Major Retail Project Approved In Commerce

July 7, 2016 by · 3 Comments 

After six-hours of heated debate over the building of a controversial retail center in Commerce, the City Council approved two resolutions early Wednesday that will allow the project to move forward.

The proposed project runs along Washington Boulevard, from the 710 Freeway to Atlantic Boulevard, and from Washington Boulevard to Sheila Street. It will include four smaller individual buildings for retail stores and restaurants, and a Walmart box store as the anchor tenant.

While the council meeting started at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, it wasn’t until after midnight that the council ultimately voted 4-1 to adopt and certify the Final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Commerce Retail Center. Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo was the sole dissenting vote.

Lea este artículo en Español: Proyecto Controversial es Aprobado en Commerce

On a 3-2 vote, the council also approved development of the 142,997 square foot Commerce Retail Center, this time with Mayor Pro-Tem Tina Baca joining Rebollo in voting no.

City Council Chambers were jammed packed Tuesday with supporters and detractors of the project, leading to hours of public testimony after the presentations on the project by city staff, the developer, Gatwick Group LLC, and representatives of Walmart.

As the meeting went on, it was clear that the hot button issue was not necessarily the retail center itself, but the inclusion of Walmart as the development’s main tenant. Many of those who spoke on both sides of the issue were not residents of Commerce, but either employees of Walmarts in other cities or activists who are fundamentally opposed to Walmart, wherever they may be.

Supporters see the potential for increased revenue for the city and more jobs, while detractors attempted to paint the big box retailer as unscrupulous and bad to its workers.

Explaining his support for the project, Commerce Mayor Ivan Altamirano told EGP he sees the new center as a win-win situation for the city.

“The land is contaminated and no one wanted to clean it up because it was too expensive,” he explained. “Only one entity said ‘yes, we will clean it up,’ and that was Walmart,” Altamirano said.

“It would have been irresponsible of me to allow that land to stay contaminated. It took confidence to possibly stand alone in my decision, and the courage to make the tough decision that I made,” he told EGP.

Resident Erika Bojorquez disagrees that the development is good for the city. She told the council bringing Walmart, with its “bad reputation,” works against the city’s “Model City” motto.

“People talk about the donations Walmart makes, but why don’t they donate living wages to employees,” she said, drawing applause from the audience.

Commerce City Council Chambers was jammed packed with people wanting to speak on plans that would bring Walmart to Commerce. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Commerce City Council Chambers was jammed packed with people wanting to speak on plans that would bring Walmart to Commerce. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Small business owner Michael Belgan said his 52-year-old company will go out of business if   Walmart is built, costing his 12 employees their jobs.

“My little company’s employees make about $40,000 a year, and that’s way more than what Walmart will pay,” he told the council.
Several other speakers said Walmart is a bad neighbor because they pay low wages and take advantage of people in need of jobs.

Everything sounds good, drawings and video are great, but how many people from Commerce will actually be hired? Commerce resident Richard Hernandez wanted to know.

“You [have to] negotiate with these people. We are depending on you” to get them to hire locally, he told council members.

Walmart opening in Commerce will revitalize the city, the company’s Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations Javier Angulo said Tuesday. He cited a substantial reduction in the number of daily diesel truck trips, cleaning of the contaminated industrial site and an additional $600,000-$800,000 in annual revenue to the city’s general fund as benefits from Walmart opening in the industrial city.

“We want to be the anchor tenant…we are in it for the long term,” he said.

Sal Lopez works at the Downey Walmart and said the company has been great to him. “I have been with Walmart for over 10 years,” he said. “Walmart has a training program, bonuses according to performance” and other benefits, he said responding to criticism of the retailer’s employment practices.

You talk about the positive, but what about the negative, demanded Mayor Pro Tem Baca del Rio. “Look at what happened in Pico Rivera,” she said, referring to the closing of the Pico Rivera Walmart.

The store in Pico Rivera was old and it had plumbing problems, said Angulo. “Now we have higher participation in the store and our associates are very happy,” he told the council.

Jessica Piedra was one of the workers displaced when the Pico Rivera store closed down with little notice, and says the company supported her during the transition. “When the Pico Rivera store closed they sent me to the Baldwin Park location and when the store reopened I was interviewed to be brought back to Pico Rivera,” she said.

Opponents claim the real reason the store was closed was because workers had started to unionize.

