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Ventura Thinks Outside the Big-Box Store

The city proves a hard sell for Wal-Mart as officials shelve building plans while they study making a key boulevard pedestrian-friendly.

January 29, 2006|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Ventura has become the latest Southern California city to yank the welcome mat for a proposed Wal-Mart store -- except in this coastal community, there's a catch.

City leaders last week approved a one-year moratorium on commercial development along Victoria Avenue, a bustling boulevard seen by Wal-Mart as an ideal place to set up shop. The moratorium, imposed to give city planners time to draft guidelines for development along the six-lane strip, effectively shelves an application from the retail giant to build one of its prototypical big-box stores.

City Manager Rick Cole said the action wasn't necessarily aimed at discouraging Wal-Mart, but at meeting a mandate in the city's new General Plan to transform Victoria Avenue from a traffic-choked corridor to a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare peppered with shops and houses.

Cole said the city would work over the next year to spell out the new vision for Victoria Avenue, but he said what's clear now is that the street is not suitable for typical big-box development. As the new rules are being written, Wal-Mart can choose to modify its design to fit with the area's emerging character, he said.

"This is not about Wal-Mart the company. This is about big boxes in places they don't belong," Cole said. "That said, we don't think it would be the worst thing in the world to be the first ones in Southern California to break the Wal-Mart mold."

A coalition of business owners, religious leaders and community activists viewed the Victoria Avenue moratorium as a victory in a long-running campaign to block Wal-Mart from coming to town.

The Stop Wal-Mart Coalition echoes concerns raised in recent years in such Southern California cities as Upland and Inglewood that the retailer pushes into communities where it isn't wanted, bringing with it too much traffic, low-paying jobs and a business philosophy that spells troubles for independent merchants.

Several communities have scrambled to keep the retailer at bay.

In April 2004, Inglewood voters soundly defeated a Wal-Mart-funded ballot measure to approve a supercenter in that city. Months later, the Los Angeles City Council adopted an ordinance requiring economic impact studies for supercenters and other large retailers.

Earlier this month, Wal-Mart dropped plans to open a store in Northridge amid protests from neighbors and city officials, and demands for a lengthy environmental review.

In Ventura, the Wal-Mart opponents have asked the City Council to craft a law that would require large retailers to undergo a permitting process that would include review of the effects on traffic, housing and municipal services.

"Quality-of-life issues are important in Ventura," said Jim Salzer, who owns music and video stores half a mile from where Wal-Mart wants to open its store. "My worry is that they don't involve themselves with the community; they take out, but they don't put back in."

Wal-Mart officials say there is no merit to the Ventura group's criticism and that the firm's push into Ventura and other Southern California cities is driven by customer demand. Company officials say some cities have enthusiastically welcomed the stores, eager to tap the jobs, tax revenue and low prices that Wal-Mart brings.

Kevin McCall, Southern California spokesman for Wal-Mart, said the company would work with Ventura officials to modify its proposal to try to conform to any new development standards along Victoria Avenue, but only to a point.

"We try as hard as we can to work with every community," McCall said. "We're going to have those discussions with the city and hopefully come to an outcome that will satisfy everybody."

In Ventura, Wal-Mart has proposed building one of its smaller discount stores rather than a more controversial supercenter, which also sells groceries. The 109,000-square-foot store would include an outdoor garden center and occupy the site of an existing Kmart.

The store would be Wal-Mart's third in Ventura County, joining discount centers in Oxnard and Simi Valley.

The Ventura moratorium is set to expire Jan. 30, 2007. Some business leaders and two of Ventura's seven City Council members objected to the temporary ban, concerned that it could hurt property values.

But Mayor Carl Morehouse said that regardless of Wal-Mart's proposal, it was time to spell out what developers can do along Victoria Avenue, one of the city's widest and busiest corridors.

"Developers like clarity, so we better be clear about what we want there," Morehouse said. "Wal-Mart can decide whether to play by our rules after we have defined them."

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