Walnut Creek Referendum on Neiman Marcus (2009)
Opponents of the Neiman Marcus development collected signatures, for the second time in a year, to oppose the Walnut Creek City Council's approval of the expansion plans of Neiman Marcus. They are organized in a group called RAMPART, which stands for "Residents and Advocates for More Parking and Reduced Traffic."
However, the Walnut Creek City Council declined to put the referendum measure on the ballot, instead putting Walnut Creek Measure I on the November 3, 2009 ballot. On September 1, a Superior Court judge rebuked the city council, and ordered them to put the referendum measure on the ballot. However, the deadline for certifying a measure for the November 3 ballot has passed. The city council will therefore have to put the measure on a special election ballot after November 3. The city council is also considering an appeal of the judge's decision.
Walnut Creek, located in Contra Costa County, has a population of about 65,300. Neiman Marcus would like to build an expanded retail presence in the currently vacant former David M. Brian store. they've proposed a two-story, 35-foot-high building and a parking garage with 175 free spaces.
Two anti-Neiman referenda
RAMPART, the Taubman-backed group opposing a Neiman Marcus expansion at Broadway Center, circulated two veto referendum petitions challenging decisions of the Walnut Creek City Council:
- One petition asked voters to put a measure on the ballot that seeks to overturn the city council's approval of the Neiman Marcus project.
- A second petition asked voters to put a measure on the ballot that seeks to overturn the city council's approval of a development agreement between the city and Macerich, which owns Broadway Plaza.
Signatures on both referenda were turned into election officials and were validated as sufficient. However, the city declined to place the measures on the ballot.
Neiman Marcus supporters
A group called "Yes for Walnut Creek" is in favor of the Neiman Marcus expansion. This group unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade residents of Walnut Creek from signing the referendum petition through a petition blocking campaign. Among other activities, the group sponsored a robocall from former Mayor Gwen Regalia asking people not to sign the anti-Neiman Marcus petitions.
Chuck Davis is the vice-president of development for Macerich, the company that owns Broadway Plaza. He said, "We hoped the outpouring of community support for the new plan would be enough to convince Taubman to stop interfering in the decisions that should be left up to Walnut Creek's residents and leaders. We expect, however, that this time it will be much more difficult for Taubman....But if it happens, we are prepared to fight for the future of Walnut Creek and Broadway Plaza. It's just too important to let a rival developer set the course of this community for generations to come."
Store owners in Broadway Plaza and other supporters of expanded retail opportunities in Walnut Creek filed ballot language and collected signatures on a ballot initiative that competes with the anti-Neiman Marcus ballot measures. Measure I will authorize a 92,000-square-foot "anchor retail building" to be built at Mt. Diablo Boulevard and South Main Street, the site of Broadway Plaza. If that is approved, Neiman Marcus intends to take up that slot.
Former arts commissioner Carole Wynstra, former Mayor Gwen Regalia and Rossmoor resident David Smith filed the wording for the proposed initiative. Wynstra said, "A key purpose of this initiative is to preserve the retail vitality of Walnut Creek ... and make sure decisions about Walnut Creek's future are made by Walnut Creek residents."
"Right to vote" initiative
Walnut Creek residents organized in the group RAMPART ("Residents and Advocates for More Parking and Reduced Traffic"), the same group that circulated two veto referendum petitions opposing the city council's approval of the Broadway Plaza developed, have also now filed a 21-page initiative in that will, if approved, give the city's voters a direct say on any proposed developments in the city over a certain size. Such developments would have to go on a city-wide ballot for voter approval, according to this initiative.
According to Selma King, an organizer of this initiative, "What we are hoping is it will wake people up, especially the City Council ... and make them realize people are unhappy. You can send messages out and say 'fix this.'
Some of this details of this initiative include:
- Any proposed retail project at or over 40,000-square feet in the "retail gateway area" would have to go on the ballot for a vote of the people.
- Height limits in the retail area can't change without a vote of the people.
- Physical parking spaces must be built for development at or over 40,000 square feet. Valet or mechanical parking lifts could not be used or considered as new parking.
Opponents believe that this "right-to-vote-on-development" initiative is aimed at Broadway Plaza but would have negative ramifications for all development in Walnut Creek. Walnut Creek developer Brian Hirahara says that if this initiative gets on the ballot and passes, it will shut down development in the city.
Hirahara also believes that this proposed initiative:
- Encourages strip mall development
- Will "destroy the quaintness and character of our downtown and force retailers and jobs into neighboring retail districts such as San Ramon."
Rival developer Taubman Centers has spent $224,337 in 2009 on its efforts to qualify two referenda intended to block the Neiman-Marcus development from going ahead. Taubman funds RAMPART ("Residents and Advocates for More Parking and Reduced Traffic"). As of August 5, 2009, it had given the group $169,000 and had $54,000 in unpaid bills. Taubman is the only donor to this group, as of early August. Taubman also spent $95,000 in 2008 on a different effort. Of the funds spent by Taubman in 2009, $154,000 went to paid circulators.
Macerich spent $217,803 to qualify an initiative for the ballot. A different group, "Yes for Walnut Creek", that supports the Neiman-Marcus idea, spent about $33,000.
How initiatives get on the ballot
Once the language has been filed, Walnut Creek's city attorney must review it. Once the attorney has said that the language is suitable, circulators have 180 days to collect the signatures of 15% of Walnut Creek voters.
According to Joe Mathews of Blockbuster Democracy, petition signature collectors in Walnut Creek "say they are being paid $4 for each signature they collect outside retail establishments -- and $10 (yes, you read that right) a signature for door-to-door work. Those are among the highest payments for work on a local petition that I've ever seen in California."
- Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek
- Website of "Yes for Walnut Creek"
- Website of RAMPART
- Walnut Creek website, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce
- Mercury News, "Neiman Marcus referendum drive hits Walnut Creek", May 26, 2009
- Mercury News, "Residents wading through Neiman Marcus ballot measure signature campaigns", July 1, 2009
- Contra Costa Times, "Judge rules Walnut Creek gave unfair advantage to Neiman Marcus supporters", September 1, 2009
- Examiner, "The push for Neiman Marcus in Walnut Creek: Chamber of Commerce's shove?", July 22, 2009
- Contra Costa Times, "Broadway Plaza owners want voters to decide on Neiman Marcus", June 8, 2009
- Mercury News, "Initiative would give voters power over downtown development", June 25, 2009
- Contra Costa Times, "Big money spent on Neiman Marcus battle in Walnut Creek", August 4, 2009
- Blockbuster Democracy, "The Walnut Creek Windfall", July 3, 2009