The Mall Man’s Dreams For Ukiah
by Mark Scaramella, March 19, 2008
They can talk. They can do statistics. They're really good at charts and drawings. They're absolutely teriffic at green-speak. But what they're best at, they say, is mythology. They say they have the facts, their critics merely grasp at the wispy tails of myths.
Ohio-based Developers Diversified Realty Trust (DDR) delivered three impressively well-prepared presentations to small groups of pre-registered Mendolanders last week in Ukiah to kick off their mall development promotion campaign and to introduce their slick-talking, high-paid project team. The meetings were held in the un-green Hampton Inn opposite a skein of random big box emporiums lying between Highway 101 and the inland town's faded downtown.
DDR wants to develop some 85 acres of the defunct Masonite manufacturing site just north of the Ukiah city limits. DDR says it will convert the land, now mostly cleared of its industrial detritus, to a $120 million "open air retail center" called "Mendocino Crossings."
The open air retail center would be bigger than all of downtown Ukiah when it's fully built out.
DDR's "vision" for the project will be anchored by three big box retailers, the developers claim, although DDR's vision, unlike the Mendo-prevalent one of ecotopia, sees Costco, Target and Kohl's which, DDR says, are "near agreement" to settle in at their proposed Mendocino Crossings. These classic big box retailers would be accompanied by light industry, community areas and a host of greenbuildings and landscaping. The Costco experience, to hear DDR tell it, would occur in a setting resembling San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Most of the DDR's open air proposals were described as "options," meaning that no one, including DDR, really knows what will actually be in place by the time the mall is built, if it's built.
DDR's newly hired project manager — a smooth-talking semi-retired architect from Emeryville named Jeff Adams — said that the design so far is more of a preliminary concept, a concept Adams described as "flexible" with "multiple options," before he joked that "This project will change a million times" before it is complete, which, he said, could take as long as ten years to bring off.
As attendees entered the room to get the full-on, high-gloss, Amway-reminiscent sales pitch, we received a handout titled "Myths and Facts" in which DDR declared every conceivable objection to their vague proposals as "myth." These "myths" were, in the DDR literature, each deconstructed by a paragraph or two of DDR "facts."
• Isn't there already enough retail in Ukiah?
No, says DDR, batting the first myth into extinction, at least in DDR's view. More retail is needed to keep committed shoppers from habitually heading down 101 for Santa Rosa.
• Does a mall create well-paying jobs?
Certainly, according to DDR. 700 new jobs at "various wage levels" will be created in addition to the construction work itself.
• Will the project convert the Ukiah Valley's few industrially-zoned acres into more commercial space?
Yes indeed, says DDR, but there will still be 346 industrially-zoned acres left over in other areas of the County so not to worry. (Spread over an area larger than Rhode Island, which is Mendocino County, this statistic, which includes existing lumber mill sites, essentially means Mendocino County has no undeveloped industrial acreage.) Besides, DDR maintains, there's no real chance of the Masonite site being industrially developed because there's not enough local infrastructure, not enough adequately educated proles to work in it whatever it might be, and not enough industrial support services to re-industrialize the Masonite acreage. DDR says open air retail is the best use of the land.
• Won't the project take too much water in an already water-short valley?
No. DDR says they'll only use one of Masonite's three pre-existing groundwater wells, the one furthest from the Russian River apparently being the most productive.
• Won't the project create a traffic nightmare on the north end of town?
No. All traffic problems will be addressed and solved during the EIR process. And DDR says they'll build or fund additional lanes and streets as needed. In addition, DDR says it is thinking about a trolley system to connect their mammoth mall with downtown Ukiah.
• Won't the project cost Ukiah and the County lots more money for services and infrastructure?
Certainly not, says DDR. Sales tax revenues will more than cover the service costs; property tax revenues derived from the project will allow the County to fund up to $22 million in new bonds to increase the infrastructure in the area around Masonite and on out towards Calpella.
