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26-Acre Mall Approved Over Protest of Committee : Council: Key concessions are given to developers that override recommendations by a residents group overseeing the project.

August 29, 1993|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WALNUT — The Walnut City Council on Wednesday approved a controversial 26-acre shopping mall that includes a massive Target store, overriding several key recommendations of a residents committee that battled with developers for five months over project details.

The council's 2 a.m. decision came after five hours of public comment and a tedious evaluation of 63 conditions proposed by the Planning Commission in response to resident concerns. The developers--Shea Business Properties and Vestar Development Co.--submitted a modified version of the recommendations to the council.

Council members limited the number of drive-through restaurants that developers could build at the center to two, banned carwashes and auto repair businesses, and adopted many of the cosmetic recommendations designed to tailor the project to Walnut's semirural character.

But the council granted several concessions to developers that were opposed by project opponents: They removed a 110,000-square-foot size limit on the Target, which developers hope to build at 123,000 square feet, and struck a requirement that developers provide strict security. The council also allowed vehicle access to the mall off La Puente Road, a move opposed by residents concerned with traffic safety and the safety of children walking to and from school.

"They gave them everything back that we were against--the size of Target, everything," said Ray Russi, one of many vocal opponents who six months ago gathered 2,000 signatures in an effort to kill the mall and opt for a community shopping center instead.

"They completely ignored the people's concerns. They were not going to reject it from Day One. The ad hoc (citizens) committee was a ploy," added Maurice Cofer, 75, a longtime Walnut resident who served on the 20-member residents committee along with Russi, and grew to oppose the project because of details such as its scope.

"I am for an operation of this type, but I am more inclined to be protective of the homeowner than I am big business," Cofer said.

More than half a dozen developers, who sat tensely on the edge of their seats during the council's final deliberations, expressed relief at the decision.

"We're pleased. I think we can work with the planning commission on this. It should be under construction in 30 to 45 days," said Jack R. Godard, vice president of acquisitions and development for Shea Business Properties.

The project was tailored to Walnut after months of often painful negotiations with the residents committee, developers said.

"I think this project is a better project today because of the input of the community," William L. York, president of Shea Homes, Southern California, told the council. Shea Homes and Shea Business Properties are both divisions of the Walnut-based J. F. Shea Co. Inc.

After the council kicked the project back to developers in late March, appointing the residents committee to hash out a compromise, developers switched architects, hiring Leland W. Stearns of Santa Fe, N.M.

The result is a Craftsman-style design that employs more wood and river rock, deeper colors, columns, trellises and roof overhangs. Stearns also added an outdoor food court at one corner of the center.

"This is a special design that's really about Walnut. This isn't something off the shelf that has been done someplace else," Stearns told the council.

Supporters of the project say sales tax revenue from a high-density development that would lure destination shoppers is badly needed to replace the dwindling revenue Walnut garnered during the 1980s building boom. The project, dubbed Snow Creek Plaza, would also enable residents to shop closer to home, they say.

Walnut's population grew by 133% in the 1980s, faster than any San Gabriel Valley city and bested in the county only by Palmdale. But while in 1988 Walnut received 12% of its revenue from licenses and permits--almost all of it related to building--that dropped to 6% in the 1992-93 budget.

"I want to speak in realities," said resident Jim Brannan, a committee member who said the group was stacked with project opponents from the beginning. "I waited for 20 minutes at the railroad tracks the other day after having to leave Walnut as a destination shopper to buy something. I believe 90% of the people want this project."

The majority of residents who attended City Council and planning commission meetings on the subject for months, however, claim the project signals a further blow to already deflated property values, and the onset of congestion, graffiti and crime committed by outsiders on the prowl in Walnut's well-manicured neighborhoods.

The shopping mall, which Cofer dubbed "a monstrosity," is a marked departure from the horse trails, buffered landscaping and rural atmosphere that led them to choose Walnut as a place to put down roots, they say. It also abuts a residential development and sits below some of Walnut's costliest custom homes.

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