Pages

February 23, 2009

Do we who live in Walnut Creek (including our city leaders) need to get over ourselves?

My recent post about getting an expired meter ticket while parking in downtown Walnut Creek on Presidents Day, a national and city holiday, really touched a nerve with a lot of people—both people who live and work in the city and those who live in neighboring communities.

A few of those commenting on my blog and on Claycord.com said that I should have fully read the meter, stop whining, and pay the ticket. I understand that argument. However, I am still going to appeal and am sending in the paperwork on Monday. I don’t know if my appeal will go very far, but I’ll give it a shot.


And, yes, I’ve learned my lesson.


But am I the only person in Walnut Creek who needs to learn a lesson? Maybe Walnut Creek city leaders should start listening more to what residents and people in neighboring communities have to say, even on Crazy, angry blogs like CrazyinSuburbia.com, or on less crazy blogs like Claycord.com and The Dubc.


It’s not just parking that has been getting on people’s nerves here. Of the comments I received, most urged me to fight the ticket or were filled with complaints about how Walnut Creek’s parking policies are anti-business, unwelcoming, aggressive, unfair, even "facist."


Moreover, most of the comments were filled with an underlying, between-the-lines theme. Reading through them, I began to form a picture of how many view Walnut Creek. And this picture is not flattering.


In this picture, people see Walnut Creek, the town where I was born, grew up, and now live, as full of arrogant, money-grubbing elitists. They see the city’s government and business community as hostile to ordinary working people who cannot afford to shop at Tiffany and Co. or the proposed Neiman Marcus. They believe that city policies have forced out the independent, “mom-and-pop” businesses that gave the downtown a lot of its original charm and character.


More than a few of those commenting also complained how city leaders, in an extravagant display of civic pride—and ego—approved the demolition of the beloved but outdated old library and the construction of a new one—a structure that the city, in this economic downturn, may not be able to afford.


(If you want to see a good summary of the pros and cons of the new library, including its financial challenges, check out this post by the other Walnut Creek-based blogger, The DubC. Meanwhile, I hear that nonprofit efforts to raise $2.5 million for the new library--on top of the $5 million already raised to help make up for costs the city can’t cover--may not be going as well as hoped.)


To me, the issue where city leaders really showed their tone-deafness to public sentiment was the Neiman Marcus proposal. Actually, I never had strong feelings one way or another over whether Neiman Marcus should come to Walnut Creek. Personally, I probably would never shop there. It’s out of my price range.


It was clear that city and civic leaders saw Neiman Marcus as a glittering, sales-tax-revenue-generating prize. In the Council’s haste to approve the project—rejecting a fair amount of vocal opposition—they were risking “the goose that laid the golden egg.”


That’s the term used by Contra Costa Times writer Daniel Borenstein in a thoughtful commentary on the project, published September 13, three days before the City Council approved a General Plan amendment and certified the environmental impact report that allowed the original proposal to go forward.


Remember, the big sticking point about the original proposal was that the city was going to let Macerich, the company that owns Broadway Plaza, to evade the usual city requirements of businesses to add new parking spaces to accommodate Neiman Marcus’ huge increase in retail space. Instead, Macerich and the city were coming up with an absolutely ridiculous and unpopular proposal to convert a five-story parking garage in Broadway Plaza to valet parking on weekends and during the holidays.


Who were they kidding? As Borenstein noted: "City officials need to be careful here. If shoppers don't like the valet serviced, and the other Broadway Plaza lot is full, they are likely to spill out onto city streets and into nearby merchants' lots. Moreover, there's an equity issue here: Why should Broadway Plaza get special treatment? Will developers for other downtown projects the city is planning for the future--and there are several the city is expecting--also seek waivers from the parking standards?"


The city didn’t listen and went ahead and approved the project. People were mad for the reasons Borenstein mentioned. A rival shopping center company, seizing on that anger, financed--not identifying itself at first--a successful petition drive to put the Neiman Marcus proposal up for a city vote. The specter of a referendum and a lawsuit prompted Neiman Marcus to withdraw its original proposal and replace it with a somewhat scaled-down version.


Lots of time, energy, and public money was wasted on a failed proposal. Who is to blame for that?


City leaders, at least publicly, view themselves as blameless. They refused to take any responsibility for this public relations debacle that was clearly in their control. At his January 26 State of the City address, Mayor Gary Skrel continued to cast the city as a victim of “unsavory” and “greedy” forces by the then-unidentified shopping center company that funded the referendum and the lawsuit. Is this good leadership?


