Citizens in Ventura, California have waited for months for their elected officials to clamp down on superstore development. They received a token vote this week — but now they are planning to go right to the voters to get what they want. On October 27, 2007, Sprawl-Busters updated the story of a Wal-Mart battle in Ventura. Activists in Ventura had galvanized around a report that Wal-Mart had signed a lease agreement on an existing K-Mart location in their city. Wal-Mart began talking with Ventura city planners in 2005 about demolishing the Kmart store on Victoria Avenue and replacing it with a 150,000 s.f. superstore, complete with grass and a fountain in front, plus an underground parking lot. In March, 2007, the City Council in Ventura adopted a 20-year “smart growth” plan for a seven-block area along Victoria Avenue that calls for more offices and pedestrian-friendly development. The council passed an “urgency” ordinance on Victoria Avenue that requires a building greater than 50,000 s.f. to undergo a special review and a use permit. City planners said that Wal-Mart appeared to be willing to meet the city’s new development guidelines, which would force the retailer to reduce the size of its store to a 60,000 s.f. maximum, and build it on two stories. But in the meantime, local residents had been pressuring the city to pass an ordinance controlling big-box development. In October of 2007, Wal-Mart opponents unveiled an effort to go directly to voters to stop the superstore project. The “Stop Ventura Wal-Mart Coalition Action Team,” said that city officials had ignored their calls for a local ordinance to ban supercenters, so they prepared language for a ballot measure. The group targeted the November 2008 ballot, and was prepared to gather 6,000 valid signatures, which is 10% of Ventura’s 60,000 registered voters, to get on the ballot. “We have not received the cooperation of our elected leaders, so we have decided to take the campaign to stop Wal-Mart directly to the voters,” said coalition leader Jim Alger of the Ventura County Working People’s Alliance, an organization affiliated with the Tri-County Labor Federation. “This will be a massive undertaking … by concerned citizens who believe that we have a say in what does and doesn’t get built in our own community.” The coalition has prepared a slide show of Wal-Mart’s economic impact on communities, including images of Chinese workers in sweatshops. Current rules allow for a six-story building at the Kmart site. Several members of the Ventura City Council have tried to avoid antagonizing either side of this issue, and favor limiting big box growth through new development guidelines along the Victoria Avenue corridor where Wal-Mart wants to locate. The city had made little progress on such development guidelines over the past year, and the proposed rules were not reviewed by the City Council until this month. But officials say the new rules will be in place by the time Wal-Mart plans are considered. Currently, the city requires a special conditional use permit for all new retail buildings in excess of 50,000 square feet on Victoria Avenue. After months of delays, the Ventura City Council this week voted to place a limit of 100,000 s.f. on retail buildings along Victoria Avenue. Wal-Mart opponents had lobbied for a 90,000 s.f. limit, because Wal-Mart has an “Urban 99” superstore model that comes in at 99,000 s.f. Wal-Mart still has not filed an application to tear down the Kmart, which will close this Sunday. City Councilor Bill Fulton made a motion to lower the cap to 90,000 s.f., but his motion did not pass. In the end, the council voted 6-1 for the 100,000 s.f. cap. Because the city council would not lower the bar, the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition vowed to continue working on a ballot initiative. The council’s actions still leave the door open for Wal-Mart, because the 100,000 s.f. limit may take another year to finalize.
According to the Ventura County Star, The Stop Wal-Mart Coalition wants big box stores to pay for impacts on Ventura, such as providing affordable housing for its low-wage employees. The 100,000 s.f. limit will be included in a larger set of new development “guidelines” for the Victoria corridor, which then has to go back to the council for adoption at a later date. That process could take months. The Corridor Plan will contain other policies to stimulate more office space and “locally-serving” retail stores, with an emphasis on pedestrian-oriented business. The council’s vote this week also extended the interim ordinance for one more year, so the final Corridor Plan can be ratified. The temporary ordinance gives Wal-Mart one more year to file their plan, and they would only have to seek a special permit for a store larger than 50,000 s.f. Stop Wal-Mart intends to file initiative petition language in the next few days, and begin gathering signatures. Last October, Wal-Mart charged that “special interests” were trying to stop them. “It’s very clear these are special interests trying to stop our ability to serve our customers,” the Wal-Mart spokesman told the County Star. “This is not a big-box issue, because there is already one there in the Kmart.” To help the work of the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition, contact CAUSE, 2021 Sperry #18, Ventura 93003, (805) 658-0810. Readers are urged to contact Ventura Mayor Christy Weir and the city council at (805) 654-7827, or email them at [email protected] Tell them: “The Victoria corridor is not for big box stores. Wal-Mart’s proposed project is incompatible with your 20 year plan. Support Ventura neighborhoods, not big box chains. Instead of forcing residents to go to the ballot for a 90,000 s.f. limit, the City Council should pass that limit now — and work out the rest of the Corridor Plan later.”