On May 21, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Wal-Mart discount store in Hemet, California had been abandoned by the giant retailer, and was becoming an eye sore. Local officials in Hemet were growing tired of looking at it. The empty Wal-Mart was built in 1992. It’s a 123,871 square foot building on 13.45 acres of land along West Florida Avenue. It’s located just a couple of blocks down Acacia Avenue from a Target, a Lowe’s and a Home Depot. But the Hemet Wal-Mart was shut down when the giant retailer opened up its Wal-Mart supercenter on South Sanderson Avenue. When Wal-Mart leaves a store, there is no guarantee that anyone else will ever reuse it. In May of 2008, the City Council in Hemet clearly was at the end of their rope over this abandoned store. Wal-Mart had assured the city that their empty store would be converted into a Sam’s Club. But more recently they told the city that weak conditions in the economy had put the Sam’s Club idea in limbo. However, the corporation asked the city for an extension of its conditional use permit — so that if they wanted to redevelop the building, they would not have to start at square one. But this week the Hemet City Council voted 3-2 not to extend Wal-Mart’s conditional use permit for the site. “We have a public wondering what’s going on,” one Hemet Councilwoman told Wal-Mart’s lawyer. “It’s a vacant, unkempt building. I think it’s disrespectful to the people of this community.” According to the Valley Chronicle newspaper, Wal-Mart cut off all utilities to the building, which meant that most of the landscaping at the store died. Wal-Mart agreed to send around a water truck to water the landscaping — but the company refused to replace any plants that were dead or dying. Wal-Mart claimed that was providing 24 hour security for the building, but City Councilors stated that the property had become a “haven for the homeless” according to the newspaper, and that recyclable metal inside the store had already been stripped away. Wal-Mart said it was willing to respond to city complaints about the property, but one Hemet Councilor replied: “It is not our responsibility to monitor your property. It is a waste of city resources.” City officials complained that city police and code enforcement department had spent a considerable amount of time at the empty eyesore. “We bent over backward to move that project forward,” one Councilor said. “It has been a waste of our staff time. They have not kept their part of the deal from the beginning.” The city’s lawyer said that Wal-Mart’s conditional use permit did not require the company to maintain the property. Wal-Mart wants their permit extended, so that anyone they sell to can get a shorter permit process than Wal-Mart went through. But the retailer admitted that no land sale was on the horizon. When Wal-Mart first applied to Hemet, local officials welcomed them, just as they later welcome their larger supercenter — which blighted the first Wal-Mart. Now local officials are left with a deteriorating property that is hurting the housing development located behind the property, and lowering values of businesses near the empty superstore. On April 4, 2009, nearly a year since our last report, the Press-Enterprise newspaper reports that a medical plaza may be replacing the dead Wal-Mart. A commercial real estate company says that the medical campus would have a cardiac care center and outpatient facilities. City officials say they have had discussions with a new property owner, but no building permit application or plans have been filed. Proponents of the medical proposal say a cardiac care facility would keep millions of dollars in the community, and generating higher-paying jobs than the old Wal-Mart. The first thing the new owners will have to do is tear down the dead Wal-Mart, an expense the retailer should have covered.
In 2004, Wal-Mart opened up its supercenter in Hemet, and announced shortly thereafter what should have been obvious to city officials: that the ‘old’ store on Florida Avenue would be torn down. The promised Sam’s Club replacement never happened, and in November of 2008, Wal-Mart quietly sold the property. City officials are understandably nervous that this new health care proposal might not ever open either. Three years ago, Hemet’s Valley Health System voted to build a heart surgery center. The heart surgery center never happened. The real estate company promoting the reuse of Wal-Mart’s land said the plan makes sense, because the doctors, nurses, and other employees will eat at area restaurants, and shop at other businesses in the area — like the Wal-Mart supercenter. He said Hemet needs more than just retail stores to keep the city vibrant economically. “Something needs to happen on West Florida Avenue that would be synergistic and hold traffic,” the real estate company told the Press-Enterprise. “It’s a long-term strategic approach to how it can fit in to reinforce existing sales-tax dollars and retail demand on the west end of town.” But the four year vacancy and deterioration of the Wal-Mart site should have taught city officials a lesson. Local officials need to view the whole picture when Wal-Mart comes to town asking to open a new supercenter, when they shut down their existing discount store down the road. Many communities now are retooling their zoning codes to prevent what happened in Hemet from happening to them. Mechanisms like a “demolition fee,” that requires developers with stores larger than 50,000 s.f. pay into a special city fund or escrow account at a certain dollar per square foot of store to help defray the cost of tearing down their building if left vacant for a year or longer. Part of the permit approval must require the developer and store owner to continually maintain the building in operation as a retail store. If the property remains unoccupied for that purpose for one year or longer, it will be deemed “abandoned” and the escrow fund used to raze the building. Wal-Mart alone has abandoned hundreds of stores like the one in Hemet. These are often very large facilities with limited reuse opportunity. Readers are urged to cut and paste this article and email it to Hemet Mayor Eric McBride at www.cityofhemet.org/forms/www._email.htmwith the following message: “Dear Mayor McBride, Hemet over the years has begun to evolve from its Sierra Dawn days as a retirement community, to a place that attracts younger families. As your city says, these people are ‘fleeing the more urbanized areas of Southern California.’ When they get to Hemet, they see the huge empty Wal-Mart — larger than two football fields — with no one taking care of it. I urge you to make sure that this never happens again by passing 1) a size limit of 65,000 s.f. on retail stores, and 2) a demolition bond for all stores in excess of 50,000 s.f. There is no reason for Hemet to ever get stuck again with a dead store. The people who put these buildings up should be the people who pay for them to come down if they are abandoned. If a retail store sits empty for a year or longer, use the bond fund to tear it down. It would be helpful if this ‘ghost box’ gets torn down, and replaced with the cardiac care facility, but Wal-Mart should have been required to tear down the mess they created when they decided to abandon their store to build a bigger one down the road. You’ve learned the hard way what happens when a company like Wal-Mart comes in with a new building to replace the ‘old’ one. Hemet can end this kind of exploitation with a simple zoning code change.”