Sunday, October 1, 2006

Surprise! Surprise!

Surprise! Surprise! The Times-Herald supports Wal-Mart in its effort to ram a 393,000 sq. ft. “supercenter” down Vallejo’s throat. Forgive me for choking…on my laughter.

Evidently, all it takes to buy the support of the Times-Herald are a few full-page ads, all “Paid for by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc..” Or was there more? How much did that “Multi-Media Slide Show” touting the “supercenter” on the T-H website cost? Or was it a freebie like the two front-page puff pieces September 21 and 23?

One doesn’t expect objective reporting from the Times-Herald when it comes to big bucks developers or small time good ole’ boys. And the editorials? Ever get the feeling that you’re reliving Groundhog Day? Playing “Whack-a-Mole” with a gang that never seems to run out of bad ideas? Didn’t like LNG? How about dumping dredge spoils in the backyards of $800 million homes? How about three football fields crammed onto a downtown corner at the edge of a lagoon we’re trying to rehabilitate?

As the paper’s October 1 editorial demonstrates, the T-H – and Wal-Mart – intend to reprise the LNG debate with the same ugly tactics employed by the T-H and Shell-Bechtel four years ago. Yes, “some of the same people [are] lined up” against this project. Yes, I and Council Member Gomes - “one of those people” - are among them. And, yes, we have no need to meet behind closed doors with Wal-Mart’s flacks, to conclude that outright rejection is what is called for. For what we are dealing with in Wal-Mart’s White Slough proposal is a clear-cut, pure-and-simple land use issue - whether the people and government of Vallejo will determine our General Plan and associated zoning or whether a claque of free-booty capitalists in Arkansas will.

Yes, Wal-Mart does own the White Slough site. And, when they bought it – eyes wide open – two years ago, they knew how it was zoned. If they want to come back with a proposal that meets the zoning and other requirements of the White Slough Specific Plan, then – and only then – should the Council consider whether or not to begin an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and/or the Economic Impact Analysis (EIA) required by the Big Box Ordinance the Council passed last year.

If Wal-Mart’s proposal does not meet the requirements of the White Slough Specific Plan, the company must formally submit a request for a variance to staff, which amendment should be considered by the Planning Commission with public input prior to Council consideration. Any attempt to short circuit this process or to conflate it with an EIR or EIA would be tantamount to misfeasance.

And what is the proposal on the table– only fully revealed to the public the Friday before the Council hearing? It is a new iteration of Wal-Mart’s proposal last year for a 160,000 sq. ft. store at the same site. Even at that size, the planned big box was inconsistent with the zoning and design requirements of the White Slough Specific Plan which calls for multiple low density mixed use buildings with a maximum floor area ratio of 25 percent. Those buildings, moreover, are to be clustered around public spaces such as landscaped areas and pedestrian plazas that visually and physically open up to the water. This, it should be added, is not Council Member Cloutier’s “concept;” it is a Council-approved decade-old Plan. And Wal-Mart was told last year to come back with something more in keeping with that plan.

It has now come back with something more than twice as large as what was earlier proposed – larger than anything it has attempted anywhere else in California – a huge, ugly box of 393 sq. feet, a floor area ratio of 75 percent, and otherwise totally inconsistent with the White Slough Specific Plan.

In doing so, Wal-Mart has dissed Vallejo and, in effect poked a finger in our eye. It has said “We have done our research. Vallejo is a pushover for a fast buck. We couldn’t get away with this in Sausalito, Berkeley, or Walnut Creek. But Vallejo…no sweat!”

My question for the Council and the people of Vallejo is this: Have we no self-respect, no vision, no ambition? Are we not as good, as wise, as forward-looking as the people of Sausalito, Berkeley, or Walnut Creek…or Hercules, Turlock, or Inglewood?

The City Manager and Staff admit in their September 26 memo to the Council that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for any big box to meet the standards of the White Slough Specific Plan. Vallejoans for Responsible Growth agrees and urges outright rejection of this proposal.

Why, then, did Staff recommend approval of a conflated resolution “to proceed with the processing of the White Slough Specific Plan Amendment, the Unit Plan, and Major Use application for a new Wal-Mart Superstore, including the required Environmental Impact Report and Economic Assessment” – that is, as Wal-Mart’s flack Kevin Loscotoff put it to the Council in a rare moment of candor, to give Wal-Mart a “Green Light?”

Let me repeat, any attempt to short circuit this process or to conflate it with an EIR or EIA would be tantamount to misfeasance.

Once again, the citizens of Vallejo, lacking an open process and a fair and balanced press, are being denied the opportunity to adequately debate an issue crucial to our future. It’s an old, old story we are no longer willing to accept.

When the Council takes this up again, “all eyes will be trained on” not only Mr. Davis, but also on other Council members who may wish to reconsider their pro-Wal-Mart votes after careful consideration of the facts. And to those who voted “No” – Stephanie Gomes, Tom Bartee, and Gary Cloutier – you have our respect and gratitude.