Mayor Altamirano asked Gatwick representatives about their hiring plans during construction.

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

“You don’t hire unions. You outsource from other states. How do we ensure the construction of this project stays local?” he asked.

Gatwick is very committed to working with the city as much as we can to hire locally, responded the developer’s attorney, Morgan Wazlaw with Rutan and Tucker.

Council approval of the project, despite their own criticism of Walmart’s business practices and “overwhelming” community opposition, is embarrassing, Mark Lopez, co-director of Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice told EGP, adding “The fight is not over.”

One of the speakers before the vote, however, pointed to a time years ago when there was opposition to another big commercial project in the city, the Commerce Casino.

People at the time thought it would drag down the city, draw prostitutes to the city, but that didn’t happen, pointed out the speaker.

Today the Commerce Casino is one of the largest tax generators for the city, she pointed out.

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Twitter @jackiereporter

jgarcia@egpnews.com

Commerce Council Votes on Retail Ctr Project Tuesday

June 2, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The Commerce City Council is expected to vote June 7 on whether or not to allow construction of the Commerce Retail Center Project on Washington Boulevard. The proposed development will include a “Big Box” store, with a Walmart store being the expected tenant.

The proposed project runs along Washington, from the 710 Freeway to Atlantic Boulevard, and from Washington Boulevard to Sheila Street. It includes a 122,450-square-foot “Major Anchor” retail store, with adjoining restaurants and other retail spaces.

Opponents to the Walmart store told EGP they are organizing to voice their concerns against the project.

“We reject the whole project,” Mark Lopez, director of Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) told EGP Tuesday.

First, this is a contaminated site that has not been fully cleaned, and second, the location collides with the I-710 Corridor Project, he said.

Others in the community, however, see the development, and a Walmart store in particular, as positive for the local economy.

In a letter to EGP, Ken Merriam, director of Commerce-based Mohave Foods, writes that the “majority of the residents and businesses in Commerce support retail progress in the City of Commerce and the jobs and tax revenue that a retail complex of this magnitude would generate for the city.”

He goes on to point out that many of the jobs created by the development will go to local residents, adding that the revenue generated would “provide an increase in critically needed public services like police and fire protections to its residents and businesses.”

The voting will take place during the regular bimonthly City Council meeting at City Hall. People interested in providing input will be able to speak during the public comment at the start of the meeting, 6:30pm.

Proposed Retail Center Splits Commerce

April 7, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A proposal to build a retail complex that could include a big box type retail store on Washington Boulevard near the 710 Long Beach Freeway in the City of Commerce is drawing heat from a local environmental group, at the same time others in the city say the development will bring needed jobs and added revenue to the city.

Plans for the for the proposed Commerce Retail Center Project on Washington, running from the 710 Freeway to Atlantic Boulevard, and from Washington Boulevard to Sheila Street, include a 122,450-square-foot “Major Anchor” retail store, with adjoining restaurants and other retail spaces.

Lea este artículo en Español: Centro Comercial Propuesto Divide a Residentes de Commerce

It would be built on land the city is selling as required under the state’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies across the state. The city is in escrow with Gatwick Group, LLC, however, the sale is contingent on approval of the retail project.

The city’s planning commission reviewed plans for the proposed development, but last week split 2-2 on whether or not to recommend approval to the city council. One of the five commissioners recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest.

Speculation among the project’s opponents is that the project applicant, Venture Retail Group, plans to lease the site to Walmart, although no specific retailer is named in the project, only a description that describes a retail format found at many of Walmart’s larger stores.

Planning Commissioner Mike Alvarado told EGP he strongly supports the project, saying it would again make Commerce a “Model City,” a reference to the city’s motto.

“The city, as it is now, looks horrible, it is decaying,” Alvarado told EGP, explaining that revenue generated from the development would help pay for repairs to streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure put off for years.

Opponents, however, say the land is too contaminated with toxic chemicals spread by the now closed Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon and past industrial uses. It is “irresponsible” to move forward without first creating a cleanup plan, says Mark Lopez, director of Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

The property was once home to a heavy machinery business, according to Lopez. Toxic materials, percholorethylene (PCE) and tetrachloroethylene (TCE), that could affect movement and control of the body, can be found on the site, Lopez said.

A final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Commerce Retail Center Project was released on March 3 of this year and is waiting approval. Lopez believes the review of potential environmental issues, including health hazards has been inadequate.

