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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on June 26th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 16 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 16

Downtown discount debate

Santa Maria City Council fights over the virtues of bargains, location, and the big picture

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

What’s big, empty, and has the potential to house a business in the next few months—but might not?

It could be one of many storefronts in Santa Maria, but this particular building has 86,000 square feet of space to fill and has sat vacant across the street from the downtown mall for five years.

Dave Cross from the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce explained to City Council members at their June 18 meeting that the chamber has struggled to find a business willing to take on the space since Mervyn’s went out of business in 2008. 

But in March of this year, National Stores Inc. bought the spot and started working with the city to move a Fallas Discount Store into the hollow where Mervyn’s once stood. For the last two months, the permitting process has been at a standstill while the city argues with itself over whether or not to hold out for something a bit more upscale. 

“Under the circumstances that exist today, [and] recognizing that this building has been empty for years, I don’t see turning down Fallas with the hope that something better will come along [as an option],” Cross said at the meeting. “The history and facts don’t support that view.” 

The Planning Commission approved Fallas’s operating permit in April. However, the fate of the store hinges on the City Council’s decision-making skills because of a provision in the Downtown Specific Plan that gives the council final say on which businesses can move into buildings in the downtown area that are larger than 5,000 square feet.

And however promising it might sound to put a business where there isn’t one, the overall package for Fallas isn’t that simple. For some Santa Marians, it’s about more than just business, jobs, and tax revenue; it’s about the legacy of discount retailers, the Downtown Specific Plan, and the future of what businesses in Santa Maria’s town center should look like.

Community residents, business owners, and City Council members argued points on both sides during the June 18 meeting. The discussion culminated with a 3-2 vote in favor of continuing the decision until Aug. 6 so city staff could come up with sound legal reasons to deny the project. Council members Jack Boysen and Terri Zuniga supported the discount store’s plan, while council members Willie Green and Bob Orach and Mayor Alice Patino wanted to deny it.

An option to place a moratorium on “bargain basement” stores in the downtown area was also discussed, but nothing was decided.

Those opposed to the project felt Fallas—billed as a discount department store—isn’t up to snuff with the Nordstrom-type store envisioned for the mall and its surrounding area.

 “I suggest that these types of stores are not the types of stores we want to bring into our downtown corridor,” longtime city resident Nancy Stewart said during the public comment portion of the discussion. “This is not a department store. This is another thrift store.” 

Stewart pointed to Peppertree Plaza on the north end of town as something the city doesn’t need more of. She called the area an “uncared for” discount mall. Council member Orach echoed Stewart’s view that a run-down discount store wasn’t wanted. He showed meeting attendees photos he took after visiting Fallas stores in Bakersfield and San Jose.

“There was a world of difference between the two,” Orach said during the meeting. “My concern is I’ve seen one side and then the other.”

Orach’s pictures of the not-so-glamorous side of the retailer depicted truck tires and trash spread around outside the Bakersfield store. He juxtaposed that image with photos of orderly, colorful clothing racks and displays in one of the retailer’s newer stores in San Jose. His fear is, of course, seeing the less-elegant version of the store in Santa Maria, should the council push the project through.

National Stores Inc. owner and president Michael Fallas assured council members that the days of lackluster store presentation were in the past.

“That’s not where we’re going as a company and that’s not where we’re headed,” Fallas said at the meeting. “We are interested in getting better. That’s the whole purpose of National Stores.”

He referenced the city staff’s report, which recommended approving the project, and the 15 conditions placed on the project when the Planning Commission approved it.

Kate Neiswender, an attorney representing the company, told the council National Stores Inc. agreed to meet all the extra conditions laid out by city staff and said the buyer already had the temporary permit required to start work on the interior. She said the project is consistent with the goals and objectives in the Downtown Specific Plan, and that there’s no real reason why the council should deny the store an operating permit. 

“This was clear in the Planning Commission staff report, which somehow changed in the past two months to indicate that instead of being consistent [with the downtown plan], it is inconsistent, yet nothing has changed for Fallas,” Neiswender said. “There’s been no change in who Fallas is and why they’re coming to Santa Maria.”

She went on to point out that the company has already invested millions of dollars in the building and is committed to making the store the best it can be and a good fit for the community.

Although there’s a possibility the permit could be denied in August, construction on the building’s interior is continuing. On June 21, workers from Whitehawk Construction were ripping up carpet upstairs, while the newly polished floor reflected the freshly painted white walls downstairs. 

Larry Appel from Santa Maria’s Community Development Department told the Sun the Fallas permit could still go through. The City Council will have another chance to vote on Aug. 6. 

“Staff believed it was consistent with the downtown plan, but three members of council believed differently,” Appel said. “They would essentially rather have an empty building than have a Fallas in it.”

Contact Staff Write Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.