By Steve Dreyer
The proposed expansion of the Poway Walmart store was approved by a 4-1 City Council vote following a 3 1/2-hour public hearing Tuesday night.
Councilman Dave Grosch voted against the plan, saying he did not like that a delivery truck entrance would be moved from Midland Road to Hilleary Place, potentially disturbing residents of three apartment buildings on the two-lane street.
About 130 people, some sitting in an overflow area in the lobby of the council meeting building, attended the hearing. Twenty-eight people, many of them Walmart employees, spoke in favor of the expansion, while 10 spoke against it.
City Councilman John Mullin set the tone for the majority vote when he said, “When you take out all the chatter, what we’re looking at is a pretty straightforward land-use decision.” The current store is zoned for commercial use and is simply applying for a larger version of that allowed use, he said.
Mayor Don Higginson praised Walmart’s financial investment in the community and said he did not buy into arguments lodged by project opponents that the addition would generate traffic or noise problems or would negatively impact other nearby grocery stores.
“All I’ve heard tonight is that there are monsters under the bed,” the mayor said, “There are no monsters under the bed.”
The vote means Walmart may proceed with its plans, announced over two years ago, to expand the 18-year-old Poway store (the first Walmart built in the county) by 36,996 square feet, to 179,933 square feet. The expansion would be to the west, north and east sides of the Community Road store and would include the addition of fresh produce, a meat department, deli and bakery. The tire and lube center would be removed, along with a detached building that was once used as a post office and later as a produce store.
The amount of floor space that will be devoted to groceries will increase from 4,331 square feet to 39,831 square feet, according to project documents.
Walmart officials said the expanded store will be open 24 hours a day. The current store is allowed to be open around the clock but that only happens during the holiday shopping season.
Prior to casting his vote for the expansion, Councilman Jim Cunningham obtained assurances from the Walmart delegation that private security will patrol the parking lot around the clock.
Speaking for what he said was the “800-plus member” No On Walmart Expansion (NO-WE) group, Joe St. Lucas said that “Putting this super box store in the middle of a family neighborhood is not the place for this expansion.” He suggested the store relocate to a vacant Poway Business Park parcel identified in the project’s Environmental Impact Report.
Other project opponents speaking Tuesday night said the existing Walmart site is too small to accommodate the expansion, that the EIR was heavily slanted toward the applicant, that nearby grocery stores will see sales drop if a full Walmart grocery center opens and that the city may realize fewer sales taxes since the tax-generating tire and lube center will be taken out and replaced with non-taxable groceries.
Former council candidate Pete Babich warned that Poway Road was destined to become a six-lane “Mira Mesa Boulevard” unless the city rethinks the future of the road, and that an expanded Walmart would be “out of scale with its surroundings.”
The final EIR concludes the larger store will not create any significant environmental impacts, noting that traffic and noise impacts can be mitigated and that there are enough shoppers in the region to support a Walmart grocery store without hurting other stores in the area. The full report, requested by Walmart, was prepared by a consultant selected by the city and paid for by Walmart. The final bill is expected to exceed $350,000.
Expansion supporters occupied a good portion of the council chamber seats and lauded the project as providing low-cost groceries to residents as well as good job opportunities. The larger store will allow customers to make one-stop shopping trips, saving time and gasoline, they said. Higher customer volumes will translate into business opportunities for nearby merchants, they noted.
Among the speakers were about a dozen current hourly and salaried Walmart workers, who praised how the company treats its employees and its commitment to help in the community.
The motion to approve the project and its EIR was made by Councilwoman Merrilee Boyack, who said “this would have been a very different hearing” if Walmart was applying to build a big store from scratch at its present location.
“We’re the ‘City in the Country’ and this is the ‘city’ part,” Boyack said. She said she felt the nearby Vons and Stater Bros. markets are capable of competing with Walmart and that she is a strong believer in the free market system.
“It’s not the City Council’s job to pick which companies to support and which to oppose,” she said.
Prior to being elected to the council last fall, Grosch was the leader of the NO-WE group and spoke out against the project while running for office.
Tuesday night he started the meeting by saying he felt he could be objective and that he had read all of its documentation. He cast his “no” vote after questioning why the delivery-truck driveway’s entrance had been moved, saying he felt trucks were now closer to apartments on Hilleary than they had been to residences on Midland Road.