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Home Depot drops bid to open store in Sunland-Tujunga

The company's plan to move into an empty Kmart had faced stiff opposition from residents. The move was prompted by difficulties at City Hall and the economic downturn, a representative said.

January 08, 2009|David Zahniser

Hardware giant Home Depot said Wednesday that it has given up on an expensive and hard-fought campaign to open a store in Sunland-Tujunga, dropping its lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and ending a five-year push to move into an empty Kmart building despite noisy opposition.

A representative of Home Depot said the decision was prompted by the company's ongoing difficulties at City Hall and the recent downturn in the national economy.

"It's just not a good time," said Home Depot spokeswoman Kathryn Gallagher. "We're still opening new stores. We're just being a lot more conservative about where we're opening those new stores."

For years, Home Depot representatives had been engaged in something resembling a grudge match with opponents of the proposal to move into a vacant building on Foothill Boulevard.

Foes had set up a website to track Home Depot's every move in the community, arguing that a new store would flood their neighborhood with traffic and reduce parking on nearby streets. Opponents also mobilized hundreds of people to turn out for meetings on the project, including a marathon seven-hour session that turned into a shouting match over day laborers and immigration.

Home Depot, in turn, had retained a team of expensive lobbyists who arranged for buses to transport supporters to meetings at City Hall. In 2006, one of those lobbyists sent a memo promising to feed and transport 150 people in orange T-shirts to a City Council hearing where they would appear in favor of Home Depot -- at a cost of $24,000 to the company.

When the council voted to demand that Home Depot carry out an environmental impact report, the company filed a lawsuit accusing Councilwoman Wendy Greuel of improperly interfering with the project. On Wednesday, Greuel said she considered that lawsuit "frivolous," adding that she only wanted the company to follow the city's planning procedures.

"At all points on this matter, I called on the expertise of our planning department to review this with an objective eye," Greuel said. "And their conclusion was that [Home Depot] had not followed the rules."

Opponents of the project were jubilant over the announcement, saying they had stood up not just to a nationwide chain, but to some of the city's most powerful lobbyists. The company paid more than $2 million to lobbying firms -- Latham & Watkins, Dakota Communications, and Guerra & Associates, according to Ethics Commission records.

"We've put our heart and souls into this," said Abby Diamond, a board member with the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance, which opposed Home Depot. "It's a great outcome. We just hope now that we can find a developer who will develop the site in a way that suits the community's needs."

In a letter sent Wednesday to community leaders, Jeff Nichols, Home Depot's real estate director for its Western region, said the company will now look for a tenant to rent out the Kmart building. Nichols thanked the company's supporters and said he still believes the lawsuit was justified.

"However, given the steps required by the city to move forward with our remodel project, it simply no longer makes business sense for the company to pursue this project," he wrote.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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