Anti-Neiman Marcus signature gatherers out in force in Walnut Creek Saturday, and the controversy’s San Ramon connection

They call me crazy. This whole Neiman Marcus mess just gets curiouser and curiouser (or loonier and looner?) It’s creating some pretty fierce divisions, and politicking and grandstanding and righteous indignation and big money going into pro- and con campaigns.

All of this is taking place at a unique time in our local and national history. I’m talking about, yes, the recession, when cities, including Walnut Creek, are facing frightening budget cuts and serious drops in sales tax revenues. Mall companies and retailers, especially those in the high-end luxury market–like Neiman Marcus–also are struggling.

So, emotions are running high, the stakes are big.

Who’s at the heart of this bitter battle over whether Broadway Plaza should be able to bring a Neiman Marcus to Walnut Creek?

Developer versus developer? Macerich versus Taubman? Walnut Creek versus San Ramon?

And, what does San Ramon have to do with this, anyway? (I’ll get to that in a minute, but some of you probably already know.)

And, yes, another question: Is it really true, as Yes for Walnut Creek, the new pro-Neiman Marcus group, proclaims that Walnut Creek could lose big time if it doesn’t nab Neiman Marcus. That the loss of the Dallas-based luxury retail opportunity could “deplete the revenues we rely on to sustain our police, roads, parks, open spaces, the arts and other vital community services.”

Here’s today’s latest development in this battle:

Extra! Extra! It looks like Taubman, a rival mall company to Macerich, the owners of Broadway Plaza, was making good Saturday on its vow to launch another signature-gathering effort. This petition drive wants to force the city to put the Neiman Marcus question on the ballot. By the way, Michigan-based, international mall developer Taubman owns Sunvalley Mall in Concord and is also the potential retail developer of the new San Ramon City Centre. There’s your San Ramon connection–or one of them anyway.

I ran into some signature gatherers outside Whole Foods today, and some 20 more were said to be out and about at other downtown locations, asking Walnut Creek residents to petition for the Neiman Marcus question to be put up to a city-wide vote.

This signature gathering effort (the second in the past year) comes four days after the City Council approved the Neiman Marcus proposal—actually a somewhat scaled down version of a proposal the council initially greenlighted in the fall. (From 112,000-square feet and three stories to 92,000-square-feet and two stories)

Well, I can’t say for sure that Taubman is behind this latest petition drive. The guy who asked me to sign the petition said he was from a professional petition gathering company. I didn’t sign, not because I’m taking a pro- or anti-Neiman position, but because I don’t live in the city limits. I live in unincorporated Walnut Creek, so I can’t sign, and I wouldn’t be able to vote in this particular election.

As I was talking to this petition gatherer, a passing Whole Foods shopper proclaimed his objection to the petition effort. He said Taubman was behind it, griped that he didn’t like an out-of-state mall company trying to influence local affairs, and believed that the city council had settled the matter with its vote Tuesday.

The petitioner argued back, asking whether the city council’s decision truly represents the will of Walnut Creek residents, saying it should be put up to a citywide vote, and spouting about Jeffersonian democratic principles.

On Friday, the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce issued a warning about “deceptive petitions” and proclaimed that Neiman Marcus is “good for Walnut Creek.”

“This project is endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, the Walnut Creek downtown Business Association, the Contra Costa Association of Realtors and over 1,000 members of the community. Last fall, the Taubman Group, a Michigan-based mall developer that owns Sunvalley Mall and the potential retail developer for San Ramon’s City Centre, spent nearly $100,000 on a petition to prevent Neiman Marcus from coming to Walnut Creek.

“Why? Because Walnut Creek’s loss would be their gain.”

The Chamber of Commerce also said it would cost the city more than $300,000 to place the project on the ballot.

Before I go on: Some recent troubles with San Ramon’s City Centre, due to the cratering economy. Last month, breaking ground on the 40-acre, $750 milliion project was put on hold until the economy’s housing and retail sectors improve. The city was expected to open in time for the 2010 Christmas shopping center, but the city is now looking at a 2012 opening.

Also, the San Ramon City Centre is being developed in a public-private partnership with Sunset Development, the builder of San Ramon’s Bishop Ranch. The CEO of Sunset, by the way, is the formidable Alex Mehran.

Hmm, is Sunset a third developer mixed up in this Neiman Marcus battle?

Well, besides another possible successful petition drive, the pro-Neiman Marcus side also faces a lawsuit, filed by former Mayor Ed Dimmick and some other residents, that would ostensibly halt the project.

At a City Council meeting earlier this month, Mayor Gary Skrel quizzed Dimmick on who was funding the lawsuit. Dimmick also filed an appeal of the Planning Commission’s earlier approval of the project. Dimmick later told the Contra Costa Times that Taubman paid for the appeal, but he wouldn’t comment on who is picking up the tab for the lawsuit.

14 thoughts on “Anti-Neiman Marcus signature gatherers out in force in Walnut Creek Saturday, and the controversy’s San Ramon connection

  1. I am sure a new store will bring in some revenue for the city of Walnut Creek. However, the parking around Broadway Plaza is already quite crowded. They need to provide more parking to the area or else people will get fed up and go somewhere else. I already avoid the Broadway Plaza area because the parking is so difficult.

