July 21, 2009

Huggin' My Tree

We moved to Poway in July, some thirty-odd-years ago. It was as miserably hot and humid back then as it is now. The house was brand new and the yard was bare dirt. The week after we moved in we went to the store and purchased a tree and a Sunset Western Garden Book. We still have both of them.

The tree, according to the book, was a Liquidambar styraciflu, also known as American sweet gum tree. I wanted a tree that was deciduous and would have some autumn color. And some shade.

According to the book, young Liquidambers were "christmas tree" shaped, forming a canopy in their more mature years. A couple of years after we planted it, it was big enough and strong enough for the kids to climb up the trunk and pretend they were monkeys.
Eventually, our tree did form a canopy. Our tree now shades most of our western facing windows and a good portion of the back yard. Every July, I fall in love with my tree again. I forgive it for dropping hundreds of "corker balls" on the deck, in the grass and among all the other plants. I forget about having to rake up all the leaves, or prune the voracious roots that suck the life out of competing plants. The $600 I once spent to have the tree pruned when the canopy got too big and branches were breaking off seems worth it now. Every July, I remember why I love this tree so much.

Last week, my husband and I stopped by the Poway Library. The courtyard is uncovered and it has little protection against the seering heat. For the most part, the courtyard was empty. Nobody sat at one of the scattered tables. Nobody sat by the little water feature. One person lingered on a bench that was against a wall shaded by the building. But to be honest, that person was me.

While I was sitting on the bench, I noticed 2 liquidamber trees in pots near the entrance to the library meeting room. These trees have been here for a while- at least a year or two. I have pictures of them from last winter. Liquidambers are not typically grown in pots. Their roots need lots of room to expand. These pots are positioned over grates that look like they were intended for planting trees in the ground. Did someone forget about these trees? C'mon, tree-city-people get those liquidambers in the ground. Thirty-some years from now, you will be glad you did.

July 9, 2009

Wal-Mart and The Poway Road Specific Plan

Poway became a city in 1980. A few years later, the City formed a redevelopment agency and started planning an industrial park in the hills on the south side of Poway. Mary Shephardson, one of the original city councilmembers, once said that the Council was leery of the massive industrial park project, but that what clinched it for them was the east-west road (now called Scripps Poway Parkway) that was to be built through the industrial park that would relieve the traffic congestion on Poway Rd. As soon as Scripps Poway Parkway opened, all the Ramonans would drive on it instead of Poway Rd and our trips through town would be hunky dorey.

Why in the world did the city spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the massive industrial park development, a project they repeatedly said would relieve congestion on Poway Rd, only to turn around and approve the Wal-Mart project which would flood Poway Rd with lots of new traffic? Wal-Mart was never a shopping destination just for the locals in Poway. It was always an "economic tourist destination" meant to draw shoppers from a larger regional area that would enhance the city's sales tax coffers.

Wal-Mart opened in Poway in August 1992. Soon after Wal-Mart opened, the nearby K-Mart closed. But Wal-Mart's impact went further. While Wal-Mart was being built, the city was planning a "new commercial hub", "an identifiable town center", a place that "would create a sense of 'townness'". (SDUT 2/27/1992 pII-1) Mayor Jan Goldsmith said the new town center "would change the direction of the city."

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? But this was 1992, not 2008. The shopping center was not the current Town Center Redux but Creekside. The developers could not attract a major tenant to anchor the planned Creekside center, so they had to settle for a grocery store. One wonders if they would have even got a grocery store if they knew Wal-Mart planned to expand to sell groceries.

In the mid 1990s, the city laid out their "vision" for Poway Rd in a new planning document called "The Poway Road Specific Plan." One of the goals was a new town center. I guess Creekside just didn't measure up to all the hype. Other goals were to reduce congestion on Poway Rd, provide family oriented products and services, cut back on the surplus retail and create "an inter-connecting of commercial centers, public facilities and residential areas with enticing, attractive pedestrian walkways and driveways." (PRSP)

The PRSP was approved in 1996. All of the commercial property in the Poway Rd corridor was rezoned to a zone corresponding to one of the nodes of the specific plan. Wal-Mart and the adjacent commercial parcels were zoned "Town Center"(TC). In Sept, 1998, Wal-Mart wanted out of the PRSP. They wanted the zoning changed from TC to Commercial General (CG). On October 6, 1998, the City Council obliged. Wal-Mart and the adjacent parcel owned by McNamara, and the Plowboy's parcel were rezoned. They are the only commercial properties in the Poway Road corridor that are not part of the PRSP.

