If Wal-Mart wants to open a superstore on Victoria Avenue in Ventura, California, it’s going to have to do it within the 84,000 footprint of the old Kmart building — a plan the retailer clearly won’t like. On January 31, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that citizens in Ventura had waited for months for their elected officials to clamp down on superstore development. To force the issue, they are going to take that issue directly to the voters to get what they want. A coalition of citizen and labor groups announced on January 30th that they were filing a ballot initiative to ban any grocery stores larger than 90,000 s.f. They held a press conference in front of an empty Kmart store that Wal-Mart wants to tear down and replace with a much larger supercenter. “It’s our city. It’s our choice,” a spokesman for Livable Ventura, one of the groups backing the initiative, told the Ventura County Star. “The voice of the people is going to decide this issue.” Just by filing the ballot question, the group will block any superstore project that is submitted during the next sixteen months, because the ballot measure, which was originally expected to appear on the November 4, 2008 ballot, now may not appear until November of 2009. To get on the ballot, the group had to collect more than 8,900 signatures by May 16th. That’s roughly 15% of the registered voters in Ventura. When Wal-Mart takes issues to the ballot, it hires signature gatherers. Livable Ventura relied on door to door volunteers. The group will also have to expect to be seriously outspent during the run-up to the election. Wal-Mart has been known to spend $250,000 to $500,000 on a single ballot question. The initiative as drafted would define a “superstore” as any building in excess of 90,000 s.f. that devotes more than 3% of the sales floor to nontaxable grocery items. Wal-Mart superstores typically devote 40% or more of their floorspace to groceries. “It doesn’t ban a Target, or a Best Buy or J.C. Penney,” a spokesman for the coalition of groups told the newspaper. Wal-Mart’s reaction to the announcement of a ballot initiative was not surprising. “We’re disappointed in their decision to pursue further ways to keep us out of the community.” On July 28, 2008, Sprawl-Busters updated the story to note that organizers had reached their signature goal. But Livable Ventura said they want to avoid a special election to save city taxpayers the expense of such an election. “We were told a special election could be as much as $400,000 and we thought, Whoa, that’s not good government,” said Ed Lacey, a local attorney representing Livable Ventura. “We don’t want to put the city and taxpayers in that spot.” More than 10,000 signatures were collected, but there are always a number of names that end up being disqualified because they don’t appear on the city clerk’s official voter’s list. The next regular election would be in November of 2009. The group only needed to collect less than 6,000 signatures to put the question on a regular ballot — but they gathered more than the 15% of voters to put it on a special ballot. Wal-Mart responded to Livable Ventura’s announcement by saying again it was “disappointed” because the retailers’other stores in the county had more than 4 million visitors last year. The groups backing the ballot question said that waiting until the 2009 election will give supporters the time they need to raise funds to counter Wal-Mart’s money — which is expected to flow liberally out of Bentonville, Arkansas. In February of 2009, Wal-Mart submitted plans for a 130,000 s.f. superstore. Their proposal involves remodeling several adjacent vacant buildings on Victoria Avenue, including the empty Kmart, and tearing down some interior walls to join the buildings. On April 20, 2009, the Ventura City Council held a public meeting on the big box size cap. According to KABC TV, the City Council voted in support of a proposal to limit retail store size along the Victoria Avenue commercial corridor. The cap approved by the Council was 100,000 s.f. This makes Wal-Mart’s plans for a 130,000 s.f. store in violation of city code. But the Council also voted 5-2 to allow existing stores on Victoria Avenue to update their buildings by adding loading docks, new entrances, and other structural changes. This vote was seen as a way for the Council to allow Wal-Mart to move into the 84,000 s.f. Kmart store and make changes to the building.
Ventura’s zoning rules for the Victoria Avenue Corridor Plan are part of a 20-year growth plan that was supposed to revitalize the area with pedestrian-friendly uses and office space to encourage high-wage jobs. Clearly not a good match with a Wal-Mart. In January, 2008, Ventura’s City Manager wrote that the city council’s 6-1 vote to limit any single store to 100,000 total s.f. would apply to any retailer. “But it is the possibility that Wal-Mart might replace the K-Mart that evokes passion on both sides of the issue,” he admitted. “The city’s 2005 General Plan clearly called for eliminating ‘big box,’ mega block auto-oriented strip developed and the traffic patterns it generates,” the city manager wrote. “By breaking large parcels into blocks no bigger than 300′ by 300′, the proposed Victoria code already limits the coverage of a building, but the 100,000 s.f. cap seeks to keep out the ‘biggest’ of the ‘big boxes’ on an already congested street. Of course, Wal-Mart has the option of simply reoccupying the soon-to-be-vacant K-Mart building or conform to the new proposed rules on building design and overall size.” Wal-Mart wanted to tear down the Kmart and build a bigger footprint. A wide range of community groups were involved in the signature gathering in Ventura to prevent this from happening. The Tri-Counties Labor Foundation, United Food and Commercial Workers, the Stop Ventura Wal-Mart Coalition, Livable Ventura, Ventura County Working People’s Alliance and the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, all went door-to-door to reach the petition’s goal. The Ventura city council voted in January, 2008 to allow multi-story superstores up to 100,000 s.f. The voter’s initiative would lower that limit to 90,000 s.f. If a retailer chose to re-use an existing building, it could face added conditions if the project lowered wages, increased the pressure for affordable housing, added traffic, or negatively impacted other businesses. Wal-Mart has a 99,000 s.f. superstore model, which would be larger than the empty Kmart it would replace. Opposition to a store that big has been very vocal in Ventura. One Ventura resident summed up the feeling of many city residents when she told the Ventura County Star, “If it’s between a vacant store and Wal-Mart, vacant is good with me. I don’t like Wal-Mart. I don’t like what they have done to other towns.” To help the work of the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition, contact CAUSE, 2021 Sperry #18, Ventura 93003, (805) 658-0810. More background can be found at http://www.stopwalmartventura.com. Readers are urged to contact Ventura Mayor Christy Weir at [email protected] with this message: “Dear Mayor Weir, Now that your constituents have gathered enough signatures to put on the ballot a question to lower the size of retail buildings in Venture, it’s time for the City Council to amend the municipal code to make the change called for in the petition. You don’t need to wait until November of 2009. Take a vote now to lower the cap on retail buildings to 90,000 s.f. The Council should be proactive and lower the cap without further prodding by the voters. Wal-Mart’s plan for a 130,000 s.f. building shows contempt for the city’s vision for the Victoria Avenue Corridor. If they want to occupy the old Kmart footprint, it will only be a holding action until they try to push for a larger store. The city is acting within its legal powers — and consistent with your General Plan — to enact the voter initiative now.”