Antioch, CA. After A Four Year Battle, Wal-Mart Expansion Lands in Court
On November 6, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had proposed to expand its store in Antioch, California, adding 72,980 s.f. to create a 203,103 s.f. supercenter on Lone Tree Way. But that expansion plan never happened.
On February 14, 2007, the Antioch City Council voted to reject the expansion plan. Then-Mayor Donald Freitas and two Council members voted against Wal-Mart, and two councilors voted in support. "Certainly, we're disappointed," a Wal-Mart's spokesman told the Contra Costa Times in 2007. "We hoped the Council would have recognized the outpouring of support for this project from the community, and the more than 250 jobs it would have created."
During debate on the project, Wal-Mart had agreed to slightly reduce the square footage by 8,000 s.f. to meet size restrictions at their current location. To rally their supporters, Wal-Mart hosted a "Valentine's reception" an hour before the city council vote. "It is critical that the council knows Antioch residents support this store," the company said in a flier that was handed out to Wal-Mart shoppers at their existing store. "Please attend the meeting and show your love for Wal-Mart and your support for the proposed Supercenter."
To show its love for its customers, Wal-Mart gave its people beverages and appetizers. Wal-Mart said the event was a chance for Wal-Mart supporters to come together. "People have taken time out of their personal lives to support us," the company said. "This is a chance to do something for them and offer them some refreshments before the meeting, which is likely to take some time." The Wal-Mart spokesman said such receptions are common practice for the retail giant.
But Antioch residents opposed to the Wal-Mart Supercenter went straight to the hearing and charged that the proposal would increase traffic, crime and noise. When one Councilman heard about Wal-Mart's pre-vote "reception," he told the newspaper it left him "at a loss for words." "It seems as though they want to do just about anything to move this project along," he said. "They obviously want to pack City Hall with supporters."
City officials were concerned that Wal-Mart's expansion violates size limits in Williamson Ranch Plaza. Attorneys for the project's opponents say Wal-Mart had used flawed mathematics in calculating the total square footage of the project. When the votes were counted, Wal-Mart supporters went home empty-handed, but with a full stomach.
On January 6, 2010, nearly three years after losing their City Council vote, Wal-Mart was back before Antioch officials. This time they wanted to enlarge their existing store by 33,575 s.f. to 175,073 s.f. The retailer also dropped its demand that the store remain open 24/7, which neighbors opposed. The existing Wal-Mart discount store opens at 8 am and closes at 10 pm.
The Antioch Planning Commission began hearings on the proposal nine months ago. "We've been working very closely with the city and we're still early in the process," a Wal-Mart spokesman said at the time, "but we'll be moving forward to better serve our customers in the area. We feel like this will be a great project for the community."
In September of 2010, the city voted to approve the smaller expansion, but instead of leading to construction, the decision has led to a courtroom. A group called the California Healthy Communities Network filed suit in the Contra Costa County Superior Court. This is the same environmental group that put up a legal challenge to a similarly-sized Wal-Mart expansion in Rohnert Park, California, as reported by Sprawl-Busters on September 19, 2010. California Healthy Communities also appealed a Wal-Mart decision in Suisun City, California in March of 2008. The group has been active in opposing other big box stores as well.
According to the Contra Costa Times, Wal-Mart has to foot the bill for all legal expenses, and the city will not have to spend any money defending the retailer's permits. A spokesman for Wal-Mart told the Times, "At a time when the city is facing potential bankruptcy and record unemployment rates, it is troubling to see, yet again, out-of-town special interest groups abusing the (environmental) process."
What you can do: The lawsuit argues that the expansion site has gone through many changes over the 12 years since the environmental plans for this store were first approved. California Healthy Communities says the city should have looked at the proposed expansion's impact on existing grocery stores in the trade area.
The city's General Plan requires the city to mitigate the project to prevent adverse impacts on the health and safety of the residents of the city. In fact, the City Council initially voted against the project stating that the environmental review understated the real impact on the area's economy. But then the city reversed its decision. The council changed its decision based on a court case in San Diego, which cast doubt on a city's ability to look at environmental impacts in a design review application. Wal-Mart had argued that an environmental review was not needed in a case of expanding a store.
"The process to approve this project was legally defective," said Phil Tucker, a spokesman for California Healthy Communities. "We believe the original decision of the council, before city staff intervened, was appropriate and correct."
City Councilman Reggie Moore, who voted against the expansion in 2007, told the Times last January, "I think we need to be careful as we approve use permits, that we're very cognizant of existing businesses. I feel a strong allegiance to our current businesses." Moore said he was concerned about the "economic issues" raised by the Wal-Mart expansion into groceries.
According to a national study produced by Retail Forward, the construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter can be expected to force two existing grocery stores in the area to shut down. The net job impact on the Antioch trade area will be negligible, if not negative, because this project does not add any new jobs to the discount side of the Wal-Mart, only "new" grocery jobs. Those jobs, however, will be transferred from existing grocers in Antioch who will lose business as the trade area is saturated with food stores.
Readers are urged to email Antioch Mayor James D. Davis at email@example.com with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Davis, The current Wal-Mart in Antioch is around 141,000 s.f. At that size, its big enough -- as is -- to be a supercenter. In fact, Wal-Mart is submitting superstore plans today at half the size of your current Wal-Mart. The Planning Commission and City Council should ask Wal-Mart why they are not pursuing an 'in-box conversion,' where they simply reformat their existing store, without having to add any new square footage.
No EIR would have been needed, no permits, just interior changes. As a banker, you know how many smaller businesses have been affected by these national chain stores, and you know that Wal-Mart's proceeds do not remain locally banked. As a former Antioch Police Commissioner, you know the significant crime problem that is plaguing the Wal-Mart company.
I urge you to tell Wal-Mart to use their existing store on Lone Tree Way by reformatting it, and make the lawsuit just filed a moot point. This case could rattle on for another year if nothing changes. Either way, expansion or conversion -- this project will not mean jobs or revenues for Antioch -- and that's important to remember before you vote to add to the sprawl your city already has."