• Won't the project take business from existing downtown businesses?
No, because, as DDR's Adams blithely informed the audience as he casually swatted another "myth," Ukiah's retail stores are mostly "boutique" operations "and the chains don't do that."
• Isn't there a limit on how many sewer hookups Ukiah can support, and wouldn't DDR's project take a disproportionate share of them?
Adams said DDR already has some hookups on the Masonite property. Besides, sewer capacity would be addressed by the EIR, and, Adams said, if DDR had to they'd develop additional wastewater treatment capacity.
To hear DDR talk, Mendocino Crossings will be every environmentalist's and progressive planner's dream come true. Project architect Jason Brenner said that DDR's design options may include a pedestrian plaza, install solar panels on every building, build a trolley system, develop bike paths, "adaptive re-use" of some of the old mill structures they've left standing, build a water park, a hemp factory (!), an airport, live-work semi-residential units, low energy LED street lights, business incubators, outdoor art and sculpture, a community center and an environmental education exploratorium, rainwater collectors for a residential segment, affordable housing, a mass-transit hub, water filtration ponds, gardens, a "lifestyle center," restoration and protection of creeks running through the area, a rail depot… And the whole shebang will have an "agrarian industrial look" with tree-lined streets and shed- or barn-like designs!
Do you get the feeling that these people know their target audience?
But hold on there, hippies. Before you sign up for life in the mall, bear in your addled minds that we're talking possibilities and options, not what is likely to appear north of Ukiah.
What actually gets built depends on what renters and tenants can be lured into long-term leases and how the financing for this thing breaks down. It also depends on a host of other factors, from the re-zone it needs to the problematic status of the national economy.
And DDR's myth-busting didn't seem to reduce audience skepticism; they clung to their myths.
Neighboring industrial, commercial and residential property owners raised concerns that DDR hadn't considered. Nobody believed that DDR could truly mitigate all the traffic in what one audience member called a "very car-centric" proposal. Potter Valley's Guinness McFadden remarked, "I don't see how you're going to be able to convince the county to rezone the area with these vague plans." Another attendee called the whole project "dreamlike." Not everyone was prepared to believe that all of DDR's promises would come to fruition, much less be good for Mendocino County. In fact, the project's critics thought DDR was the mythmakers, not them.
Before taking questions — according to DDR's strict rules questioners would be limited to one minute while DDR's answerers had no time limit — Adams introduced his project team, a sleek collection of specialists and consultants in every major area of project development, including public relations, planning, civil engineering, solar design, traffic, economics, architecture, and a Mr. Scott Schroder, a "corporate suit," as Adams described him, who was on hand to watch his team play but did not take the field himself.
Audience questions addressed various elements of the presentation — traffic, disabled access, sewage, and other issues raised by DDR but not dispelled by DDR's assurances that they were mythical concerns.
The AVA asked: "Given the substantial investment you've made in land acquisition, demolition, decontamination, management and planning, and in these public forums, it's hard to escape the impression that this is a done deal. What will DDR do if the zoning change is not approved by the supervisors?"
Adams seemed stumped.
"That's a hard question to answer," he said, "because I've been hired to push this project through." Adams added that if the zoning remains industrial DDR would "have to come at it from another direction. … We will not be folding up our tent and going back to Cleveland."
In other words, DDR, it seems, would try to adapt their plans to industrial zoning. Adams also said that DDR wouldn't rule out court action "if we thought we were wronged and needed to put it right." Later in the discussion, after further thought, Adams returned to the "done deal" question, saying that "obviously it's not really a done deal or I wouldn't be here today doing this."
