I’ve barely stepped foot in the Neiman Marcus in San Francisco, except to ooh and ahh over the big, multi-story-all tree at Christmas time. Also, I know a fair share of Walnut Creek residents who say this luxury department store is out of their price range.
Nonetheless, I say, let Neiman Marcus come to Broadway Plaza. Or, as the City Council voted Tuesday night, let the voters decide. Specifically, let the voters say “yes” or “no” to allowing a two-story, 92,000-square-foot department store, such as Neiman Marcus, to come to Walnut Creek. The City Council approved this project May 19.
Actually, I don’t live within the city limits and can’t vote on this Neiman Marcus initiative. So, in this narrow technical way, this issue doesn’t matter to me.
On the other hand, I live near downtown, and the issue does matter to me, because I’m annoyed and worn out by this whole stupid controversy. It is just stupid that it has been drawn out in such an ugly, costly way--a battle between rival mall developers that has swept up residents into what amounts to a battle over the soul of our town.
We’re talking a department store, folks.
I don’t agree with all that Councilwoman Sue Rainey said at Tuesday night’s council meeting, but she was astute in pointing out that this project will only add about 40,000-square feet of additional space to downtown—about half the size of Nordstrom. Are those 40,000-square-feet worth all this political and legal fuss, and street-level harassment of residents, allegedly by anti-Neiman Marcus petition gatherers?
No, it’s not.
Again as Rainey pointed out, city staff have spent countless hours verifying signatures on three different petitions submitted, and on preparing reports, and researching legal issues. “At some point, this has to come to an end,” she said. “The city cannot keep up doing this and do other work at the same time. … It is very upsetting.”
Unfortunately, Rainey undercut herself somewhat by suggesting that the city had been listening all along to residents’ concerns about this project. With all due respect, Madam Councilwoman, the city has not. The prior council, who initially approved a larger scale version of this project back in the fall, did not. By the way, this prior proposal had an absolutely boneheaded proposal to turn all of the five-story South Main Street garage into valet parking during peak shopping times.
Sure, there were the "dark evil forces," as some see it, of Taubman, the Michigan-based rival mall developer. Tauban, which owns Sunvalley shopping mall and has interests in the San Ramon city center project, which Neiman Marcus was seriously considering as an East Bay location, stepped in to pour big bucks into funding the anti-Neiman Marcus drive.
The Contra Costa Times reports today that Taubman spent $234,000 on two referenda aimed at blocking this project. To be fair, though, Macerich, the owner of Broadway Plaza, spent $217,000 to support the initiative that the council voted to put on the Nov. 3 ballot. And about 70 individuals and organizations, including Mayor Gary Skrel, donated and raised more than $75,000 to support the initiative.
Besides these two rival mall developers contibuting to this controversy, the prior council helped create an environment of frustration among residents--that their concerns were not being heard. Taubman easily exploited those frustration.
I have to give it to Kish Rajan, who came into office after the city’s initial approval, for acknowledging at Tuesday night's meeting that legal challenges to that initial proposal—which, yes, were funded by Tauban—resulted in a “better proposal.”
“That’s because the people dissented,” he said. “I’m proud that the process resulted in a better project.”
After those legal challenges, Macerich in January withdrew their initial proposal, went back to the drawing board, and returned with a somewhat smaller project and an idea to make room in Broadway Plaza garages and other city parking structures for any influx of Neiman shoppers.
Macerich and the city also got out and held a series of community workshops.
If only these two groups had displayed more community relations savvy way back when and realized that attempting to seek public buy-in is prerequisite for this kind of major development project ...
Yes, I digress.
Back to Tuesday night's meeting: About 30 residents spoke, and most want Neiman Marcus to come to Broadway Plaza and most spoke in favor of the city putting ithe initiative on its May 19 decision up for a vote. These speakers also vented their frustration about the confusion and chaos and ugliness that has sprouted up over this project. The competing referenda and initiatives. How many? It’s hard to keep count.
And what’s the difference between a referendum and an initiative in the first place? One speaker referred to herself as community-minded and college-educated and said she was confused. Even Councilwoman Cindy Silva asked the city attorney for clarification, perhaps for her benefit or for the benefit of idiots like me who read the staff report but were still confused.
I could make an attempt to explain the difference, and the subtle differences between what each of these referenda and initiatives were seeking in terms of the project itself. But let’s say that right now I’m writing more as average citizen, and to me, the question should be simple.
Neiman Marcus? Yes or no? I say, yes. As I said, I might never step foot in the store, and I've been critical of the city's initial handling of this project.
But other people presumably will shop at Neiman Marcus, spend money, and help increase sales tax revenues for the city. A number of speakers at Tuesday’s city council meeting--people with a long history in Walnut Creek civic activism, and in the arts, open spaces, recreation, and in business and economic development—all proclaimed that this store would be good for downtown. It would be good for its economic health and eventual recovery from this slow times. It would be good for the city overall, and all those services we cherish--arts, recreation, public safety.
The speakers, who included representatives from Macerich and Neiman Marcus, also spoke of the store’s desire to be a community partner—which I translate to mean that Neiman Marcus might be willing to donate dollars to local nonprofits or to sponsor community events.
Not that I wanted to get into the technical aspects of what an initiative is—and a reader is free to chime in—but the city council basically had to make a decision about what to do with this pro-Neiman Marcus initiative. That's because the petition garnered signatures from 15 percent of registered voters, and state law says the council had to adopt the initiative outright, or put it on the ballot for voters to decide. The council decided to put it on the November 3 ballot for voters to decide.
So that’s where we are. We’ll have to see if that group of citizens who oppose Neiman Marcus, and who are financed by Taubman, will file any more legal challenges. Like they did last Friday afternoon in a last-ditch pathetic attempt to stop last night’s decision from going forward. A Contra Costa County Superior Court judge knocked that bid down on Tuesday, before the meeting.
Well, I hope that the plaintiffs of this suit, and the outspoken Neiman Marcus opponents, Ann Hinshaw, Selma King, and Ed Dimmick, can take some consolation in the fact that they enjoyed some success in getting changes made to the project--as Kish Rajan said.
Now it's time for them to shut up. I'm sick of them, and their obstructionism. Sorry to put it that way, but I am.
Actually, I mean they can shut up in terms of any more legal challenges, or mounting further referenda or petitions. Now, they can turn their attention to campaigning against the store, if they so choose. They can put their efforts into trying to convince voters why bringing a new department store to Walnut Creek is a bad idea.
In any event, let it now be up to voters to decide.