August 5, 2009

City council decides to end the agony: Let voters decide on Neiman Marcus

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.


Anonymous said...

During public comment there were 28speakers in favor of putting the pro-NM initiative on the ballot and only two anti-growth cynics.

Anonymous said...

7:30 am......
Come on now.....let us not call names. Mayor Skrel had to remind one of the "leaders" of the pro side last night to tone down his rhetoric and stop resorting to name calling. Counter productive.

So big deal, 28 to 2 on speakers. If you listened to the titles of the speakers as they introduced themselves, most had a vested interest in this issue and were there to beat the drums for the home team. It is doubtful that those who may have had reservations about the NM project felt that it would do any good to attend the meeting and speak as the staff report made it pretty obvious how things were headed.

Now is the time to accept what has happened and get on with our lives. I have faith that Walnut Creek will survive with or without NM.

Anonymous said...

Hi, this is anon 7:30 again. I agree with Soccer Mom:

"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."

Phoenyx said...

Hey, on the bright side, at least it isn't a WalMart

Anonymous said...

Phoenyx -

Maybe a WalMart would bring in even more tax dollars!

One thing for sure, betcha it would have more resident shoppers in it than Neiman's will and it would probably get built faster.

Anonymous said...

but it would destroy the local business community as it did at in many communities across this nation.

Anonymous said...

10:39am. If you have some much detail about the wants and needs of local / regional shoppers why aren't you developing your own mall?

Anonymous said...

Lighten up for gosh sakes!

I know that WalMart is hated by many who think they know why. But, seriously, please explain the difference between WalMart and Target and Ross and Macys and Nordstroms and Neiman Marcus. Don't they all compete with local businesses in a way?

Tax dollars are very welcome from business entities who wish to come to town and follow the quidelines of the General Plan. Neiman Marcus failed on this point and I am sure that WalMart would too.

So, don't get your knickers in such a twist when the wor WalMart is mentioned.

Let's move on!

Anonymous said...

2:19 pm

If I had as much money as Macerich or Taubman I certainly would be developing my own mall! Sure as heck wouldn't continue to slog through the day at a job I don't enjoy. Heck, these days I'm just happy to have a job so really shouldn't complain.

Actually, if I did have that much money, just think I would do some good things with it and then sit in the sun on a tropical island with the rest.

Really don't like malls anyway!

Anonymous said...

Do we know what the wording on the ballot initiative will be? Will it say a 92,000 square foot store or will it say Neiman Marcus?

Anonymous said...

Well, SM, declaring its time for dissenting citizens to 'shut up' is really over the top! Of course, that is the attitude of the WC city council for years, despite what they say. They routinely ignore the General Plan which many of us spent many many hours on.

The Council has reaped the disdain it deserves, claiming to listen to the citizens, but holding their ankles time and again for developers those they deem in power for all to see.

This battle may have been won by them, but the war is far from over.

Anonymous said...


The City of Walnut Creek destroyed the 'local' business community. Is Macy's, Nordstrom, Gap, etc., local? No. There are a few left, but I'm sure they'll be gone soon enough and replaced with another chain.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:58:

Broadway Plaza has been here since 1951. Have you?

Why blame the current City government for the presence of Nordstrom and Macys? Do you want to throw away even more jobs than just preventing Neiman Marcus from coming here and losing the jobs they would bring? That's what happens if we throw out all chain businesses. Also, it would require that we institute a socialist government with total control over commerce. Not being a socialist, I will have to move someplace else if you folk succeed. Oh, I get it... anyone new here is unwelcome.

Do you realize that some people actually do need to have jobs to produce their income?

We should welcome businesses that bring good jobs to Walnut Creek.

Anonymous said...

How many part-time sales clerks at Neiman Marcus do you suppose will be residents of Walnut Creek?

Broadway Plaza has been here since 1951 but in no way does it resemble what it used to be - a group of stores, many locally owned and operated that served all the needs of the town. A butcher shop, a grocery store, a toy store, even a shoe repair shop in the garage that was next to the tobacco store. Anchor stores were Joseph and I Magnin, Capwells, Penneys, Smiths Menswear etc. Always was a good retail mix for all financial levels of shoppers. Not that way now. Everything is high end and very few are locally owned one-of shops. Most of the stores you can find at any other mall in any other state. Nothing truly unique at Broadway Plaza and the addition of Neiman Marcus will not change that.

