Thursday, April 23, 2009

Victoria Avenue and Wal-Mart

Last Monday night, the City Council adopted the long-awaited new Victoria Corridor Plan and Code. The intent of this code – which covers property along Victoria between the 126 and 101 Freeways – is to encourage a long-term transition along Victoria toward high-quality office uses.

In laying down the rules for this new generation of development, the code also seeks to move Victoria toward better urban design – so that the people who work in these office jobs can walk from one building to another, or to nearby retail, in a pleasant environment. The idea is to encourage high-end office-based businesses to move to – or stay in – the Victoria setting.

All these goals are in our General Plan, which the City Council adopted in 2005. Part of the impetus is to ensure that the Victoria corridor in the future can compete with the towers in Oxnard for high-end office tenants – an enormously important issue, in my opinion. But this larger concern has, of course, have been overshadowed by the Wal-Mart issue.

Wal-Mart has a lease on the old Kmart site by Trader Joe’s and currently has a propose to occupy the old building that housed Kmart and other businesses – 130,000 square feet in all. In the end, the council held the line by limiting individual stores to 100,000 square feet – but also permitted modernization, including new loading docks, for existing buildings.

This means Wal-Mart will be able to move into the old Kmart store if the giant retailer is willing to reduce its store footprint to 100 000 square feet.

Even though most of the discussion about the modernization issues was about Wal-Mart, there’s a larger issue here: how much is the city willing to push the owners of retail land to get them to redevelop their property over the next 10 to 20 years? The answer, thanks to the modernization rules adopted Monday night, is not much.

I voted for the code and against the modernization rules. My rationale for voting against the modernization rules had largely to do with Wal-Mart. In my opinion, if the largest retailer in the world wants to come into Ventura, we should hold them to a very high standard. The modernization rules lowered the bar for Wal-Mart.

In explaining my reasoning on this issue, let me begin by saying that, although I don’t much like Wal-Mart, I like the idea of using land use regulations to keep Wal-Mart out of town even less.

People don’t like Wal-Mart for many reasons, but most of the criticism that we heard Monday night – as we have heard for the last three years – has to do with their labor practices. Much of the opposition to Wal-Mart comes from people who fear that the company’s presence in Ventura will undercut unionized chain supermarkets such as Vons and Ralphs, which pay more than non-unionized Wal-Mart.

Throughout California, these folks have attempted to use land use regulation to keep Wal-Mart out of town. In some cases (like Los Angeles), this has worked. In other cases (like Atascadero) this hasn’t worked. And looming over this whole issue in Ventura is the fact that the anti-Wal-Mart forces have qualified an initiative for the ballot in November. This initiative would not keep Wal-Mart out of town, but it would prohibit any retail business of more than 90,000 square feet from selling groceries. In general, I think it's very difficult to try to use land-use regulations to deal with concerns about a business's labor practices.

My position on the Wal-Mart proposal has been pretty consistent: I’m concerned that a gigantic Wal-Mart Supercenter (these are typically 150,000 to 180,000 square feet) would undermine the Ralphs/Long shopping center across the street and generate too much traffic on Victoria. That’s why I have consistently supported the 100,000 square feet restriction. (Actually, I proposed 90,000 square feet but went along with 100,000).

Back in February, when we were supposed to adopt the code, my colleagues kicked it back to the staff one more time. The concern was that the code would render virtually all buildings along Victoria as “non-conforming” – meaning they could not be expanded or changed much. The council directed the planners to come up with a way of permitting some modernization of nonconforming buildings. I agree that this is a legitimate concern, but I feared that the direction to the staff (proposed by my colleague Neal Andrews) was too broad.

When the code came back to us the other night, it came back with a proposal to allow nonconforming buildings to modernize in a variety of ways – to expand their footprint slightly, to add “greening” (for example, upgrading the HVAC system), to add a new entrance – and, most importantly for the anti-Wal-Mart folks, to add new loading docks. Wal-Mart has asked for new loading docks.

Most of the 30 speakers on Monday night asked us to take the loading dock section out of the code, specifically to block Wal-Mart. A few of the speakers – including the manager of Victoria Village, where the 99 Cent Store is located – said that without the modernization provisions property owners would not be able to upgrade their properties to stay viable in the next decade or so.

As I said Monday night, the modernization provisions presented the Council with a difficult choice:

-- If we accepted the modernization provisions, we would make it easier for many retail businesses up and down Victoria to update their properties and continue their retail uses without redeveloping the property under the code. But we would also be allowing Wal-Mart to move into the Kmart building with minimal changes, assuming they could stay within 100,000 square feet.

-- If we rejected the modernization provisions and adopted the code as originally proposed, we would make it more difficult for the retail businesses to update – but we would “raise the bar” for Wal-Mart, forcing them to go through the entire planning approval process, follow the urban design principles contained in the code, and probably build an extremely “green” building.

In the end, Brian Brennan and I chose to vote for the latter course – and everybody else went the other way. I understand the concerns about other property owners, but to me we blew the opportunity to use the Wal-Mart project as a way to kick-start the new code. I was quoted, accurately, in the Star as saying, that our decision will “allow one of the richest corporations in the world to move into a crappy building with minimal improvements,”

The larger issue, however, is whether or not we undermined our own code with these modernization provisions. Our stated long-term goal – in the General Plan and in the Victoria Corridor Plan – is to facilitate a transition away from large retail and single-use developments toward a high-end office environment with some mixed use. Now we’ve decided that owners of existing buildings that don’t conform with that vision can modernize anytime in the next 10 years and stay in place for as long as they want after that.

I hope we can go back at some point in the future and tighten up these modernization provisions, so that landowners are not completely hamstrung but are encouraged to redevelop their property in conformance with the code.

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