Though only a handful of Richmond Chamber of Commerce members turned out for a meeting last week on a Canadian developer’s plans for a massive shopping mall at Golden Gate Fields, those who spoke were decidedly cool on the plan.
Magna’s maxi-mall, plann ed for a little used 45-acre parking lot, would provide 600,000 to 800,000 square feet of retail space in a scenic location—which area merchants fear will kill businesses already reeling from a troubled economy.
While Magna had held a series of community meetings seeking input on a then ill-defined mall proposal, Albany Chamber President Sherman Linn said that nothing as large as the scale now being floated by the project’s developer—which amounts to a six-to-eight-Costco-sized project—had surfaced durin g those sessions.
Despite repeated approaches by James Carter, the chamber’s executive director, “there’s been no indication they’re willing to divulge anything about their plans,” Carter said.
Carter said he feared that another mall in the area would d eepen the adverse impacts on local businesses that followed the opening of the El Cerrito Plaza, when “we were hard hit.
“It’s not very likely it’s going to have a positive impact on our community. . .it’s something we perceive as a potential threat to o ur existing business district.”
Caruso didn’t return a call from the Daily Planet, nor did the Canadian offices of Magna.
A Los Angeles Police Commissioner as well as a developer, Caruso is also a major political contributor, heavily favoring Republican s. His biggest donation, $100,000 on June 21, was made to the Progress for America Voter Fund, a conservative “527 group” which is running spots supporting the re-election of President George W. Bush.
Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian racing firm t hat owns the track and is North America’s largest operators of race tracks, has selected Caruso Affiliated Holdings, a controversial Los Angeles developer, to build the complex.
Firm president Rick J. Caruso generated considerable heat in Los Angeles for building The Grove, a mega-mall adjacent to Los Angeles’s venerable Farmers Market, which draws more annual visitors than Disneyland.
Jorge Sandoval, who’s owned Walker’s Pie Shop on Solano Avenue for the last 19 years, said “I don’t think Albany needs one of those,” especially with parking already difficult on a street noted for its eateries and shops.
The longest-term business owner on Solano, Sandoval said that after the El Cerrito Plaza opening, “some of our businesses on Solano really got hurt, including ourselves. We can’t compete with mall restaurants with big parking” and linked to chains that buy supplies in vast quantities at deep discounts.
Paul Revenaugh, owner of the Sunny Side Cafe on Solano, said he would not have opened his business a year ago had he known of plans for the Magna mall. “If it opens, we’ll see ‘For Lease’ signs up and down Solano,” he said. “It’s really a question of survival for small businesses.”
Chamber Executive Director Carter, who’s leaving his post in October aft er three years on the job, said he’d been required “to keep my tongue kind of stapled for the last few years.” He unstapled it at the close of the discussion.
“I think this is a very bad idea. It could be the death knell for a lot of our businesses, espe cially on Solano.
“People seem to want to turn the East Bay into another L.A., where every five minutes along the freeway there’s another mall, and small businesses in the surrounding area have gone belly-up.
“How are we going to compete marketing our b usiness district against a giant mall? And the whole political shape of our community is going to change.”
Two City Council candidates also appeared at the forum, Richard Cross, a mall opponent and Alan Riffer, who said he remains open to considering dev elopment at Golden Gate Fields. Riffer also said he’d heard “a lot of good things about Caruso.”
Incumbent Councilmember Jewel Okawachi, who spoke to a reporter after the meeting, said she was also keeping an open mind about the proposal.
Okawachi had b een at a niece’s wedding in San Diego during an Aug. 21 press conference where a rival said she supported the project.
“I still don’t know enough the project to make up my mind,” she said.
Even Chamber President Linn acknowledged that the city needs mor e sales and property taxes, both of which would flow from a new multi-million-dollar regional shopping center.
“There are some big box stores that wouldn’t be compatible, but we have to be open,” Linn said, citing the chamber’s recent support for the new Target store along the eastern side of the Eastshore Freeway at Buchanan Street.
“Target will be a good neighbor,” he said, citing the projected $400,000 annual sales tax revenues and the store’s recent job fair at a local school.
“They don’t devastate a community the way a Wal-Mart does,” Linn said.
Carter cited another threat on the horizon—Proposition 68, which if approved by voters in November would authorize slot machines at race tracks and strip local communities of control over development at t rack sites, even if the racing is shut down.
Magna’s Northern California expansion plans also include a major new racing facility in Dixon in Yolo County on 260 acres adjacent to Interstate 80.
After the business session ended, seats in the Albany Comm unity Center filled as the crowd arrived for the second half of the meeting—presentation of two Citizen of the Year Awards.
Linn and Assemblymember Loni Hancock presented the adult award to Joan Larson, reeling off a long list of organizations she’s devo ted her energies to—from Friends of the Library and Meals on Wheels to the Albany Historical Society and the Albany Education Fund.
Councilmember Akkan Maris presented the Young Person of the Year to Briana K’Burg, a graduate of Albany High School and pr esident of the school’s Leos Club. Her causes include the Berkeley Food Pantry, leadership of the Relay for Life Team, Friday Night Live, working to improve landscaping on the Albany Blub and numerous others. The award came just before she leaves for Gonz aga University, where she’ll attend on a Dean’s Scholarship and one from the Albany Lions.›