resident Barb Porro, who lives about a block from the development site.

“My general objection has always been to the Walmart, but now especially to the 24 hours of it,” Porro said during the meeting’s public comments segment. “Way back when it was Mission Mall, it was closed at 10:30 (p.m.), and now there’s going to be even more residential with all these apartments … and the idea of a 24-hour Walmart is not very compatible with residential, as far as I can see.”

Making the Walmart a 24-hour store “just sort of popped up all of a sudden,” Porro said.

“In all the talks that we’ve had up until the last meeting we had at Sylvester Powell (Jr. Community Center), there was never any mention of Walmart being 24 hours,” she said. “It’s a huge concern to me. As a resident, I just don’t want to live near a 24-hour Walmart, and I can’t imagine anybody living above it or around it would want to live there.”

The planning commission approved the plan’s 2015 iteration twice. The greatest obstacle came from the city council, which first rejected it and then approved it in January after Mayor Steve Schowengerdt broke a 4-4 tie by voting for the plan.

In an effort to meet Johnson Drive design guidelines, the developer now proposes an exterior three-story stairway leading to apartments and replacing a storefront façade facing Johnson Drive.

Valenti has indicated he will again ask for Tax Increment Financing and Community Improvement Districts, which use property and sales tax increments to finance construction and would require city council approval.

Cameron Group bought the property in 2005. Development plans were presented to the planning commission and city council in 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2015.