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Lodi Supercenter opposed by citizens, while Stockton's quietly goes up

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Posted: Friday, June 18, 2004 10:00 pm

The Lodi Wal-Mart controversy includes a varied cast of characters, from council members and city planners to a frustrated developer and the recently revealed "Mr. Box."

So heated is the debate that it spurred the formation of the Small City Preservation Committee, a grassroots organization trying to get voter approval in November of an initiative that would restrict the size of retail buildings in Lodi to 125,000 square feet.

Through it all, the development process for the Supercenter - including its proposal, a review by the Planning Commission, public hearings and construction - just keeps moving along. Lodi Community Development Director Konradt Bartlam estimates that without hold-ups, the project could be completed by next June.

But while the path to a Kettleman Lane Wal-Mart Supercenter remains littered with bureaucratic speed bumps, Stockton's Supercenter - to be the second one in California, after the first was built in La Quinta - is being quietly built in Stockton without much protest.

And, by the time Lodi residents line up at the polls in November - providing the initiative qualifies for the ballot - Stockton residents will already be lining up at the registers of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter.

"The Stockton one has obviously gone a little more expeditiously than the one in Lodi," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amy Hill, adding that the Lodi store will have more of a local theme.

"The Lodi (Supercenter) is definitely going to have more architectural elements."

The so-far plain-looking 207,000 square-foot Stockton Supercenter off Hammer Lane is a perfect fit in its mostly commercial environment, where at any given moment there seem to be nearly as many shoppers for gas, food, clothes and appliances as there are Lodi residents.

Stockton resident Lily Kite, a regular Wal-Mart customer, said she would definitely shop at the new Hammer Lane store.

"I'm looking forward to it," Kite said. "It's one-stop shopping, quality merchandise and reasonable prices."

In Lodi, however, when the plan to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter was officially announced in July by City Manager Dixon Flynn, a well-documented split was created between those who feel a new and improved Wal-Mart will give the city a financial push forward and those afraid of losing the values of a small-city community.

Guy and Bernice Qualls live in Ryde, a town 20 miles northeast of Lodi with a population of 60. They say there is nowhere in town for them to shop, so they occasionally travel to the Lodi Wal-Mart to stock up on things they need.

A tale of two Wal-Marts

Lodi
The Lodi Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for the southwest corner of Kettleman Lane and Lower Sacramento Road is still being reviewed by the Planning Commission.
• Estimated proposal date: Fall 2002
• Estimated completion date: June 2005 at the earliest
• Proposed square footage of main building: 226, square feet
• Proposed number of parking spaces: 996
• Tree requirement: One tree for every four parking spaces: enough to provide shade for 50 percent of total parking lot.
• Developer: Browman Development, Inc. of Oakland
• Review by Planning Commission: Standards review, public hearing, environmental impact report
• Part of larger retail center

Stockton
The Stockton Wal-Mart Supercenter currently being built on Hammer Lane was proposed to the Community Development Department three years ago.
• Estimated proposal date: 2001
• Estimated completion date: October 2004
• Square footage of main building: 207,000 square feet
• Proposed number of parking spaces: 1,031
• Tree requirement: Minimum requirement of one tree for every 10 spaces; may be more trees in final plan
• Developer: Wal-Mart Business Realty, Inc. of Bentonville, Ark.
• Review by Planning Commission: Use permit to sell alcohol on premises
• Not part of larger retail center

"Most of the time, we go to Sacramento," Guy Qualls said. "We trade off with (Lodi) about one quarter of the time. It would be better for us if we could find everything in this area."

Some Lodians are worried that the new Hammer Lane Supercenter will drain money from this city as the store draws people who would otherwise shop in Lodi.

But in Stockton, there hasn't been nearly as much public reaction as there is in Lodi.

The Supercenters being planned each tell a story of the cities they are in, and the development process of each speaks to the demographic of that city, its wealth, population and geography.

Lay of the land

The Hammer Lane Wal-Mart Supercenter is situated between Stockton Steel and a new Lowe's Home Improvement store. It will replace the older Wal-Mart down the street that was built 10 years ago.

In both Stockton and Lodi, the old stores will close down when the nearby Supercenters open, and employees will be transferred to the new buildings, Hill said. She added that the old buildings will then hopefully be leased out to other businesses.