Does it matter? Well, if Wal-Mart was still in the PRSP, I imagine that their expansion would have required updating some elements that are inconsistent with the PRSP. For example, the PRSP requires "pedestrian pathways" that link commercial districts and residential areas. Currently, Wal-Mart has NO pedestrian access whatsoever. The only access is by vehicle. All of the sidewalks that surround the center end abruptly at the vehicular entrances. The plans for the expansion do show a single pedestrian ramp that will be constructed from Midland Rd to the entrance of Wal-Mart, but there are no pedestrian walkways from any of the other entry points.

I guess pedestrians and people in wheel chairs are just supposed to fly from the abutted sidewalk to the store entrance.

Wal-Mart would have to incorporate wider sidewalks around the perimeter under the PRSP and the portions of buildings adjacent to pedestrian areas would have to retain a comfortable "human" scale. Well, they don't call them "BIG BOX stores" for nothing.

The PRSP requires all parking lots that have more than 10 cars to have walkways from the parking areas to the main building. The walkways should be at least seven feet wide and shaded "by trees or vine covered pergolas." Currently, there are NO pedestrian walkways from the parking lot to the store entrances at Wal-Mart and none are visible on the expansion plans.

All new development and major rehabilitations in the Town Center zone are required to incorporate at least one pedestrian courtyard into the project. Something with water features, a gazebo, clock tower, something that invites people to linger. Here is what Wal-Mart has:

Poway's Wal-Mart is located in one of the densest residential areas of Poway. Yet, the welcome mat is only out for those who drive to Wal-Mart. A big box shopping center that caters to lots of car traffic and spurns pedestrians does not belong in the center of town. It is inconsistent with the surrounding residential and town center zones. Wal-Mart belongs in a non-residential area served by major roadways. Somewhere similar to where Home Depot and Costco are. If Wal-Mart were located up in the Industrial Park, it is likely that no one would give two hoots if it is open 24 hrs a day or if there is a line of cars and trucks a mile long waiting to get in. Heck, the people who live in Rancho Encantata, or whatever they call it now, have no retail or commercial whatsoever in their development. They can see Home Depot and Costco from their front porches. Why not put Wal-Mart up there and provide easy access for them to get to it? Without them having to drive on Poway Rd to get there?

If the City Council approves an expanded Wal-Mat in the center of town, they will have no excuse when they come back to us and want support for the Town Center Redux, with a pedestrian element that creates a town identity, blah, blah, blah. There will be no way anyone can interpret their motives as anything but another attempt to use land to create revenue and to hell with the people who live, work, play or have to drive through the area to get somewhere else to live, work or play.

Update: Jeffswpblog asks what reason Wal-Mart gave for wanting to change from TC zone to CG. I've added the staff report from the Sept 1, 1998 General Plan Amendment below.
The reasons are given on page 5:

The Poway Municipal Code identifies the Town Center zone as "intended to be the commercial center of the city and to accommodate various forms of general and specialty retail, dining and entertainment establishments and uses. The Poway Road Specific Plan indicates that this zone is intended to "serve as the focal point for government and entertainment uses." Poway Road Specific Plan design concepts are aimed at enhancing the pedestrian and architectural character of the district to provide and promote citizen interaction. The properties north of the Town and Country Shopping Center, however, are cut off from the core of the Town Center area by design of that center. Their ability to become part of the Town Center activity area is limited.

In other words, Wal-Mart is smack dab in the middle of downtown Poway, but it is an island of commercial activity unto itself, that is inconsistent with the rest of the commercial Poway Rd corridor BY DESIGN and they aren't interested in catering to any pedestrians who might live in the area either.

July 5, 2009

Taxpayer Money in the Chamber's Pot

I am not a teabagger. I do not think the world is coming to an end because I have to pay taxes. I prefer government to anarchy. But I get really irked when government uses taxpayer money to prop up businesses.

When it comes to business, I am pretty much of a purist. In a capitalist system, businesses are seeking to make money. I'm all for it. Competition, entrepreneurship, making a profit, it is all fine. When government and business get in bed together, that's when things get messed up.

