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Mall Proposal Misses Mark, Residents Say : Revenue: Putting in a Pavilions, Target and Taco Bell will drive property values down further, many homeowners complain. Proponents say the building boom is over and the city needs the money.


WALNUT — Over the past decade, thousands of families on the upwardly mobile fast track poured into Walnut--a bedroom community etched with horse trails and so geared to warding off outsiders that overnight street parking and yard sales are against the law.

But today, residents who stretched their finances in real estate's glory days to snatch customized tract homes see a different image forming as they hold up the community looking glass.

And many are horrified by it.

City officials are embracing developers' plans to plant a high-density shopping mall--complete with a Target store and Vons Pavilion supermarket--on a 26-acre lot near some of Walnut's costliest homes. The City Council is expected to vote on the project Wednesday.

Revenue culled from Walnut's building boom is running out, city officials argue, and the Target will lure shoppers from surrounding communities, channeling needed sales tax dollars into city coffers.

Residents, however, are sounding a battle cry, claiming the project would be another blow to already deflated property values. They fear the onset of congestion, graffiti and crime committed by outsiders on the prowl in Walnut's well-manicured neighborhoods.

"This city uses the word 'rural' constantly, and 'family values.' All those things are just being thrown out the window," said Brigid Bjerke, 46, a stay-at-home mother who moved to Walnut from Hawthorne in 1987, after she and her husband searched from Ventura to Orange County for a quiet, family-oriented community with good schools.

"They're putting this thing in an area where people have paid a quarter of a million dollars and upward for their homes," said Bjerke, who from her back yard can see the vast rolling hill that will house the mall. "I've already seen two 'For Sale' signs go up on my street in the past week, and if this thing goes through, we will move too," she said.

Some residents say it's purely the size of the project on Grand Avenue and Valley Boulevard that disturbs them, and the estimated 7,000 cars it will draw to the area daily, posing a threat to children on bicycles and polluting the air.

One Vons supermarket already is in business in Walnut, and another Target is located in the nearby City of Industry, project opponents say. The new Target would be part of Walnut's first high-density mall geared to lure outsiders and far out-scales existing shopping plazas.

"I shop at Target but I don't feel that I need to have it in the same community where I live. It's the size and the scope of it. We don't want a Nordstrom either," said Deborah Nicklas, who moved to Walnut in 1990 with her husband and son--they have another child on the way--to escape the increasing commercial congestion of Glendale.

"In every city, big commercial centers attract crime--that's where the wallets are. That's where the cars are. And in our case, that's where the homes are too," Nicklas said.

Others bluntly add that Target is just not upscale enough for Walnut--whose 1989 median household income of $64,333 was exceeded in the San Gabriel Valley only by Bradbury and San Marino.

"I think they do want to bring in the clientele from Pomona and surrounding areas," said Bjerke. "It sounds really snobbish, but that's not what our city is all about. Walnut was always designed for the people of the city of Walnut. Now all of a sudden that's changing."

Ray Russi, 50, says he's no stranger to poverty: He grew up in a family of 11 in New York City, and often wore shoes with holes to school. But that was New York. This is Walnut.

When the developers who plan to bring in the mall rattled off the names of other prospective tenants--Taco Bell and Payless Shoes--Russi was riled.

"The income in Walnut is one of the highest in the state. Why would we go shop at Payless?" asked Russi, a 20-year employee of a major utility company and a father of two who lives in Walnut's Snow Creek neighborhood, near the proposed development. "These shoes are my scrap shoes and I paid $69 for these."

Russi has already put his home up for sale.

Residents have packed Planning Commission and City Council meetings to protest the development. Russi and others collected more than 2,000 signatures on a petition decrying the project, and developers and city staff found themselves the target of catcalls at heated meetings.

But the project also has a few equally opinionated supporters.

"We've got to have the revenue or we will die," said Nadine Brown, 62, the publisher of the community-oriented Walnut Times, who printed up blazing yellow "Shop in Walnut" signs to post in the windows of local merchants.

"We're going to lose services. We're going to be driving over potholes. We won't have any trees. (Opponents) want this to stay a teeny, tiny community. But we can't. We don't have a tax base," she said.

"We are not a San Marino," Brown said. "Walnut has come down. It grew too quickly."

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