There’s a dirty eight letter word in Carlsbad, California that gets people upset. Developers in Carlsbad are careful not to use the word “Wal-Mart” when talking about land use projects. The world’s largest retailer has some baggage in Carlsbad that goes back at least 5 years. On March 17, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that the city council in Carlsbad had decided that big box stores were not worth pursuing. The city had been engaged in months of negotiations over whether or not to change its zoning code to allow big stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. There was some opposition to that zoning limit, but the city council decided on March 15, 2005 to put on ice any plans to encourage superstores. The council voted unanimously not to study whether big boxes would benefit the city. Carlsbad’s Mayor, Bud Lewis, said he saw no sense in studying the issue because he had no desire to alter the city’s strict zoning regulations. Several other council members stated that voters didn’t want any Wal-Marts coming to Carlsbad. Outside the city limits to the north and south there are several Wal-Marts and Home Depots. Current city zoning only allows big stores if they are part of a larger shopping center, not stand-alone stores. On July 19, 2007, the story broke that Wal-Mart had purchased a 17-acre site at College Boulevard in Carlsbad, with plans to build “its most upscale store in the nation.” A total of 6 Wal-Marts lie within 22 miles of Carlsbad, with three Wal-Mart discount stores in Oceanside, California alone, within 7 miles of Carlsbad. Carlsbad has enjoyed a strong local economy for many years, much of which has come from industrial development. Into this unique environment, Wal-Mart offered a store its PR people called “an absolute paradigm shift.” The retailer said it knew that people in Carlsbad did not want a typical big box store. “We believe the community of Carlsbad would say, ‘That’s not for us.” A spokesman at Wal-Mart headquarters said the store would be “another example of our store of the community concept, not necessarily a new program… we’re still working with the city to make sure the store works for the community. We take that approach with every store.” But in May of 2008, Wal-Mart sunk its own project. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Wal-Mart decided not to build its new store — telling city officials that they were going to sell their 17.6 acre site instead. Wal-Mart said their withdrawal had nothing to do with the intense opposition this project faced from the public. A company spokesman explained, “Because we’re going to more strategically prioritize the development of supercenters nationally, Carlsbad did not meet the financial hurdle that focused on growth in the future.” Mayor Lewis pointed out that people who like to shop at Wal-Mart already have plenty of local options because of the company’s other nearby stores. “We have said for a long time that those stores are good for other communities, but we didn’t want them,” the Mayor told the North County Times. The city’s Planning Director added, “We felt it was going to be an uphill battle in terms of trying to make a Wal-Mart fit into that local shopping center zone.” But one year and three months later, in August of 2009, the City Council in Carlsbad unanimously approved an 83 acre project called La Costa Town Square, with a 98,000 s.f. big box store. The city’s ordinance has a limit of 100,000 s.f. A consultant hired by the developer Aspen Properties, told the North County Times that the initial proposal for La Costa had a 150,000 s.f. big box store, which the developer said would eliminate Wal-Mart from the mix — because a Wal-Mart superstore needs 180,000 s.f. Aspen Properties told the media that it had no plans to put a Wal-Mart with a grocery department in the La Costa project, because that type of store would likely need a larger footprint. Aspen said La Costa would be more of an upscale project. But many neighbors did not buy the Aspen line, and said the project would generate too much traffic. This week, Sprawl-Busters heard directly from residents who are fighting the La Costa project. “Despite an overwhelming response from the residents against the size of the La Costa Town Square project, the city approved an 83 acre Big-Box/Mega Store development in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” one resident wrote. “Outraged, we, the community, have gotten together and started a non-profit organization called the North County Advocates and filed a lawsuit against Aspen Properties and the city of Carlsbad on the basis that the Carlsbad City Council approved this 83-acre development on Aug. 18 without either them or Aspen Properties telling the public that the California Regional Water Quality Control Board denied a certification for the project on July 8, 2009, among other shady city findings. We are fighting to reduce the scope and size of this monstrosity shopping fortress on the hill. This project, if it goes through, would really be a disaster in terms of traffic, noise, lights, pollution, and a ‘sold-out’ feel to a current peaceful and unique coastal California community.” According to the Carlsbad Business Journal, La Costa was originally going to be “a traditional strip mall,” but now is “envisioned” by Aspen Properties as “a lively Main Street and Town Center to the La Costa neighborhood. Designed to be walkable and fun, the center will connect to surrounding neighborhoods with new sidewalks, trails and bikeways.” The project will have a fountain and “lovely water features rich with landscaping” with a “landmark — a striking, 55-foot-tall clock tower.” Aspen says that local residents will finally have “the local shops and restaurants they’ve been waiting for.” The company has also estimated that the project will generate $1 millon in new sales tax revenue — not counting the sales that will be lost at other retailers. But when residents look at the La Costa plans, they don’t see a fountain or a clock tower — they see a huge big box store. Aspen’s plans have therefore led to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting.
North County Advocates (NCA), the grassroots organization that has taken on the La Costa project, wants the project redesigned to better fit the local community. The NCA describes itself as “a group of volunteers living in Carlsbad and Encinitas organized as a special project under a non-profit 501 (c) 3 corporation. We are not against some local shopping, but the regional concept of La Costa Town Square as it exists now is not appropriate in the middle of a residential area.” The Advocates describe this project as a “big box fortress” that will make the area’s traffic problems worse. “It’s not that we want to stop the development,” one leader of The Advocates told the North County Times. “We want them to live up to what they said — a community shopping facility.” Aspen faces another problem: the project was rejected by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, which said the original project as filed did not conform to the state’s water quality standards, and had “inappropriate mitigation and inadequate avoidance,” of wetlands resources on the site. Aspen had this denial letter since July of 2009, but did not make the denial public until months later. Even though the City Council has approved the project, Aspen cannot proceed until it has the blessing from the Regional Water Quality Control Board. “They gave us everything we needed, it was just a bad project,” a representative of the Control Board told the North County Times. “We said, ‘we can’t approve this project they way you’ve proposed it.'” According to an article written by the publisher of La Costa Breeze, city officials were “very clear that they didn’t want a view of a giant sea of parking.” Aspen properties was quoted in the Business Journal as saying, “We’re confident that we have handled that concern. A lot of parking will be underground, and parking for the movie complex will be on the roof of the theater. There will be plenty of security to prevent loitering and noise, and parking lot lighting will all be turned downward. We are doing an excessive amount of traffic studies.” Readers are urged to contact Carlsbad Mayor Bud Lewis at 760-434-2830, or email the City Council by going to their website and sending them a comment: http://ci.carlsbad.ca.us/map/dir1.html with this message: “Mayor Lewis, you spoke the plain truth about the proposed Wal-Mart on Sunny Creek. Your Village by the Sea did not need a Wal-Mart. Now the La Costa project repeats many of the same mistakes. The anchor store in this project does not need to be 98,000 s.f. It’s not compatible with the rest of the site plan, and certainly not compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods. Your city is now being sued by its own residents. As Mayor, you should try to bring the sparring sides to the table, and urge the developer to make more concessions on the big box store, to downsize the scale, and truly make this a walkable, pedestrian-oriented project, not suburban big box sprawl. As Mayor, this is your moment to take back the lead on growth from outside developers, and take charge of Carlsbad’s future. Make Aspen fit your community’s needs, not the reverse.” Readers wanting to follow this big box battle should go to The North County Advocates website at www.northcountyadvocates.com.