Adams introduced DDR's planning consultant, a modest, well-dressed woman named Sandra Liston who works for a planning consulting outfit in Ukiah. Ms. Liston's previous work has included work as a consultant to the City of Ukiah on the Ukiah Valley Area Plan — meaning that Adams was clever enough to hire a planning consultant with inside knowledge of Ukiah Valley's planning process. Ms. Liston said there would be a total of three EIRs, one for the Ukiah Valley Area Plan, one for the County's General Plan and then DDR's "project EIR" which would address project specifics like traffic, water, sewage, noise, drainage, and impacts on downtown Ukiah. "If the land use zoning is approved," Liston insisted, "the project EIR will go into all the necessary detail.
Adams repeated that DDR's detailed EIR will address and mitigate all potential development problems, thus making the EIR process into what Adams said was an "insurance policy" against bad planning.
Asked if DDR would "build and leave," turning the mall over to a property management company after it's built, Adams replied, "That's not our mode. Our business model is to own, manage and collect rent."
Adams said that the "economic engine" that the mall would create via its property and sales taxes would in turn create "snowballing development" because the taxes would finance redevelopment bonds which would fund more infrastructure which would support more development, which would bring more taxes, and the Ukiah Valley would live happily ever after in an unending, upward spiraling munificence, all of it breathed into life by a Cleveland development firm.
In answer to a question from KZYX's Christina Aanestad about the planning process and the timing, Adams said they expect the Ukiah Valley Area Plan's EIR to be completed "soon," perhaps as early June or July. Then there will have to be a review and a final EIR approval, then a Board of Supervisors up or down on it. But, muddying the planning waters further, Adams said that the County's General Plan has to be updated to incorporate the change in zoning and that also requires another EIR and public review and Board of Supervisors approval, and no one will speculate on when that might all occur. DDR says they won't file for any construction permits until the County's General Plan Update is complete. "It might take ten years for this project to be completed," said Adams.
The Ukiah-based "Smart Growth Coalition" will be the focus of opposition to the project.
DDR pulled out of Smart Growth's "Masonite Debate" held at the Ukiah Civic Center late last month, saying that they hadn't finished their economic analysis yet. The "Debate" was promptly rechristened the "Masonite Discussion," during which critics of the proposal talked to DDR's conspicuously empty chair.
The key presenter at the discussion was Michael Shuman, an attorney and anti-box store author and activist. Shuman is a formidable debatesman. DDR probably preferred not to take him on, but after withdrawing from the "Debate," DDR announced last week's highly-structured sales pitch.
Back at the "Discussion," Shuman methodically destroyed DDR's claims, saying that DDR's best case projection is not only unlikely but undesirable. And there's a good chance their best case won't happen anyway. Ever. As the country's economy tanks, as it is in the process of doing, retail sales will tank first. As retail sales decline, fewer chain box stores will want to pay DDR to build a mall in the NorCal outback. DDR's rosy economic projections are likely to lead the national economy's collapse.
DDR's claim of over 700 permanent new jobs? Pure speculation, says Shuman. It's a misleading promise since there's no specific project being proposed. (And of course there's a significant but unquanitifiable job offset from other businesses.)
Is DDR's mall the best use of the land? No, says Shuman. A much higher percentage of money spent at a locally-owned store stays in the area. Chains don't use local services or link themselves to local businesses. Some new retail money may come to Ukiah and the County, but most of it goes back out again to the chain store owners and DDR, none of whom are based in Mendocino County.
DDR says that Costco and Target won't do any more damage to the Ukiah area than Wal-Mart and Staples have already done. Shuman replies, Well, just look at all the downtown Ukiah businesses that have closed since Wal-Mart and Staples opened.
DDR says they expect about $185 million in annual sales. Where will that come from?, asks Shuman. Most of the "leakage" to Santa Rosa that DDR talks about is not in the sales categories that the mall will attract, so the $185 million of available shopping money going out of County is either a highly inflated estimate, or there's a lot of retail cannabilization on the horizon.
In summary, Shuman proposes that Ukiah and the County chart their own course, even if it means leaving the Masonite site undeveloped for a while, and not grab for the first bag of cash that comes along. Given the givens of the deteriorating national economy, such caution seems only prudent.