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Wal-Mart, the biggest big-box on the block, plans to supersize its Rohnert Park store, adding a full-service grocery.

If approved, the 35,000-square-foot expansion would increase the store?s footprint to 167,000 square feet, edging out Lowe?s in Cotati as the largest big-box store in Sonoma County.

The world?s largest retailer has submitted plans to expand its Redwood Drive location by 28 percent, adding the larger grocery section the company says customers have been clamoring for.

?We?ve been a part of the Rohnert Park community for many years, and we?re hearing from them that they want these additional offerings,? said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Angela Stoner.

The proposal is almost certain to open a new front in the long-running battle that has pitted large corporate retailers against local merchants protecting their turf and activists advocating better wages and benefits.

The plan already is drawing criticism from the local grocery industry and activists who derailed Wal-Mart?s plans to build a store in Santa Rosa.

The Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County vowed Thursday to push for Rohnert Park to study economic and social effects of the project, not just environmental ones.

?We?re going to to take a very serious look at this,? said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of the coalition.

Tom Scott, manager of Oliver?s Market, expressed concern about the wages and health benefits Wal-Mart pays workers ? issues that likely will be raised by critics as the project makes its way through the city approval process.

?Wal-Mart is able to cut costs out of the system, but there is a price paid for that,? Scott said. ?It doesn?t show up on the receipt, but it shows up in the community.?

Wal-Mart already sells a limited selection of groceries at its Rohnert Park store. The new grocery would be at the southern end of the expanded store and would include a bakery, produce and deli, Stoner said. An expansion of the garden center to the north and new bathrooms also are planned.

The expansion would bring to the store all of the features of a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter, although its name won?t be changed, Stoner said.

Wal-Mart shopper Betty Beckman, a retired Rohnert Park resident who lives on a fixed income, said she would welcome the expansion. Because the store carries only a small selection of groceries, she said she must make additional trips to area supermarkets to complete her shopping.

?With the economy the way it is, we need to do everything we can do to keep our shopping dollars down,? Beckman said, rolling her cart past loaves of bread selling for $1.26 and Fetzer wine for $5.97 a bottle.

Wal-Mart?s application is still in its early stages.

Last week, the City Council hired consulting firm Michael Brandman Associates to create an environmental impact report for the project. Wal-Mart will pay $343,000 for the study and city administrative costs.

The city Planning Commission will hold a meeting in late May or June to give the public the opportunity to express what it wants to see studied by the environmental report, said Maureen Rich, senior senior city planner.

Wal-Mart began the application process in January, nearly four months after its plans for a store in Santa Rosa bogged down in court.

In September, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert Boyd ruled that the environmental study for a proposed, 106,000-square-foot store in the Roseland neighborhood was flawed. Wal-Mart officially abandoned its four-year effort in February.

Stoner said the death of the Santa Rosa project had no effect on Wal-Mart?s decision to expand the Rohnert Park store.

?Those projects are completely unrelated,? she said.

The heart of the Rohnert Park project involves pushing the building?s southern wall 95 feet toward the nearby Home Depot. The expansion would cover what is now a row of parking and would eat into a grass buffer between the buildings.

The bulk of the increased space, about 32,000 square feet, will be devoted to the grocery area. That?s nearly the size of a nearby Pacific Market in Rohnert Park, but smaller than the typical Safeway or Albertson?s supermarkets, which average 50,000 to 60,000 square feet.

Smaller expansions would be made in the front of the store to add space for bathrooms and to the north of the store by renovating the garden area.

Wal-Mart plans to take advantage of the expansion to modernize the look of the building, with new signs bearing its redesigned logo and more attractive exterior features, such as archways to eliminate ?long continuous blank walls,? according to the application.

The store, Sonoma County?s first Wal-Mart, opened in 1992. A second Wal-Mart opened in Windsor in 2000.

The expansion plans call for ?many green and sustainable features? used in new Wal-Marts around the nation.

?This is something that is a priority for us all across the country,? Stoner said.

Skylights in the expanded area will allow for ?daylight harvesting? that will reduce lighting use by 75 percent. Wal-Mart expects to install one skylight per every 1,000 square feet of new space. Dimmable florescent lights will allow the store to dim the lights by 25 percent in the evening.

Other proposed energy-saving features may include a white roof that reflects heat, reducing cooling costs by an estimated 8 percent and low-flow automatic sinks and toilets.

Plans are not finalized, and significant changes could occur through the permit process. Wal-Mart representatives sat down late last year with Rohnert Park officials to discuss the project and seemed committed to designing a ?green? addition, said Peter Bruck, the city?s building official.

?They have been very forthcoming and very reasonable,? Bruck said.

The company is required to incorporate sustainable building practices on such a project. Under the city?s 2007 green building ordinance, such a significant expansion requires the builder to adhere to the latest green standards, Bruck said.

The project calls for four signs on the exterior of the building, the largest being a 9-foot-high, 35-foot long illuminated sign over the main entrance. It would replace the existing sign with the company?s new logo, ?Wal-mart? in blue letters followed by a yellow flower.

The company plans to eliminate 33 of the 813 parking spaces. The hours of the store, now 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., would be expanded to 24 hours.

The number of employees is expected to jump from 300 to 450, with 70 percent working full time and the rest part time.

Bennett of the Living Wage Coalition doubted that percentage of employees will be full time. He said Wal-Mart is known for having a high percentage of part-time workers to avoid paying health benefits. The result is that taxpayers bear additional costs for medical services to uninsured Wal-Mart employees and their families, he said.

Wal-Mart denies this, saying most of its 1.4 million U.S. employees work at least 34 hours a week. It also says 92.7 percent of its employees report having some form of health insurance through Wal-Mart or another source.

Even so, the company is running into opposition across California for its push to the grocery business.

Ken Silveria, owner of Pacific Market, said independent grocers have reason to be fearful. He recently visited a Wal-Mart grocery in Oakland on a Sunday night and the place was packed.

?It?s absolutely unbelievable the amount of volume they generate,? Silveria said.

Scott of Oliver?s said whatever sales the expanded store generates will be sucked out of competitors? pockets. Wal-Mart?s claim that it?s just acting to help its customers is ?fantasy,? he said.

?I think Wal-Mart takes care of Wal-Mart,? Scott said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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