On January 31, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that citizens in Ventura, California were trying to get their elected officials to clamp down on superstore development. To force the issue, decided to take the issue directly to the voters to get what they wanted. A coalition of citizen and labor groups announced 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. By filing the ballot question, the group blocked any superstore project because the ballot measure did not appear until November of 2009. To get on the ballot, the group had to collect more than 8,900 signatures. Livable Ventura relied on door to door volunteers. The initiative as drafted defined 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. In February of 2009, Wal-Mart submitted plans for a 130,000 s.f. superstore. Their proposal involved 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. The following November, when the issue finally reached the ballot, 56% of the voters rejected the limit, leaving Wal-Mart free to propose a store up to 100,000 s.f. This week, three months after the size cap was rejected at the ballot, the Ventura County Star reports that Wal-Mart has submitted new plans to open a store at the former Kmart site. The Wal-Mart, at 98,000 s.f., will come in just below the City Council’s cap of 100,000 s.f. Wal-Mart will reuse some of the old Kmart building, but change the interior walls, put up a new building fa??ade, and have space available for a couple of small additional tenants. The new proposal will come before the city’s Design Review Committee. This is just a preliminary viewing of the plan, and according to The Star, no vote will be taken at this meeting.
The last time Wal-Mart unveiled a building plan for this site, in October of 2009, opponents panned the design, charging that the suburban style store was incompatible with the rest of the existing mall, which includes a smaller Trader Joe’s. Residents and the Design Review Committee agreed that circulation in the parking lot was still a problem. 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.” Under the city’s zoning rules, if a retailer chooses 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. Opposition to the superstore 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 Bill Fulton at [email protected] with this message: “Dear Mayor Fulton, In your recent state of the city address, you singled out the Ventura downtown as worthy of attention. ‘We established downtown as a regional attraction… There is nothing like our downtown scene, our art, culture, music, and restaurant scene anywhere along the coast between Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. And people are discovering it.’ Wal-Mart will not help your ‘retail draw’ as you describe it. People will discover that Ventura is like any other Wal-Mart town. You should continue to insist that Wal-Mart shrink this store size until it is compatible with the rest of the community, and does not lasting harm to your downtown. You also said you wanted to ‘encourage the growth of business opportunities that will provide our community with high-wage jobs, and encourage retail and visitor opportunities that are unique — that you can only find in Ventura — instead of those you can find anywhere.’ This is not what you get with the low wage jobs at Wal-Mart — a project that you literally can find anywhere. The best place for discount shopping and grocery stores is downtown — not along Victoria Avenue. I urge you to tell the Design Review Committee that you want a store that does not max out the city’s building cap, but fits in comfortably below it. A 49,000 s.f. Wal-Mart on two stories would cut the footprint in half and leave you with another acres of land for green space.”