All of this is taking place at a unique time in our local and national history. I’m talking about, yes, the recession, when cities, including Walnut Creek, are facing frightening budget cuts and serious drops in sales tax revenues. Mall companies and retailers, especially those in the high-end luxury market--like Neiman Marcus--also are struggling.
So, emotions are running high, the stakes are big.
Who’s at the heart of this bitter battle over whether Broadway Plaza should be able to bring a Neiman Marcus to Walnut Creek?
Developer versus developer? Macerich versus Taubman? Walnut Creek versus San Ramon?
And, what does San Ramon have to do with this, anyway? (I’ll get to that in a minute, but some of you probably already know.)
And, yes, another question: Is it really true, as Yes for Walnut Creek, the new pro-Neiman Marcus group, proclaims that Walnut Creek could lose big time if it doesn't nab Neiman Marcus. That the loss of the Dallas-based luxury retail opportunity could “deplete the revenues we rely on to sustain our police, roads, parks, open spaces, the arts and other vital community services.”
Here’s today’s latest development in this battle:
Extra! Extra! It looks like Taubman, a rival mall company to Macerich, the owners of Broadway Plaza, was making good Saturday on its vow to launch another signature-gathering effort. This petition drive wants to force the city to put the Neiman Marcus question on the ballot. By the way, Michigan-based, international mall developer Taubman owns Sunvalley Mall in Concord and is also the potential retail developer of the new San Ramon City Centre. There's your San Ramon connection--or one of them anyway.
I ran into some signature gatherers outside Whole Foods today, and some 20 more were said to be out and about at other downtown locations, asking Walnut Creek residents to petition for the Neiman Marcus question to be put up to a city-wide vote.
This signature gathering effort (the second in the past year) comes four days after the City Council approved the Neiman Marcus proposal—actually a somewhat scaled down version of a proposal the council initially greenlighted in the fall. (From 112,000-square feet and three stories to 92,000-square-feet and two stories)
Well, I can’t say for sure that Taubman is behind this latest petition drive. The guy who asked me to sign the petition said he was from a professional petition gathering company. I didn’t sign, not because I’m taking a pro- or anti-Neiman position, but because I don’t live in the city limits. I live in unincorporated Walnut Creek, so I can’t sign, and I wouldn't be able to vote in this particular election.
As I was talking to this petition gatherer, a passing Whole Foods shopper proclaimed his objection to the petition effort. He said Taubman was behind it, griped that he didn’t like an out-of-state mall company trying to influence local affairs, and believed that the city council had settled the matter with its vote Tuesday.
The petitioner argued back, asking whether the city council’s decision truly represents the will of Walnut Creek residents, saying it should be put up to a citywide vote, and spouting about Jeffersonian democratic principles.
On Friday, the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce issued a warning about “deceptive petitions” and proclaimed that Neiman Marcus is “good for Walnut Creek.”
“This project is endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, the Walnut Creek downtown Business Association, the Contra Costa Association of Realtors and over 1,000 members of the community. Last fall, the Taubman Group, a Michigan-based mall developer that owns Sunvalley Mall and the potential retail developer for San Ramon’s City Centre, spent nearly $100,000 on a petition to prevent Neiman Marcus from coming to Walnut Creek.
"Why? Because Walnut Creek’s loss would be their gain."
The Chamber of Commerce also said it would cost the city more than $300,000 to place the project on the ballot.
Before I go on: Some recent troubles with San Ramon’s City Centre, due to the cratering economy. Last month, breaking ground on the 40-acre, $750 milliion project was put on hold until the economy’s housing and retail sectors improve. The city was expected to open in time for the 2010 Christmas shopping center, but the city is now looking at a 2012 opening.
Also, the San Ramon City Centre is being developed in a public-private partnership with Sunset Development, the builder of San Ramon’s Bishop Ranch. The CEO of Sunset, by the way, is the formidable Alex Mehran.
Hmm, is Sunset a third developer mixed up in this Neiman Marcus battle?
Well, besides another possible successful petition drive, the pro-Neiman Marcus side also faces a lawsuit, filed by former Mayor Ed Dimmick and some other residents, that would ostensibly halt the project.
At a City Council meeting earlier this month, Mayor Gary Skrel quizzed Dimmick on who was funding the lawsuit. Dimmick also filed an appeal of the Planning Commission’s earlier approval of the project. Dimmick later told the Contra Costa Times that Taubman paid for the appeal, but he wouldn’t comment on who is picking up the tab for the lawsuit.