SOME NEIGHBOR Even Walmart's fiercest opponents concede the planned 'neighborhood market' in Rohnert Park fills a need.
Rohnert Park's Pacific Market didn't live to see if it could defeat Walmart. The local grocery closed its doors for good in 2011, even before a judge ruling in favor of environmental and living-wage groups temporarily halted the neighboring big box store's expansion. A little salt now being rubbed in the wound is Walmart's plan to open a "neighborhood market" in the former Pacific Market space in the fall of 2014, and it still plans to expand its current store.
The irony cuts deep after one understands the backstory. Pacific Market was floundering. Hit hard by the recession, the store had trouble filling its shelves. Even employees saw the writing on the wall. In what was perhaps a last-ditch effort, owners petitioned a study from Sonoma State University showing that if the city approved the nearby Walmart's expansion plan into a supercenter (thus adding a grocery section), the market would be forced to close and hundreds of surrounding jobs would be lost. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups resulted in a ruling that the project's environmental impact report needed revision. Supercenter: halted.
The expansion was originally rejected by the planning commission, 4–0, but was then overturned on appeal by the city council. Jake Mackenzie, the sole dissenting vote in that 2010 vote, still sits on the council. But he is likely to be outnumbered, with at least three fellow council members having cast votes in favor of Walmart in the past.
After a couple years of back and forth between lawyers, all had been quiet since March, when the council voted to acquiesce to Walmart's request to revise the EIR for its supercenter expansion. Rohnert Park city manager Darrin Jenkins says that revised report is now nearly finished, and will probably be in front of the planning commission early next year. From there, it will likely head to the city council for final approval before any construction begins.
But that has no effect on the new store, and with the neighborhood market planned to open in fall 2014, Walmart will be overseeing two construction projects within just two miles of each other.
As far as the city is concerned, that's just fine. "We don't regulate brands," says Jenkins. Unlike the expansion, this project does not require new construction, and therefore does not require special permits or an EIR. "It was a grocery store, it's going to be a grocery store," adds Jenkins. "There's no change in use." That also means there is less for opponents to gnaw at to slow down the process, but it doesn't mean they won't try.
"They don't have any regulatory hoops they have to jump through to get into this spot," says Marty Bennett, co-chair of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County, which has sued to stop Walmarts opening in the past. "In part, that's why they've rolled out 'smallmarts,'" he says, using a derisive term for the neighborhood markets, "to get around coalitions like us."
Despite the opposition, the new store does have its champions, including Rohnert Park council member Pam Stafford, who was quoted in a Walmart press release welcoming the new store. Other businesses in the center also welcome the new anchor tenant. Jenkins, who lives near the shopping center, said he has heard positive comments from residents who will no longer have to drive across town for groceries. Even Bennett had to admit that, for the location, the store is a good fit. "To be fair, this shopping center does need an anchor tenant, and Walmart is obviously filling a need," he says, before adding a caveat. "But the paradox is, in part they're responsible for the problems of that shopping center."
Rick Luttmann, a member of the Living Wage Coalition who lives just two blocks from the market site, has conflicting feelings about the store. "We would definitely prefer another option, but nobody's asking us," he says, adding that he and many others wished the rumor of Trader Joe's moving in had come to fruition. "Its good that a grocer is moving in there, I just wish it wasn't Walmart."
No matter what happens, there will still be opposition to the nation's largest and most controversial big-box store. "We're in for the long haul here," says Bennett, who pointed out that Walmart is heading into its fifth year attempting to expand its Rohnert Park store. "Every day that Walmart does not build, it's a victory for us."