The Supercenter in Stockton is just one of many retail business in the Hammer Lane area.

"Just about every other big-box store has been established in Stockton since the late '80s or early '90s, so it's not such a big deal," said Eric Parfrey, a former Stockton city planner who is now a private consultant and president of a local chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Stockton Supercenter is scheduled to open its doors in October, Hill said.

Its exterior walls are made up of concrete blocks in a "tilt-up" construction, where cement is poured into a framework on the ground and hoisted up into place.

By contrast, Bartlam said that the Supercenter being proposed for Lodi would not be of a simple tilt-up construction. That is prescribed by the city's large-scale building requirements, which apply to structures more than 25,000 square feet.

As a commercial developer, Darryl Browman is faced with tougher restrictions because of the zoning of that particular parcel of land, which requires a review by the city Planning Commission, an environmental impact report and a public hearing before the City Council.

Though the guidelines of the project have already been discussed in public hearings at City Council meetings, the project itself must also go before the council with a public hearing after being approved by the Planning Commission.

"If this project were property at Kettleman and (Highway) 99," Bartlam said, "they would not be going through the Planning Commission at all."

Greg and Esther Fuson have a bird's eye view of the new Wal-Mart Supercenter being built on Hammer Lane in Stockton from their Emerson Court home. One of the major concerns of the Fusons is nighttime deliveries at the rear entrance of Wal-Mart, directly behind their house. (Casey Freeman/News-Sentinel)

Randy Snider, one of the property owners, said that the review process for a commercial piece of land is nothing out of the ordinary, but the opposition to putting a Supercenter there is fierce.

"We had always intended to sell it to a commercial retail developer," said Snider, a one-time Lodi council member and mayor.

"The fly in the ointment is that some people don't like the commercial retail tenant that would like to locate there," he said.

Meanwhile, the area in Stockton is not so controversial. Wal-Mart is both the owner and developer of the plot on the corner of Hammer Lane and Holman Road.

The only hold up in the process was the application for a use permit, which is required for the sale of alcohol, said Jim Glaser, development director for the city of Stockton.

He added that the initial proposal to build a Supercenter on Hammer Lane was made about three years ago without much controversy.

"The area was zoned commercial several years ago," he said of the building site. "The only residential uses would have been to the north."

Across the street from the back of the building is a small cluster of newly built homes. Though a 6-foot retaining wall partially blocks a view of the loading docks, many homeowners will be able to look out their living room or bedroom windows and see the structure.

By comparison, the site of the future Lodi Supercenter is not bordered by homes.

(Although the section of land on the southwest corner of Kettleman Lane and Lower Sacramento Road is currently a vast, empty field, with the surrounding area made up mostly of businesses, nearby single-family units are planned.)

This section of Lodi offers up two versions of the typical American landscape. On one side, the carefully manicured grass outside a Subway sandwich shop looks like a tiny oasis of flowers and trees. It is a sharp contrast to the dry, scraggly field grass of the plot across the street where the Supercenter is expected be built.

Like Stockton, the Lodi Wal-Mart will be across the street from a Lowe's, another building project in Lodi that generated criticism from citizen groups opposed to what they term urban sprawl.

But the Supercenter has brought with it a uniquely passionate opposition, said Bartlam, who thinks that the citizen-based Small City Preservation Committee is only one of many groups that are biased not against large-scale businesses, but Wal-Mart in particular.