In my last post I wrote about how skewed and screwed up the budget gets when redevelopment agencies offer incentives to selected businesses. I don't think it is in the public's interest for government to decide which businesses should leave town, and which should be bestowed with millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies. I'm also not too keen on governments, like our Poway City Council, handing out grant money to the local chambers of commerce. This year, the Poway Chamber is asking the Council for $36,300.Chamber Grant Request

The Poway Council started giving the Poway Chamber of Commerce a little pot of money many years ago. Originally, they gave them a share of the T.O.T. (transient occupancy taxes). At the time, the Chamber ran something called a "visitor enhancement" program. The visitors were "economic tourists", people the Chamber tried to get to come and shop in Poway. The program has changed only slightly over the years, but the grant for the Chamber is now coming out of redevelopment funds instead of T.O.T taxes.

I visited the Poway Chamber and asked President Luanne Hulsizer just what the grant was going to be used for. Ms Hulsizer, who was very cordial and professional gave me a document outlining the distribution of funds.
Of the $36,300 that the Chamber is asking for, $25,000 of it will go for administration, staffing, rent and supplies, in other words, a subsidy to the chamber. Another $2000 will go for the printing of "Shop Local" cards, $1400 for merchant decals, $1000 for printing a restaurant guide, $400 for membership in SD North Con/Vis, $3000 for the "State of the City" breakfast, $1500 for sponsorship of the Business Expo and another $1000 as an incentive to green businesses at the earth day festival. And $1000 for something that will be on "you-tube."

Most of the events, like the State of the City breakfast, the business expo, and the street fairs are actually fundraisers for the Chamber. According to the Chamber's 2007 IRS 990 tax return, they made $46,644 from the street fairs, $19,223 from the Business Expo, and $113 from Poway Days. No wonder the Chamber is no longer interested in sponsoring the Poway Days Parade; they are not making money off of it.

The goal of the Chamber is to "encourage and benefit the business community." They provide their members with the opportunity to network with each other and help them advertise themselves to the community. It is really about them, not us, the residents of Poway. And although they are subsidized by the city to promote the "Shop Poway" program, the Chamber does not always choose Poway first. This year's "State of the City" breakfast was held at Bernardo Heights Country Club. The Chamber's IRS forms are signed by a Rancho Bernardo tax accountant. And why not? The accountant and the Bernardo Heights Country Club are members of the Poway Chamber. Ms. Hulsizer said that about 60% of the members were Poway businesses, and about 40% were from somewhere else, mostly San Diego and other North County cities, although none of those cities help to subsidize the Poway Chamber. Poway does benefit from the regional interaction of the group members but they also lose business to competitors within the group that are located in other cities.

The grant will also help pay for a restaurant guide. The "guide" is a single sheet of paper with the names of restaurants and the name of the shopping center that they are located in. I've lived in Poway for over 30 years and I don't think I could name a half a dozen shopping centers in town to save my life. Just saying. I noticed that most of the restaurants in the guide are in Poway, with the exception of a handful, like, El Pollo Loco on Scripps Poway Pkwy and Panera Bread in Carmel Mtn Ranch. But who looks for a restaurant from a list on a piece of paper? My son got a new ipod phone recently. He showed me how he finds restaurants with his ipod application. He can see the location, the price range and the type of food served with a few clicks. That is how people shop for a place to eat nowadays. Just saying.

Ms Hulsizer also clued me in as to what the City did with the nearly $1000 they spent on "Shop Poway " bags. Apparently the Chamber stuffed the bags with some of their brochures and the restaurant guide and gave them out as welcome gifts to the employees of General Atomics. That's nice, but I would prefer if the restaurants that are named in the guide pay for those bags instead of the taxpayers.

I support the Poway Chamber members efforts to promote their businesses and to network with each other. There are other groups in town, even other business groups that do the same thing, although they may be smaller. I know of a Poway real-estate group that meets in the community center every Friday for an update on which homes have gone up for sale in Poway. That group is not subsidized by the City, in fact, they have to pay to use the room. Recently they were told that the city would no longer set up the tables and chairs for their use. I get it. The city is hard up for staff. So the paying customer gets stiffed, while the city shells out taxpayer money to a group that is only partially from Poway and wants free use of the streets for their fundraiser. And the City even sends someone over from public works to help close off the street and open it back up. Gratis. That I do not get.

I think the Chamber members will do a much better job of advertising themsleves if they use their own money. And if the City really wants to help businesses stay afloat, well then, why did they put a Wal-Mart in the center of town? And why would they even think of expanding it to a superstore? Just saying.