    I also believe that Macy’s and Nordstrom probably don’t want Neiman Marcus. If people buy things from Neiman Marcus, Macy’s and Nordstrom will lose a lot of money. Will a new store really bring in more business or will the shoppers simply move from Macy’s and Nordstrom to Neiman Marcus?

    I say let Neiman Marcus move in, but I hope they improve the parking situation and perhaps they could give money for extra bus service.


  2. I really dislike the anti-NM petition drive. It’s underhanded and shady, in the way that the backers won’t come forward. Their tactics alone are pretty much enough of an incentive for me to SUPPORT the NM building proposal.

    (On a completely unrelated note, beware if you’re walking or driving around the Pleasant Hill BART station. As of the time of my posting here, all the traffic lights were out at at least three nearby intersections about 15 mins ago, creating a very hazardous situation.)


  3. Look at the forces for and against, and ask yourself who benefits in each case. Is it a narrow band of people who benefit, or a wider band.

    I say let them go forward with this retail establishment. It is basically the last piece in the re-do from when there was an island with parking in the center (where Calif. Pizza Kitchen to the fountain is now).

    I say finish it up and open the thing!


  4. Here is what I wrote in an e-mail to the Yes for Walnut Creek leaders, with some questions i had about their organization.

    “Just so you know, I am neither pro- nor anti-Neiman Marcus. Also, I can’t vote on the issue because I live in unincorporated Wallnut Creek. However, I have written critically about how the city handled the initial project proposal, especially with regard to the city accepting the idea of turning the Broadway Plaza garage into valet parking during peak shopping times.”

    Does that answer your question? I have decided to stay neutral. Persoanlly, I don’t see myself shopping at Neiman Marcus; I barely go into Broadway Plaza. Shopping is not one of my pasttimes.

    I just care that the city listens to what residents wants and that the city makes fair and sound judgments for the city’s future(which I don’t think it did the first go-around, and I’m guessing, though they probably won’t admit it, that the city and Macerich realized that they blew it, community-relations-wise.)

    Is the city doing that now? Doing what’s best and fair for the city? Frankly, I’m no expert in city planning or economic development. I’m sure readers of this site are better equipped to answer that question.

    It will be interesting to see if Taubman (or whoever) gets the signatures it needs this time.


  5. By default those living in unincorporated Walnut Creek are Anti-Walnut Creek. Why not incorporate and give the city a cut of your property tax dollars? This would make projects like Neiman Marcus not as important from a revenue stand point for WC.


  6. 8:25,

    Many of us bought in unincorporated areas for less government. And, have WC in charge, absolutely not! Alamo voted down incorporation because they don’t want to be another Danville.


  7. Crazy in Suburbia,
    Neutral? A blogger should be able to take a stand on such an issue as NM. I mean, do you favor it or not? And why? Who cares if you live in unincorporated WC. No one knows who you are anyways.


  8. Why do I have to have an opinion on everything I write about? There are some issues I have very strong feelings on, and I am happy to share them.

    In other situations, like this one, I’d rather just report the different opinions, and information I receive, and let, you, readers manage the debate.

    Sorry, I honestly have no opinion on whether Neiman Marcus should come to town. And that has nothing to do with being in unincorproated Walnut Creek. I only care that the people in power handle the decision making appropriately, legally, and fairly.

    And, as I’ve said–and have had strong opinions about–I believe that the city and Macerich handled the initial proposal pretty poorly. Their botched handling of this initial proposal probably made it easier for Taubman to capitalize on residents’ discontent. The city leaders and Macerich only have themselves to blame. The initial proposal was pretty flawed, and was unfair. The way they rushed the proposal through to a “yes” vote showed desperation, greed, arrogance–or a combination of all of the above.

    It concerns me, at least by appearances, that the city is putting so much emphasis on Neiman Marcus–when, due to the economy and the luxury retail market–its future in Walnut Creek cannot be guaranteed.


  9. I actually live in Walnut Creek and my opinion is the same as Soccer Mom’s and several other bloggers here.

    They did a rush job at first and have since worked on making their development a value add to the Walnut Creek downtown. Are they 100% of the way there? No. Do they seem willing to do some more work? Yes!

    Let them do the work and open the darn store so we can get the tax revenue flowing. It will be Neiman or some other store or stores. What does it matter?


  10. DumbasBricks,
    What “more work” are you referring to? It seems like they have presented their final answer.The council has approved the plan as presented. NM will install a new traffic light on Broadway and increase the hours on the free trolley. That’s it as far as I know. Does anyone know what else they’re going to do?


  11. Sunset Development is sure to be against WC getting Neiman Marcus, whether or not they’re backing a lawsuit. A Neimans or Saks is critical to their pet project of downtown San Ramon city center.


  12. I don’t have a strong opinion either, but have to share this. I was in the Countrywood shopping center enjoying some sunshine when a signature gatherer came over to me. He asked “are you a registered WC voter”? When I declined to sign, before he would walk away, I asked “hey, are YOU a registered WC voter?” He grinned and said no, he’s paid to collect signatures.

    It gets worse. A few minutes later, he approached me again (I guess he has a short memory) and another guy walked up and said “Oh hey, is that the petition to force a vote on Neiman Marcus? Let me sign that, I am SO WORRIED about parking downtown.” I ignored them again, but 20 minutes later saw the two of them getting into the same car. It’s one thing to hire people to collect signatures, but it’s another to hire actors (and bad ones at that).


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