He says the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) hasn’t yet characterized the elevated levels of soil contamination, adding the organization does not “trust” DTSC to do an adequate oversight job given the agency’s failures in the Exide contamination issue.

DTSC however, citing its “great deal of experience and expertise overseeing the investigation and cleanup of these types of properties across the state,” told EGP in an email statement that the agency is using its “expertise to ensure the work at the Gatwick site in the City of Commerce is done properly so property is safe for its planned use.”

View of site for proposed retail development at Washington and Atlantic boulevards. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

View of site for proposed retail development at Washington and Atlantic boulevards. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

The agency said it has reviewed and evaluated the developer’s risk assessment and cleanup plans and “sent our comments back to the developer for revision,” DTSC spokesperson Sandy Nax told EGP.

“In addition, the developer has recently acquired a new land parcel within the same block from the City of Commerce. DTSC has required investigation of the subsurface soil in the new parcel and the Proponent will be conducting soil sampling soon.”

East Yards and others also say they are concerned the project could negatively impact the I-710 Corridor Project to improve an 18-mile stretch of the I-710 from Long Beach to the Pomona 60 Freeway in East Los Angeles. The goal of the 710 project is to “improve air quality/public health, improve traffic safety, modernize the freeway design” to accommodate projected growth in the area.

The project has been under review for years, and at one time contained a proposal to take upwards of 100 homes in the Ayers neighborhood to make room for the expansion. If built, the retail center would be located near the 710 Freeway where Lopez said they fought to locate the new northbound off-ramp to avoid the taking of the Ayers neighborhood.

“So part of our struggle was to redesign the project so it wouldn’t take those homes and what we did, instead of having the off-ramp [east of the freeway], it would come to the other side where they want to put the Walmart,” Lopez said, adding they know for a fact that a Walmart is slated to open on the site.

“So if they build a Walmart, who’s going to have better protections from the lawyers, Walmart or the homes?” asked Lopez.

Lauren Wonder, a spokesperson for Caltrans District 7, told EGP there is currently no project alignment for the I-710 project. Nothing has been decided, she said. “The time frame for the final environmental impact report is now early 2017.”

Until the final I-710 EIR is published, comments received and the document is finalized, any discussion of future impacts “will only be a speculation,” Commerce’s Publics Works Director Maryam Babaki told EGP.

Both Babaki and Alvarado say it could take 10 or more years to move the I-710 project, and the city can’t just wait until it does.

Alvarado said he has no problem if Walmart ultimately winds up being the anchor tenant, adding he wants a tenant that will attract more people and benefit other businesses in the area.

Commerce’s General Plan calls for service commercial, general commercial and light industrial uses in the area. A big box store, like Walmart or Target, could generate $600,000 to $800,000 in added revenue per year for the city, according to Maryam Babaki, Commerce’s director of Public Works.

Mayor Ivan Altamirano told EGP he hasn’t decided whether to support the project, saying, “this is not a decision to be taken lightly.”

“I want to know all the players and pieces of this project and quite frankly I don’t believe all of that information has been disclosed,” he said.

“Our community is actually divided on this project. It seems like everyone in the city is already calling this project Walmart except for the developers.”

Altamirano said several factors must be taken in consideration, such as the impact on traffic and the number of good paying jobs it will bring for residents. We also have to look at crime in the area, and whether there are enough sheriff deputies to patrol the area, he told EGP.

Alvarado told EGP the city is already working on traffic improvements in the area, including the widening of Washington Boulevard. The opponents are “a group of people that want to hold back progress of the community,” he said. He and others believe the real issue is opposition to Walmart.

East Yards calls Walmart’s employment track record “problematic,” claiming company workers earn low-wages and work too few hours to qualify for benefits, and has closed up stores with little notice to employees.

Alvarado doesn’t buy the argument, and points out that that other businesses in the area, including at the Citadel, only pay their employees the minimum wage and “nobody complains.”

A date has yet to be set for the project to go before the full city council for review, but it is likely to be within the next few weeks, said Alvarado.

Altamirano said that he will not be rushed into making a decision that will have such a significant impact on the community.

“Once all the information is provided then we can move forward on what is best for the residents of Commerce,” the mayor said.

“Those that don’t want a Walmart are rightfully concerned about the negative effects Walmart has historically had on communities. Those that are in favor of the project I believe really just want a shopping option, Walmart or not.”

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