Highlights of Lodi's retail development requirements

In April, the Lodi City Council adopted a set of requirements for large-scale retail development projects. The following includes highlights of what developers are expected to incorporate into the architectural design and layout of their project.
• Facades and exterior walls: Exterior walls should include recesses and projections to reduce the scale of the building to a more personal level.
• Detail features: Architectural features of the building should be visually interesting to the pedestrian, and should include elements of color, texture and material change.
• Roofs: There should be variations in the roof to reduce the massive scale of the building. The design should feature parapets that extend a maximum of three feet above the roof line and overhanging eaves that extend a minimum of three feet beyond the supporting wall.
• Materials and colors: Exterior building materials should include without limitation, clay brick, wood, rock or native stone or stucco of varied finishes. The facade colors should be neutral or earth-toned colors, as opposed to high intensity or metallic colors. The prominent exterior materials should not include smooth-faced concrete brick, smooth finished tilt-up concrete panels or pre-fabricated steel panels.
• Building entry ways: There should be clearly defined, highly visible customer entrances that are to include design features such as canopies, overhangs, arcades, arches, outdoor patios, planters or landscaped areas and places for sitting.
• Pedestrian entrances: There should be multiple entrances to reduce the walking distance from the parking area. These entrances should provide convenient access to multiple stores or departments within a store.
• Off-street parking areas: Parking should be distributed to shorten walking distance and to reduce the visual impact of one large paved surface. No more than 60 percent of the parking lot should be between the front face of the building and the abutting streets. Landscaping in parking areas should achieve a minimum 50 percent shading requirement within five years of planting.

In March, the citizens group began collecting signatures for a petition to pass an initiative that would prohibit development of retail business larger than 125,00 square feet.

The initiative, which is now before the county Registrar of Voters for signature verification, if qualified would be put before voters in November.

(That verification could come as soon as Monday, Registrar Deborah Hench said.)

Public reaction

Compared to Lodi, Stockton has seen almost no public opposition to the building of the Hammer Lane Supercenter, Glaser said. He said that there was a public hearing, but no response from the community.

"I don't recall anyone showing up at the hearing. It wasn't controversial," he said.

Parfrey said Stockton's city manager is very pro-business and the population - about 250,000 - is too large to be concerned with the construction of one more retail store.

Despite public acceptance or indifference to such a large-scale project, there is some concern among people who live or do business in the area directly surrounding the construction site.

A straight line can be drawn from the Supercenter to the front door of Gary and Cynthia Williams' home, who said they had no idea a Wal-Mart was in the works when they moved in two years ago.

"When we bought this house, we signed paperwork that we couldn't sue Stockton Steel because of the noise," Gary Williams said. "But we didn't know we'd have to put up with the trucks and construction."

"And flat tires because they leave nails out in the road," Cynthia Williams said.

The construction is a period of adjustment for the Williams, who complain of diesel trucks belching during the day and blocking their vision as they try to exit their new subdivision.

Meanwhile, businesses in the vicinity will probably experience a boost in sales and customer traffic from the thousands of people who will be frequenting the Wal-Mart.

Pa Lor, a crew manager for the McDonald's that stands on the corner of Hammer Lane and Holman Road at the edge of the Supercenter's parking lot, expects that people will walk across the parking lot to eat there instead of wasting the gas to go somewhere down the street.

"Business will probably upsize. I'm pretty sure they're going to get more people," she said of the possibility of McDonald's adding extra shifts to serve its daytime customers. "A lot of the stores (around Wal-Marts) go to being 24 hours."

In Lodi, where there is an annual 2 percent limit on growth, some residents are afraid that Wal-Mart will change the face of the community.

The Small City Preservation Committee, whose petition includes more than 3,600 names, ran into a problem when Lodi car dealers complained that the initiative, if adopted as worded, would prevent them from being able to construct new sites planned along Highway 99 or even rebuild their existing lots.

When the committee approached the City Council asking its members to amend their original proposal to exempt car dealerships from the size limitation, no action was taken. Unless the council decides to take action and become involved in the amendment, it go on the November ballot with the original wording.

"We're concerned about the amount of agricultural land that's being taken up by big, huge projects," said Betsy Fiske, committee chairwoman. "We just keep expanding and kind of overgrowing the city."

But Snider, one of the landowners of the lot in question, maintains that the land was originally intended for sale to a retail business, not to be used for agricultural purposes.

Meanwhile, Bartlam counters the group's claim that a size cap would help preserve the small-town feel of Lodi.

"If you're the Small City Preservation Committee, you need to go find a small city to preserve," he said. "Because this is not a small city by any stretch of the imagination."

Likewise, the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, comprising some 750 local businesses, through Pat Patrick, the chamber's president and CEO, maintain that a Wal-Mart Supercenter would bring much needed business into the city.

In a recent newsletter distributed to chamber members, Patrick said of the committee, "Who are these people? What have they done to build the community?"

Fiske's reply to Patrick's public query: "We're Lodi people - people who care about the community."