Oh, and in this same speech, Skrel offered a grim assessment of the city’s economic situation, but expressed optimism that the city’s residents, business owners, and workers could pull together to prevail in these tough times.


Some unsolicited advice to Mayor Skrel: I think we’d feel a lot better about rallying around the cause of Walnut Creek if we felt that our leaders were willing to put aside the old cowardly President George W. Bush doctrine of blaming everyone else for your troubles. Instead, it’s time for the city leaders to show some backbone and take responsibility for their own missteps. Maybe take a page from the Barack Obama “I screwed up” playbook.


And, yes, show some humility, accountability, and a willingness to show that you, too, have learned a lesson or two—notably, about listening to your constituents.


And for the record, I twice emailed city leaders about my parking concerns. I have yet to receive a response. I suspect they put me, a mere angry, Crazy blogger, in the same category as those stealthy “unsavory” forces that derailed their smooth Neiman Marcus ride.


Meanwhile, just to show that I’m not totally down on Walnut Creek, that there are many things I appreciate about this city, I have listed those in a post that follows.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

WC council has, for years, considered the citizens minor obstacles in their execution of 'Sim City'. The new General Plan is routinely ignored and GP Amendments granted to achieve their wishes, and ignore citizens wishes.

Now they complain about outsiders influence while ignoring the fact that developers needing GP Amendments themselves live outside of WC.

Lawsuits, however we citizens can get them, are evidently the only voice Council listens to.

Anonymous said...

I live in WC and all of my neighbors drive are OLD, OLD, OLD farts who drive 12-200 year old old crusty cars. My neighbors with money possess sensibilities that extend beyond any need satisfied by what Nordstrom, Neimans, or the Cheesecake Factory could ever provide.

I think these expensive places are just little city tax havens that are great for building up tax coffers so these little people can play city government official. I don't want any of this stuff.

Leave the whole foods, movie theater, the starbucks, and the barnes and noble. Burn the rest.

Anonymous said...

I have lived in Walnut Creek for 18 years. Rarely do I venture downtown because of the traffic and parking. My daughter says that we reside in Walnut Creek, but live in Concord and Pleasant Hill.

I was opposed to the Neiman Marcus because of the way it was crammed down our throats. At the public meetings, the residents were totally ignored. Why have public meetings if the city is going to do what they wanted to do in the first place?

Anonymous said...

The economy revealed the emperor has no clothes attitude of city leaders with regard to Neiman Marcus. It sells luxury goods, but that's the one area of consumer spending that is WAY down. And I heard that Neiman Marcus sales aren't doing too well, either.

Anonymous said...

I don't care about Neiman Marcus one way or the other. I can't really see myself buying anything there, but on the other hand, how much do we really need another store? This is my take on the library- did we really need something so extravagant? In my opinion, no. It always seems like our town "needs" something. Always something bigger and better than what we already have. Yuck. Why not save for a rainy day, WC?

Anon @11:51- I am right there with you!

Anonymous said...

So called "public hearings" are a joke. Watch the meetings on TV. The council acts like a parent who always know what's best. It must have been a rude awakening to see how quickly residents rushed to sign petitions to have an opportunity to vote on the NM project.

They don't get it.John Muir said it best "it's not blind opposition to progress, it's opposition to blind progress"

Anonymous said...

I, too, was neutral about the Neiman Marcus project, but it felt like the city was pushing it too fast and that the plan was just wrong. It sounds like the new plan is better. Maybe they should have asked for that kind of honest input from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

"This is my take on the library- did we really need something so extravagant? In my opinion, no."

Yeah, let's build a library with cinder blocks so it looks like a jail. A LOT cheaper and functional, too! On second thought, why not save even more, not build any library and go to the new library in Lafayette being built instead?

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think we need a library made a cinder blocks, we really don't need to be spending the amount of money we are for a library that has to keep up with the Jones in whatever local town is building a library. I don't go to the library for the furnishing and paint color selections. A reading area/fireplace room? Seriously? A cafe? Marketplace? We need this? At what cost is all I'm asking.

Barry said...

These pompous empty suits do not even shop or dine in our downtown! It's amazes me that WC did not vote for Jake Bronson or Sol Henik. These two are at least everyday regular guys who can relate to the common Walnut Creek man.

Anonymous said...

For those who have so much problem with the direction WC is going in, I have a suggestion for you, move to Concord. You can shop at the 99 cent store to your hearts desire!

Anonymous said...

I'll just drive to the .99 cent store. I think others are too, considering these dollar store stock prices compared with the Nordstroms of the world!

Anonymous said...

With all the affordable housing they're planning to build, we'll need a 99 cent store in Walnut Creek.