We can't go back but hopefully from now on we will work together to adhere to the General Plan passed in 2006 to make this city even nicer than it was/is.

Anonymous said...

Who the hell cares what the little people do over in Walnut Creek? I don't care where my gardeners and maids shop in the downtown of their little podunk town.

-your Danville friend

Anonymous said...

I honestly don't care about the NM in SF (aside from the Christmas displays, as SoccerMom says), but I think it would be a good fit in downtown WC. It would be a shopping magnet for the area, and bring in shoppers, diners and other visitors who'd spread some money around in WC.

At the same time, I'd also love to see unique independent stores in WC. But I don't think it's an either/or equation. Big "magnet" stores like NM attract shoppers and browsers, who will see other shops in the area, too, and with any luck, buy from them as well. Something for everybody!

Anonymous said...


It used to be that way in most towns, it's not that way anymore. It developed into something different. It's business.

11:24 - I see the unique and independent stores as part of the old downtown where the little sized shops are of not interest to chains. Take a look around, some interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

During the meeting, it was stated
that the initiative was close in
wording to the referendum, and therefore there was no need to put both on the ballot.

If this is true, why did Macerich
go through the expense of their
initiative when there would have
been a vote on the referendum?

Can anyone shed some light on this?

Anonymous said...

You can't argue with 28 to 2 - everyone in town can come to a Council meeting - the opponents could have urged their friends to show up and speak out (except that might cost them time or money) - they either did not try or no one answered their clarion call. My guess is they did not try. Now - let the voice of the people be heard - at the ballot box.

Anonymous said...

So - let's try to answer a recent question. A referendum and an initiative serve very different purposes. A referendum allows local residents to object to an action by the Council. If 10% of the voters of the community sign it, the action of the Council is suspended and the Council may place the proposal on the next regular municipal election (in this case, November, 2010). An initiative allows local citizens to propose that the community take an action. If signed by 15% of the local voters, the Council can adopt the idea or place it on a special election date - no more than 120 days in the future. In this case, the November, 2009 election date fulfills this requirement.

Jojo Potato said...

Let me understand this, a battle between these two mall owners is now going to cost me how many tax dollars to hold a special election? Haven't we elected and paid for a city council to decide these things? The developers should pay for the election, this is just wrong.

Anonymous said...

Jojo should send the bill to Selma and Ed - if they had not invited Taubman in, there would be no election costs. People need to ask more about what they are getting out of this. As residents - we all know we are going to get stuck with the bill for the Ed, Selma and Ann show.

Anonymous said...


I've been here for 45 years. How long have you been a WC resident?

Anonymous said...


Please, not with the 'socialist' carp.

Anonymous said...

The city might want to think about getting rid of the prostitutes and thug bars.

Anonymous said...

When the votes are counted, it will be a lot closer than the 2/28 ratio of speakers at the council meeting. As was pointed out earlier, many who are pro NM have a vested interest.

King (former city planning commissioner) Henshaw and Dimmick(former mayor) are long time residents who love this city. They are sincere in their concerns about this project and have dared to stand up to the powers that be. Those who suggest there are ulterior motives are probably some of the same crowd that Mr. Dimmick successfully sued for slander several years ago.

Anonymous said...

Ahh, so King and Dimmick are out to get revenge. When they were in office they wanted it one way, since their out and other members are changing 'their vision' they want to prevent it.

Great...let the community suffer because of your egos. My disdain for politicians continues.

Anonymous said...

The campaign has begun.
Last evening (Thursday),
I received a call from a
public opinion firm asking my views on NM . They conducted
a "push poll". They kept telling
me the good things that NM would
do and then asking if this changed my views to a more favorable opinion of the project.

It didn't take long after the council put it on the ballot for
the campaign to begin .

Anonymous said...

The "Yes on Walnut Creek" folks (the ones in the yellow shirts) urged us not to sign the first petitions because an election would cost the City money and they claimed they were not funded by Macerich, but when Macerich jumped in with a petition and paid for it the "Yes" crowd quickly supported it despite the cost of the election to the City. And now the "Yes City Council" approves only their initiative for the voters to vote on. Nothing has changed since Abrams and Regalia left.