Despite the lively public debate, the only current hold up in the development process is the completion of an environmental impact report which usually takes six to eight months, Bartlam said.

The report, he said, is just one of many requirements that Browman will have to meet before building a Lodi Supercenter.

By the book

The design and architectural requirements submitted by the Lodi Planning Commission and passed by the council in April respond to concerns about large-scale retailers negatively affecting the local flavor of the city.

Elements of the ordinance include architecture, color scheme and landscaping, and are much more inclusive and detailed in Lodi than many cities, Wal-Mart's Hill said.

"It's a different process than we've seen in other areas" she said, comparing the future Lodi Supercenter to its Stockton counterpart.

"Lodi has done a wonderful job preserving and maintaining its downtown area, and it's the envy of a lot of towns."

While design elements unique to the Stockton store are being considered, Glaser could not give details on what the city requires of large-scale retail development projects.

However, the Stockton Supercenter will be painted in muted tones of brown and green, Hill said, to give the building the appearance of being more than just one enormous box-like structure.

The computer-generated rendering of the Supercenter to be built in Lodi offers many architectural features designed to offer shade, interesting angles and a local vineyard theme, Hill said.

The rendering of the Stockton store, however, more closely resembles a large-scale version of the typical Wal-Mart building with a scheme that incorporates paint colors such as "Nobility Blue" and "Cajun Spice," in lieu of the standard Wal-Mart beige and navy blue.

Parfrey attributes the Spartan design of retail businesses in Stockton to the priorities of the local government in the city.

By contrast, he feels Lodi's conservative attitude toward business and finance allows the city to engage in philosophical debate about appearance and design.

"In Stockton, we're still looking at the big issues," Parfrey said, indicating problems with population growth, urban sprawl and education. "Lodi's much more affluent. It's a lily white community."

The designs laid out in Lodi's ordinance will produce a Supercenter that is more visually pleasing and accommodating to its customers, Bartlam said. He is confident that Browman's proposal conforms to most of the requirements.

"This is far better than what I was envisioning we would get as a first shot," he said of Browman's submission. "He thinks he's going to do a quality project."

Most developers are compliant with the city's regulations because they understand that better-designed stores will bring more customers, Bartlam said.

"People will go out of their way to shop in a more pleasing environment," he said, adding that esthetics are good not only for customers, but for business owners as well.

Kite, who shops at Lodi's store despite living in Stockton, said she is willing to travel to a nicer store.

"I don't like the one in Stockton," she said. "It just doesn't have the quality that this one does."

Even Cynthia Williams, who lives less than one-half of a mile away from the current Stockton store, said she travels out of town to shop at the Lodi Wal-Mart because it is cleaner and the staff is more helpful.

What now?

If the requirements succeed in reducing super-sized buildings like Wal-Mart to a more personal level, Bartlam said the building size limitation being proposed by the citizens group would be irrelevant.

"If you have to have a maximum size cap, you're basically saying the standards don't do the job they were intended to do," Bartlam said.

But putting the initiative on the November ballot will allow Lodians a chance to decide for themselves whether or not they think architectural design will make Wal-Mart more compatible with the city's landscape.

On the chance that the initiative is passed by the City Council before being put on the ballot, the law says Wal-Mart will have avenues of recourse. Bartlam said that Wal-Mart can choose to sue the city of Lodi, but will more likely move for a referendum which would put the decisions in the hands of Lodi voters.

"It can't afford not to fight," he said. "Maybe it costs them a million dollars. But do you not give up the million when payday is a lot more?"

Hill said the corporation is planning to build 40 California Supercenters within the next four years, and added that the development process is already underway in as many as 20 California towns including Redding, Gilroy, Red Bluff, Yuba City and Tracy.

The Supercenter in Tracy will be an annexation of the existing store on Grant Line Road in a highly commercialized area. The construction, which will take place on the property between the current Wal-Mart and Costco, has an estimated completion date of late-2004 or early-2005.

Though the Supercenter was initially opposed by local labor unions, the current store is very popular among Tracy residents.

Pretty soon California will join the nation, which is now home to nearly 1,500 Wal-Mart Supercenter stores, and groups like the Small City Preservation Committee will have to hang up their gloves or move on to other battles.

Contact reporter Sara Cardine at intern@lodinews.com.

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