On June 2, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter in Vallejo, California had become the 68th project to be cancelled as part of Wal-Mart’s slow-down of new projects, first announced in June of 2007. Wal-Mart came to Vallejo in 2004 with plans for a superstore by the water’s edge. City officials raised issues with Wal-Mart’s plan, saying that a huge superstore would violate the city’s land use plan for the area. Wal-Mart submitted a 206,000 s.f. superstore on just under 13 acres of land, where a Kmart once stood. The land is next to the White Slough, a body of water with a marsh that runs into the Napa River. Wal-Mart paid little attention to the fact that their proposal flew in the face of the White Slough Specific Area Plan, developed by the city, which requires a much less intense use of the land, including clustered buildings, open space onto the water, with windows, terraces and entryways that front on the water. In other words, a plan that maximizes the scenic value of a waterfront, rather than blockading it from public use with a big box the size of four football fields. The city’s staff recommended that the Council require Wal-Mart to study the impacts of the project. Various other stores in the proposed complex brought the entire plan to 393,000 s.f. The project was designed to sit atop a first floor garage which occupies nearly half of the project’s total square footage, because with only 13 acres, the project had to build up, not out. Two of the seven City Councilors came out against the plan before the vote. Adding to the negatives of this project, the superstore would have caused an existing Wal-Mart discount store in Vallejo to shut down. But that store ended up closing anyway, when another Wal-Mart discount store was approved in nearby American Canyon. This was Wal-Mart’s second attempt to build a supercenter in Vallejo. The first version was a 160,000 s.f. store. When local officials threw that plan out because of conflicts with the White Slough, Wal-Mart came back with an even bigger project. By way of changes, Wal-Mart turned the building to face the water, so shoppers sorting through cheap underwear and diapers, could take in views of the water. The 173,000 s.f. parking area on the first floor is almost as big as the supercenter itself. To top it off, Wal-Mart added arched entries to break the visual boredom of the typical Wal-Mart box. But a citizens group called Vallejoans for Responsible Growth (VFRG), said the new plan was “a finger in our eye. They are being terribly arrogant and disrespectful of Vallejo. They assume we’re poor and stupid and they can push through whatever they want.” The Council had to amend the specific plan to allow for a Wal-Mart. The city’s planner asked for a one-year development moratorium in the area, pending consideration of whether to change the specific plan. The Council voted in 2005 to require big box stores to conduct economic and environmental impact studies. “I think it’s going to crush our downtown revitalization,” one city councilor said. Vallejo has already spent millions of dollars to restore its historic downtown. The city council eventually gave Wal-Mart permission to conduct an environmental impact study — but a final commitment to approve the plan was never given. In June of 2008, after 4 years of wrangling, Wal-Mart quietly withdrew its plans for the superstore near the White Slough. “Wal-Mart had hoped to open a new store in Vallejo,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Vallejo Times-Herald newspaper, “but current growth plans, coupled with the increased costs since the project was first proposed in 2004, have made the project infeasible at this time.” One resident against the store told the Times-Herald, “We’re thrilled. Extremely happy. It wasn’t an appropriate project for the site, anyway.” City Councilman Tom Bartee told the newspaper that he had heard of Wal-Mart canceling plans across the country. “Wal-Mart looks at their bottom line … they probably realized that the current economy wouldn’t support a few stores within a couple of miles of each other,” Bartee explained. In a prepared statement to the Vallejo media, Wal-Mart said it was “reducing cannibalization of existing stores via our more strategic selection of U.S. real estate projects.” Vallejo already has one dead Wal-Mart. “We are appreciative of the support we received from so many of Vallejo’s small businesses, residents, families, shoppers and city leaders – and thank them for the years of loyalty and encouragement,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said when the company pulled its plans. “Vallejo was a great home for Wal-Mart for many, many years. We hope to one day open a new store in Vallejo to serve our local customers and keep tax dollars in Vallejo.” This week it became clear that “one day” will never come in Vallejo. The News Blaze reports that Wal-Mart has put its parcel up for sale. In 2007, the City Council told Wal-Mart they could put up $700,000 to pay for an independent environmental study. But Wal-Mart never proceeded with that study, and now are looking to get out of Vallejo entirely.
The sale of Wal-Mart’s land is just fine with activists who fought the project for four years. “The Wal-Mart plan would have devastated the Slough and wildlife, VFRG spokesman Joe Feller told the News Blade. “Now, it appears Wal-Mart has given in to the citizens’ demand to simply leave. Wal-Mart’s exit paves the way for a revitalized downtown and enhances our eco-tourism offerings. Environmentally-sensitive White Slough has shown an astounding ability to attract wildlife and act as a flood buffer to the Napa River.” One member of the City Council told the newspaper, “The sale of this land opens the door for a project that is appropriate for the White Slough.” Another local activist viewed the withdrawal of Wal-Mart as a big opportunity for the city. “This is a great opportunity to realize the vision of the White Slough Site Specific Plan. We desperately need a low impact, mixed use development for this site.” All of this comes at a time when the city is struggling financially. On May 23, 2008, the City of Vallejo filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of California, Sacramento Division. Vallejo is a California Main Street city, and is focusing its energy on revitalizing its downtown area. Waterfront redevelopment, and resuse of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, which closed 12 years ago, are major projects the city has undertaken. The land Wal-Mart purchased for its proposed superstore in Vallejo is an old Kmart site. “Wal-Mart owns the land,” the company’s spokesman said last spring, “and will determine the next steps for a new opportunity at this location.” Now they are bailing out completely. Readers are urged to email Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis, at [email protected] with the following message: “Your community has 200 years of proud history behind it, and your Victorian homes, waterfront location and downtown areas all present many opportunities for the city. Now that Wal-Mart has shut down its existing store, and put its land up for sale, Vallejo should make the changes necessary in its zoning code to prevent national big box stores from changing the character of your city. Use this opportunity to put a cap of 50,000 s.f. on the size of any future retail building, and require any large commercial development to put up a demolition bond to tear down any building that they leave. You will see that in the absence of Wal-Mart, more small businesses will grow, and your reliance on big box stores will weaken. But first, you should pass the size cap provision, before another big box comes sailing into your city. Wal-Mart’s formal departure can help you develop something much more appropriate for the White Slough.”