Walmart decision stayed
Chico City Council sets special meeting to let the people speak
No matter what side of the debate Chicoans fall on regarding the proposed expansion of Walmart, veteran City Councilman Scott Gruendl said everyone surely agrees that it’s time for politicians to “shut up” and let the community have a say.
Gruendl’s comment during the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 15) followed hours of discussion about the controversial proposal and presentations by city staff, Walmart representatives and the leaders of a local grassroots group opposing a plan to transform the Forest Avenue retailer into a supercenter.
Yet none of the discussion included comments from members of the general public, who packed the house and sat (mostly) patiently through the four-hour meeting. It was well after 10 p.m. when council members had exhausted most of their questions, and all agreed to reconvene during a special session at 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday (Sept. 22) to allow the public to address the matter.
That’s when the 73 people who had asked to be heard during the first meeting will theoretically get a chance to weigh in on the plan Walmart has had in the works since 2003. No one appeared stunned by the holdover, considering the Planning Commission took four meetings during the summer to consider the project.
Walmart’s proposal, which the commission denied last month (in a 5-2 vote), would add about 82,000 square feet of space on the south end of the existing building to accommodate a grocery component and an additional 18,500 square feet on the north side of the retailer for an outdoor garden center.
The commission rejected the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) after concluding that the document failed to identify or adequately assess the significant effects—and the feasible mitigation measures—related to air pollution, climate change, energy consumption, urban decay and traffic. The commission also contended that the project does not conform to its Commercial Services land-use designation.
Walmart promptly appealed that decision, which brought the issue to the council level. City staff has recommended that council members take several actions, including certification of the EIR and approval of a plan to reconfigure the site’s property lines, along with the architectural and landscape-design plans. In fact, the decision primarily revolves around land use, longtime Councilman Larry Wahl pointed out.
Still, during the meeting the big box’s business practices went under the microscope, as council members probed Walmart representatives for details on everything from the company’s pay scale and health-care options for workers to a line-item breakdown of the retail giant’s contributions to local nonprofits.
Councilman Jim Walker reminded Walmart spokeswoman Angela Stoner that he’d asked her three weeks ago for the median wage of the company’s retail associates (instead of the $11.76 average she has mentioned).
After fumbling over many of the questions, Stoner eventually stated that many of the queries relate to proprietary information, which she is not at liberty to discuss. She spent a lot of time touting Walmart’s commitment to environmental initiatives, noting such eco-friendly measures as skylights and LED lighting in refrigerators. Prior to her comments, Jim Gallagher, an engineer from architectural firm BP2, said the proposed structural and landscaping changes will transform the structure into a much more pedestrian-scale building.
“It’s a great improvement over what is there today,” he said.
The main concern of opponents, said Heather Schlaff, of Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy (CARE), is that the expansion is inconsistent with responsible development. It will drain the coffers of existing businesses and will not provide the city any meaningful sales-tax revenue, she said.
Schlaff and the grassroots group’s Stockton-based attorney, Brett Jolley, were the only opponents to speak during the meeting. Jolley, who refused Wahl’s request to disclose who pays for his services in the matter, opposed the project six years ago when the Planning Commission first took up the proposed expansion.
Over the past few months, the Chico store has already undergone some creative internal expansion. In its existing footprint, the facility has been reorganized with wider aisles and a greater variety of merchandise in several categories, including new food offerings, as evidenced by several new rows of refrigerated and frozen food in an area of the store formally stocked with toys.
While the move may seem a way to fit a grocery component into the store either way the council decides on the expansion, it’s actually part of a corporate remodeling initiative taking place at a majority of stores throughout the nation.
It’s a move Schlaff took notice of and mentioned in closing her comments.
“The bottom line is, if the expansion is denied, Chico loses nothing; consumers will continue to have the choice of shopping at the remodeled Walmart,” she said. “By approving it, nothing is gained. A fourth discount grocery store in an impacted area is unnecessary, irresponsible growth.”