Wal-Mart discount store # 1915 in Yucca Valley, California has been located at 29 Palms Highway for roughly 15 years. There are two Wal-Mart supercenters within 25 miles of Yucca Valley in Palm Springs and Palm Desert. When the Wal-Mart arrived in 1993, it did a considerable amount of harm to the local retail economy in this town of roughly 20,400 people. Now Wal-Mart wants to build another store — this time a 229,000 s.f. supercenter — further down the road on 29 Palms Highway, right next to a recently approved Home Depot project. The “old” Wal-Mart would be closed down. Yucca Valley is a Southern California high desert community (elevation 3,300 ft.) that lies between the San Bernardino Mountains and the Joshua Tree National Park. The town boasts of its moderate temperatures, clean air and “amazingly starry nights.” Yucca Valley is the hub of the Morongo Basin communities and a host of recreational opportunities and tourist attractions. The community is a frequent stop for travelers en route to the Colorado River vacation destinations. Wal-Mart’s plans have met with strong opposition in Yucca Valley, but the company now just faces a final Town Council vote. The project that involves the Wal-Mart has been dragging through the review process for four years. In July, 2007, Wal-Mart published an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the project, and the town’s planners concluded that “all potential impacts associated with the proposed project could be mitigated, with the exception of those impacts associated with air quality and noise.” The town then focused on whether the “economic, legal, social, technological or other benefits outweigh the significant and unavoidable impacts associated with the project.” During the public review process, the town received 31 letters from residents against the project, according to the Hi-Desert Star newspaper. Some of the letters were “very detailed with charts, statistics and recommendations, showing an articulate joining of hearts and minds.” Wal-Mart responded to the opposition by putting out petitions in its existing store in favor of the supercenter, and getting shoppers to sign the petitions. The town’s Planning Commission has written a “Statement of Overriding Considerations” that recommends the project to the Town Council. Because of citizen complaints, Wal-Mart had to drop several aspects of the original superstore plan, including a gas station and a drive-through pharmacy. The company also has to find a buyer for their old store. Environmental advocates have testified that Wal-Mart should come up with a plan to use its existing land and buildings in a more sustainable way. “Building an entirely new store is not sustainability,” one resident testified. “Learn to retrofit your current buildings!” Residents warned of the increased water use demands the store would create, the loss of Joshua trees from construction, the light pollution, increased traffic, and big box and fast food blight. One resident quoted by the newspaper simply said, “We don’t need a Super Wal-Mart — we need a super town.” Another resident claimed that “85 small businesses closed when the first Wal-Mart opened.” Wal-Mart sent in its public relations staff to try to assuage concerns over the impacts of their new supercenter. The company sent to Yucca Valley their Public Affairs Manager, John Mendez, who gave a personal account of his sensitivity to the desert environment. “My son, Joshua, and I have been spending a father-son camping weekend at the [Joshua Tree National] Park for the last five years,” Mendez said. “We’ll be here again this month as we celebrate our birthdays. Joshua says he wants to move to the Morongo Basin someday.” “There won’t be a desert here when John Mendez’s son grows up,” one area resident replied.
This week Wal-Mart is holding a “Community Open House” at the Yucca Valley Community Center. At these events, Wal-Mart lines up its technical consultants, architects, landscape designers, gives people some cookies and coffee, and has a sign up sheet for supporters to learn about future hearings. Mendez continued his efforts to talk to the local media about how Wal-Mart is “updating the old Polaroid” image of the company to address the negative associations between the big-box retailer and its affect on a community, according to the Hi-Desert Star. “Three years ago, we recognized that we didn’t have the knowledge base inside the company to make the right changes,” Mendez admits, “so we hired the former head of the Sierra Club [Adam Werbach], and he has transformed our company.” Medez said environmental sustainability, health and wellness, workforce development and education have become the “four pillars” of Wal-Mart’s operating philosophy. “Our overall goal is to meet with the community and its leaders and get their feedback,” Medez told the reporter. Yucca Valley’s current Mayor seems to realize what’s at stake here. In his message to the public, Mayor Robert Leone says, “We have a lot going on as we try to balance our current growth with maintaining our community’s character and quality of life.” Yucca Valley needs tourist dollars, and the town’s pitch to the public is on quality of life issues. “I’m sure you will enjoy the open spaces, clean air, abundant sunshine and moderate temperatures,” Mayor Leone boasts. “We’re proud of our community, and many visitors have agreed that we have a lot to offer to our residents and visitors.” But this Wal-Mart project is symbolic of unsustainable, environmentally wasteful projects that should never be approved. The building alone with take up 22 acres of currently open space. The current Wal-Mart in Yucca Valley is 115,000 s.f. — large enough to be reconfigured as a supercenter. As part of their review, the developer had to consider other sites. “Two of the properties considered are the current Wal-Mart site and the vacant Kmart building… Both of these sites are smaller than the proposed project. The Kmart building owner recently received approval to reconfigure the building, it is not available as an alternative site. Due to the proximity of both the airport and other retail tenants, expansion of the existing 115,000-square foot Wal-Mart use at its present location is not feasible. Additionally, both sites would require the demolition of an existing building to implement the proposed project. Noise and air quality impacts associated with the demolition of the existing buildings, coupled with the inadequate lot size, make the vacant Kmart and the current Wal-Mart sites unsuitable.” Readers are urged to email Yucca Valley Mayor Robert Leone at [email protected] with this message: “Mayor Leone, you can’t line Route 62 with superstores like Home Depot and Wal-Mart, and still extol your town’s “amazingly starry nights.” These big box stores are not compatible with the quality of life and character you are promoting for Yucca Valley and the Basin. If you fail to reuse your empty buildings, like the Kmart and the Wal-Mart-to-be, you will turn Yucca Valley into Yukky Valley. Wal-Mart dismissed the idea of reformatting their existing store in one short paragraph of their EIR. The Town Council should make them reuse the 115,000 s.f. store they have now on Palms Highway. They are building 99,000 s.f. superstores today — why can’t they use their existing store in Yucca Valley? This project is environmentally wasteful, and unsustainable. I urge you to send them back to the drawing board to make their project a better retrofit for Yucca Valley.”