September 3, 2011

Next Up: Lowe's

I don't think anyone ever envisioned warehouse stores being built on Poway Rd when we incorporated back in 1980. In fact, when the General Plan was approved in 1983, it didn't say anything about giant big box stores or warehouse stores. The General Plan has been amended a couple of times per year since then, with most of the changes adversely affecting south Poway, but there are still no development standards for warehouse stores on Poway Rd. in our plan or our municipal code.

Nevertheless, the council just approved expanding Wal-Mart into a superstore and next Tuesday, the council will approve the Lowe's warehouse building on Poway Rd. There might be a few residents yammering away about nightmare traffic and noise, but it won't matter. It is a done deal. Was a done deal before anyone even heard about it.

Even after blowing off noise and traffic as nonexistent "monsters under the bed", there are still some glaring nonconformance issues that have to be addressed. Sort of. There will have to be some tweaking of the rules . The building height limit is 35 feet in Poway. Thirty-five feet or 2-stories, whichever is less. The General Plan was amended in the last few years to provide 2 exceptions. One was to allow a 3-story hotel in the business park. And another was to allow 3 stories for affordable housing projects. Commercial buildings don't have an exception. Except for something called an "architectural feature".

Look at the picture of Lowes in the drawing at the top of the blog. See that extra roof that looks like a doghouse or an outpost in a stockade? The staff suggests giving Lowes almost 10 extra feet for that. They are calling it an "architectural feature". Now look at the picture again. Visually remove the architectural feature. Guess what, the building is still over 35 feet high. Click on the enhanced picture from the staff report below. The blue line is at approximately 35 ft. Both of the roofs above the word "Lowes" exceed the city's 35 ft limit, as do the other 2 peaked roofs. I always thought of architectural features as something like a church steeples. I guess you can build over 35 ft. in Poway now if you have a peaked roof.

That's not the only cheating on our standards that the staff had to do for Lowe's. Lowe's proposed signs are too big for our codes. So, they came up with a newfangled way to measure the size of the sign. They are going to only measure the space in the letters in the word Lowe's and not count the white space around the letters. With this little adjustment, they will be just under the limit.

Oh, and Poway's sign ordinance limits the height of the signs to 8 ft, but the city is going to let Lowe's have theirs go to 15 ft because Walmart has one there will be so much traffic in the area, it might obscure a lower sign. This is a special exemption, just for Lowe's, because there is no traffic going into any other commercial businesses, right?

As you might expect, the Lowe's project is actually going to improve traffic in the area, according to the staff report. Yeah, I want some of what they're smoking, too. The report says that the traffic at Poway and Gate Dr is now LOS "F". After installing a new traffic light at Gate Dr and the extension of the left turn lane at Poway & Community Rd, the LOS at Poway &Gate Dr will improve to LOS "C" by 2030, even with all of the new Wal-Mart and Lowe's traffic. Don't forget, the city is now using new traffic LOS designations. What was once considered a failing grade, is now a passing grade.

The staff report also says that the Lowe's building "has been designed to comply with the Poway Road Specific Plan standards". Unlike our traffic standards, the Poway Road Specific Plan hasn't been dumbed down as far as I know. It didn't take me anymore than a minute or two of skimming through the Poway Road Specific Plan (PRSP) to question whether Lowe's plans are compliant.

Chapter 5 of the PRSP list some design guidelines. Some of them are kind of squishy. For example, under Architecture, the PRSP says:
Building mass, height and pad elevation should be comparable to and complement that of surrounding structures.
"Comparable" and "complement" allow a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. I don't think a humongous warehouse is comparable to or complements any of the other businesses on Poway Rd. But that's just me. Other guidelines are less subjective:
Rear and side facades should be designed to be consistent with the architectural style of the building and the design of the primary facade.
Lowe's rear and sides are not consistent with the front. It is a basic butt-ugly warehouse in the back and sides. Even before clicking on the picture below, you can see that Lowe's back isn't anything like their front which is pictured above.

Here's another design guideline from the PRSP:
The parking lot should not be the dominant feature of the site. Large expansive paved areas located between the street and buildings are to be avoided.
Hmmm...did our planners read the PRSP before submitting this? But to be fair, Lowe's is going to sell stuff from the parking lot. Kind of break up the expanse with lumber and plants and seasonal stuff and whatnot. I am sure it will have the look and feel of an open market.

