Voters in San Luis Obispo, California, have defeated a 650,000-square-foot big-box shopping center.
The Marketplace project, which included a Target, Lowe’s, Whole Foods, Old Navy, Circuit City, and several other chains, was to be built on 130 acres of prime farmland at the gateway to the city. San Luis Obispo has a population of 45,000 and is located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The project won approval from the City Council last summer, but citizens opposed to the development quickly formed Save San Luis Obispo and gathered the required signatures to place it on Tuesday’s ballot.
Although the developers and the city had tried to make the Marketplace "referendum proof" by requiring a vote on three separate issues having to do with the zoning and financing, according to Deborah Cash of the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, voters rejected all three ballot questions.
Supporters said that the project would help San Luis Obispo capture retail spending from neighboring towns and thereby boost the city’s sales tax revenue. (Because California communities are limited in their ability to raise property taxes, they depend heavily on sales tax and compete fiercely with nearby towns in a kind of arms race to attract ever larger stores and shopping centers.)
Opponents mounted a broad grassroots campaign. They argued that the massive project would undermine the city’s lively downtown and local businesses, destroy rich farmland that lies in a floodplain, generate some 20,000 car trips a day, and contribute significant pollution in a city that currently has relatively good air quality.
They said the deal was unfair to taxpayers and other retailers, because the city had agreed to refund half of the projected sales tax revenue (about $750,000 a year) for the next thirty years to the developer. They also argued that the shopping center would cost the city $800,000 a year in additional infrastructure costs, more than offsetting the remaining sales tax revenue.
San Luis Obispo already has a few big-box stores and opponents of the Marketplace contended that additional large-scale retail development would harm the city’s character and quality of life. "Sears, Mervyns, Costco, that’s not enough? Do we need every single box store in town?" one resident told the San Luis Obispo Tribune. "The Marketplace’s 958,320 square feet of parking, about 22 acres, would cover most of downtown," another resident wrote in a letter-to-the-editor.
The developer spent several hundred thousand dollars on the campaign and hired one of the largest public relations firms in California. Although opponents were likely outspent (final figures are not in yet), the margin did not appear as lop-sided as in other recent big-box referenda, because a large downtown property owner helped fund Save San Luis Obispo’s campaign.
After the vote, the developer said he would bring the proposal to the county instead. The land is currently under the county’s jurisdiction, although the city had planned to annex it as part of the deal. Several major hurdles would have to be overcome, however, before the county could approve the Marketplace. One particular issue is that, without access to the city’s water and sewer lines, the shopping center would have to rely on a massive septic system.
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