Pleasanton council OKs Walmart grocery store, but union appeal likely
Bid to move into vacant Nob Hill space could face lengthy public hearings
New grocery stores have opened in Pleasanton in recent years without much fanfare, and more are coming.
But for Walmart, which took its bid to the Pleasanton City Council on Tuesday night to open one of its Neighborhood Markets in the long-vacant Nob Hill supermarket at Santa Rita Road and Stoneridge Drive, the process is becoming much more difficult.
More than 150 packed the council chamber to support Walmart's application or oppose it in an hour of public comment that was about evenly divided in its position. In the end, however, council members voted 4-1 to approve a zoning administrator's recommendation to allow Walmart to move into the Nob Hill store and start selling groceries.
But not so fast. Councilman Matt Sullivan voted against the recommendation. And while the other four on the council voted in favor, their vote came after City Attorney Jonathan Lowell explained in detail that their approval could be appealed within 15 days, a move that would require the plan to go before the Planning Commission for public hearings and then possibly back to the council for another vote.
An appeal by opponents of Walmart, which is expected, would delay the final decision at least two months to give the Walmart application more time for public review. As explained by Lowell, if someone appeals Tuesday's night's council decision by Feb. 15, then the measure will go to the city Planning Commission for a public hearing, which must be held within 40 days of the appeal.
If the Planning Commission's decision is appealed, again which is expected, the issue will return to the City Council for a full public hearing and, eventually, a vote.
Later in the meeting, the council decided in a 3-2 informal vote against considering a proposal advanced by Sullivan to require all new retail businesses to undergo more scrutiny before receiving operating permits. That could include environmental impact reviews and public hearings.
Councilwoman Cheryl Cook-Kallio liked the idea but the three others on the council said they were against considering it for the time being.
The council's decision Tuesday night makes it likely that Walmart won't have an answer on its Nob Hill bid before late spring or early summer.
A likely appeal of the City Council's decision Tuesday night also makes it likely that the 150 who spent more than an hour at that meeting, including the 20 who actually addressed the council, will have to do it all over again to keep their momentum before both the Planning Commission and City Council.
The delay didn't please Tom Foley, the property manager of Meadow Plaza Shopping Center where the empty Nob Hill store is located.
"Since Nob Hill Foods closed in 2010, our center has been without an anchor tenant," he said. "We have worked hard to find a business to locate in the vacant building. We are very pleased that the Walmart Neighborhood grocery has stepped up."
Foley said that since Nob Hill closed, smaller businesses at Meadow Plaza have closed with the vacancy rate now 67% there and 30% at the adjoining Santa Rita Center on the Stoneridge Drive side of the shopping and service business complex.
"Other chain grocery stores are now trying to organize people to oppose the project," he added.
Indeed, nearly a third of those at Tuesday night's council meeting wore bright yellow lapel stickers reading: "Give our Pleasanton a voice! No Wal-Mart."
A union steward stood outside the Civic Center door leading to the council chamber checking in those who had agreed to support the effort by several unions to deny the Walmart application.
Josie Camacho, secretary/treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, told the council that she represents thousands of unionized workers throughout the region whose jobs would be threatened by a Walmart Neighborhood Market. At her request, about 20 who said they are unionized employees at Safeway stood to be recognized.
Other union representatives urging the council to schedule a public hearing on the Walmart plan included Brenda Wood, the business agent for the Pleasanton City Employees Association, a union that represents 227 city workers. One union representative, who said he is the president of the Alameda County Labor Council, reminded council members that their votes will be considered in the upcoming municipal elections Nov. 6.
But just as many who spoke at Tuesday night's council meeting supported Walmart's plan to reopen the Nob Hill store as a Neighborhood Market. One man waved a flier he had received at home from an unidentified source asking him to go to the council meeting to protest the Walmart plan. He asked who is sending out those mailings which, he said, contain erroneous information.
Carolyn Frederick owns a small retail business in the Meadow Plaza center. When Nob Hill closed, fewer customers came to the center, she told the council.
"It's been 18 months without an anchor store at this center," she said. "Everyone I've surveyed wants a grocery store to come back there. This is a huge opportunity for us; I can hardly wait."
"More groceries, more jobs," said another speaker.
"I live close to the old Nob Hill store and see no reason why there shouldn't be another one there," said another.
Walmart representatives also spoke at the meeting, including one woman who is now a marketing manager. She said she joined Walmart right out of high school and has been promoted regularly.
"It's a great place to work," she said. "I've watched many people build great careers at Walmart."
Foley said other grocery stores have opened in Pleasanton over the last several years without much fanfare or opposition. These include Fresh & Easy, Ranch 99, Smart & Final, Safeway and an expansion of Trader Joe's. New Leaf, a Santa Cruz market, is expected to open soon in the former Romley's supermarket in the Vintage Hills Shopping Center.
Still, it was clear going into their Tuesday night meeting that council members were looking for a legal way to delay, or possibly later block, Walmart's bid for a Neighborhood Market in Pleasanton. Lowell told them in a closed-door meeting how an appeal of a decision on the zoning administrator's recommendation to allow the new store could force the issue back to the Planning Commission for a full public hearing, with the same procedure coming back to the council at a later date.
Since Tuesday night's measure about Walmart was on the council's consent calendar only, not on its publicized agenda, council members could not discuss the merits of the Walmart proposal, only the zoning administrator's recommendation. Still, by their comments, it seemed clear that Councilman Matt Sullivan will oppose the Walmart Neighborhood Market if and when the plan comes back before the council, as he did in voting against Safeway's petition to build its Lifestyle supermarket at Bernal and Valley avenues, which is now open.
Councilwoman Cindy McGovern, on the other hand, indicated her support of Walmart's bid.
First opened in 1998, there are now 167 Walmart Neighborhood Markets in the U.S., each employing about 95 associates. A typical store is about 42,000 square feet, although the Nob Hill store would offer only about 30,000 square feet.
Walmart is also seeking an operating permit in San Ramon for a Neighborhood Market that would also occupy a vacant former grocery store.