And another:
The first parking stall which is perpendicular to a driveway or first aisle juncture should be at least 40 feet back from the public street curb. With larger centers, significantly more setback areas may be required for vehicle stacking and the ability to create secondary accessways with adjoining properties.

The Lowe's project will have a 20 foot-wide landscaped setback along Poway Rd. The rest of it will be packed with cars, both parallel and perpendicular to entrance driveways, aisle junctures and each other.

The PRSP was written in 1996. There are 91 pages in the plan and the word "warehouse" appears "0" times. The PRSP mentions a lot of nice things for Poway Rd, like bicycle and pedestrian friendly access and covered walkways and open space and "gathering places" and a "town center". So, how did we end up with a Super Wal-Mart and a Lowe's?

Last week, Bob Emery, who sat on the council for over a quarter of a century, voiced his opinions about the Wal-Mart expansion approval process and the opponent's concerns.
Most of the hullabaloo from the opposition concerned traffic and impacts on businesses. "It will hurt other local markets in the area." Excuse me? If detractors are worried about "little Vons," which is part of the safeway empire of nearly 2,000 stores, let's be realistic. We live under a free enterprise system based on competition and some make it and some don't. As for traffic, I would rather see our streets jammed with shoppers spending money in Poway so we can pave streets, maintain our parks, fight fires and crime and provide other essential community services. .....

Finally, just across town, the Target store is adding several thousand square feet to its store so it can also go into the grocery business but there hasn't been a peep out of anyone. Target practices the same dubious hirting practices and right-wing bullying as Walmart but no one seems to care. What about the impact on that "ma and pa" store next door called Albertsons? Go figure.
I want to remind people that Prop FF was Bob Emery's baby. Prop FF was the 1988 ballot initiative that makes it mandatory to get voter approval to increase the density or to build a single store on any land zoned rural residential in Poway. After Emery got the quality of life in his neighborhood protected, he pretty much didn't give a damn what happened to folks in south Poway.

I am going to spell it out for him and others who don't understand. Not that they will "get it". But it is important to set the record straight. I've lived in Poway for over 35 years. People have been complaining about traffic on Poway Rd. for most of that time. For years and years, councilmembers and the city manager complained about all the folks from Ramona driving up and down Poway Rd. The city's redevelopment agency spent lots of money (that I do not believe is paid off yet) to build Scripps Poway Parkway in the undeveloped hills of south Poway, so we could have some employment opportunities and to get the damn Ramonans off of Poway Rd.

And now the city is getting a super big-box store and a warehouse store, two ventures that will bring a great deal of regional traffic to Poway Road. Poway Rd is a miles-long commercial corridor that is also the access point for many residential neighborhoods. It ends in what is essentially a cul-de-sac, with an offshoot to the nearby community of Ramona. It doesn't take a PhD in planning to know that the best place to site regional shopping ventures is on the periphery of the community, as close to freeway offramps as possible. So the reason people are not complaining about Target expanding and selling food is because the Target center was better located and designed to handle the traffic and noise and truck deliveries.

Poway Rd commercial properties don't have the depth that the Target center has. Many butt right up next to residential areas. There are no apartment houses that face Target. It is amazing that the same people who found it incompatible to have even a neighborhood shopping center anywhere near their homes would be so supportive of a 24-hr regional shopping center and warehouse store adjacent to or across the street from someone else's. Yes, we need sales tax to support needed services. But the people who approved the Wal-Mart expansion and will approve Lowe's are not sacrificing their quality of life; they are taking someone else's.

And about that free enterprise stuff. I'm not buying it. The city gave Wal-Mart almost a million dollars to locate in Poway. And they just robbed our sewer fund of $3 million to move Toyota across the street so that Lowe's could fit into Toyota's old spot. It wasn't done out in the open or by selling the property to the highest bidder. It was all planned and executed behind closed doors with an exclusive negotiated agreement. That is not how a free enterprise system based on competition works.

The expanded Wal-Mart has been approved. Lowe's will be approved. I'm sure they will bring in some sales tax dollars. Not that Poway isn't already capturing more than their share of per capita sales taxes revenue compared to other California cities. But it is never enough, is it?