Thursday, July 24, 2008
The massive Soledad Plaza project, which includes a 212,500-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, suffers from two major flaws: It’s the wrong size, and in the wrong place. All of its negative impacts are scale-related. Whenever a project needs 6-foot berms and 6-foot sound walls, you know it’s a poorly chosen location.
The project sits on the northern edge of the city where the views are of agricultural fields, and of the mountain ranges to the east and west. Not only will this site draw shoppers away from Soledad’s downtown, it will draw almost 20,000 car trips on a typical Saturday to the major residential areas abutting the site. The project would lie only 42 feet from Nielsen’s Trailer Park, and the truck bays would be 54 feet from the edge of San Vicente Road.
The windowless back wall of the building, where the loading docks and storage containers would be, is all the homes across San Vicente would see. The building would throw noise and glare from 30-foot light poles into the neighborhood, 24/7.
The Soledad General Plan says the land is in an “entry commercial expansion area,” but residents just call it home. Ask homeowners along Gabilan Drive or Goldenrod Street if they knew a “regional commercial retail center” would translate into a project bigger than seven football fields, plus a parking lot that will hold 2,000 cars. If the proposal goes forward, these neighbors will lose. Their property values will show the loss. These homeowners are called “sensitive receptors” in the city’s study of the project. I would call them victims in a multimillion dollar land-use deal.
THE PROJECT WOULD BE A KICK IN THE TEETH TO THE DOWNTOWN.
Soledad has developed a rationale for embracing super projects: “We are the fastest-growing city within California.” But many communities have learned the hard way that it’s not how big you grow that matters, but how you grow big. Soledad only has 27,000 people. The Soledad site would be a “fill-in” store, designed to expand the retailer’s dominance in Monterey County. Salinas, with 145,000 people, got the main regional store. Now Wal-Mart wants to expand its Salinas store into a supercenter, too. Because California has no regional land-use planning, cities like Soledad, Gonzales, and Greenfield are left to steal away each other’s malls.
Soledad Plaza would be 415,000 square feet of stores– a total of 14 retail stores and 11 fast-food restaurants. The Wal-Mart would include a 50,000-square-foot grocery store. All of the plaza project would sit on what now is 45.7 acres of prime farmland. Although the city’s open space policy says Soledad should “discourage leapfrog development” and “avoid adverse effects on agricultural operations,” Wal-Mart’s greenbacks speak louder than green leaf lettuce.
The environmental impact report for the project concludes that Soledad Plaza would result in an unavoidable loss of prime agricultural land; visual impacts on residents living next to the site; air quality impacts resulting from exceeding emissions thresholds for pollutants; noise impacts on residents near the site; and impacts on traffic circulation on local roads and Highway 101.
It also would be a kick in the teeth for downtown, which the EIR says will have to be “re-tenanted… as it transitions away from its historic function.” In other words, the downtown’s future is in T-shirt shops and boutique stores. The Wal-Mart Supercenter would only draw 29 percent of its customers from Soledad, which doesn’t have the population base to support a superstore. Most of Wal-Mart’s sales would come from downtown merchants in Soledad and surrounding communities, like the Supermax in Gonzales, and the Wal-Mart in Salinas. Yes, Wal-Mart cannibalizes its own stores. They bring no added value to Soledad, because they make nothing, and sell mostly Chinese imports. Planners admit the superstore would damage or force closure of existing grocery stores, drug stores and hardware stores. There would be a spike in demand on police and fire services. These malls are not only convenient for shoppers, but for criminals, too.
There is a simple solution. State law requires the developer to present “reasonable alternatives” to the plaza project. The Draft EIR suggests a “reduced-scale project” that it says is “environmentally superior.” The city’s consultants proposed to cut the building footprints in half to 200,000 square feet, which they say would lower impacts on aesthetics, noise, and traffic, plus create “greater flexibility in site design.” This smaller-scale project would cut traffic by 10,161 car trips on a Saturday. Wal-Mart builds 99,000-square-foot superstores today– so this alternative is reasonable.
There are more than 4,000 Wal-Marts, and only one Soledad, Calif. Which would you rather protect?