Santa Rosa Planning Commission OKs store after contentious discussion about jobs
By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Coddingtown mall got the go-ahead Thursday to build a Target big-box store following an unusually contentious and emotional Santa Rosa Planning Commission meeting that exposed a deep ideological divide over what kind of jobs the city should encourage.
The extraordinary meeting featured one commissioner rebuking his colleagues for delaying a job-creating project, another accusing staff of stifling valid inquiries, and a third claiming Santa Rosa is in the “Stone Age” compared to how other communities consider development projects.
The 6-1 vote allows the mall to demolish the two-story former Gottschalks building and replace it with a 143,000-square-foot, single-story Target, which would be Santa Rosa’s second Target store. Commissioner Curtis Byrd cast the lone no vote.
Chairwoman Patti Cisco said the decision from her perspective was a straightforward one that shouldn’t be clouded by debates about wages and benefits, which she said were outside the commission’s jurisdiction.
“This project is a retail project that is replacing an existing retail project in an existing center,” Cisco said.
But that didn’t stop the employment issue from flaring anew. The commission on June 14 approved a use permit for the Target by a 4-0 vote. But two weeks later, on a 3-2 vote, the commission voted to reconsider after it was revealed that a Target executive provided inaccurate employment information to the commission.
The Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County, a union-backed group that advocates for better wages and benefits for low-income workers, said the episode showed why community impact reports that analyze a range of project impacts should be required for major developments.
Commissioner Caroline Banuelos, frustrated with legal guidance that said she could not vote to require such a report, nevertheless explained that she believed such reports can be vital planning tools that help communities make better decisions about projects, including their economic impacts.
Whether jobs come with good benefits is an issue of which Banuelos said she is painfully aware.
The 52-year-old social worker said she recently had her hours cut at the nonprofit where she works with the homeless, and she can no longer afford her insurance premiums and co-pays, causing her not to see a doctor in almost a year, she said.
“I’m sharing this with you and it’s very personal because that’s what’s at stake here,” Banuelos said.
Another important reason is because taxpayers end up shouldering the healthcare costs of those with no health benefits, she said. Even people holding down two part-time jobs can find themselves without medical benefits, a situation she says applies to a young couple with a new baby she knows, she said.
“Is this really good for the benefit of our community. Really? Is this what you think? That any job is better than no job? It’s not,” Banuelos said.
Tell that to some who doesn’t have one, retorted Cisco.
“No dollars is not a living wage,” Cisco said. “I think a job is better than no job.”
Cisco said the community needs a variety of jobs. She said it was ironic that the Living Wage Coalition is trying to delay a project that will bring the very kinds of jobs needed by the people for whom it advocates.
Bringing good-paying jobs is a “lofty and important goal,” Commission Peter Stanley said, but requiring an applicant “on the fly” to provide more information than city policies require would be unfair.
Living Wage Coalition co-chairwoman Bonnie Petty tried to counter claims that a community impact report would be beyond the scope of the commission’s purview.
“It is most definitely a land-use issue if the Target store causes closures or other impacts that simply move the blight of empty stores from Coddingtown to another location,” she said.
But all the evidence indicates that a Target will not only create 200 to 250 new jobs, but also help revitalize a struggling Coddingtown, creating or preserving even more jobs, Commissioner David Poulsen said.
He said he was “very disappointed” with the delay and additional cost the reconsideration created. He chastised his fellow commissioners claiming to be in favor of business but then “stopping jobs from coming into this community at a time when people are struggling. Well, shame on you!” he said.
Like Banuelos, Byrd also expressed frustration with the advice the entire commission received from Assistant City Attorney Molly Dillon. He said the letter was “to corral us and to stop us and prevent us from asking questions and seeking information” about an important city issue.
“And that is stifling and that is very, very, very frustrating,” Byrd said.
Byrd said he believes it is reasonable for a commission to seek answers to questions such as whether the project will result in higher tax revenues for the city and more jobs, or whether those would simply come at the expense of other local businesses, resulting in “no net gain.”
Dillon declined to provide The Press Democrat a copy of the letter, citing “attorney-client privilege.” Byrd also said he felt planner Bill Rose was “stonewalling” by not providing him data he asked for about Target’s existing store off Santa Rosa Avenue.
Opponents still can appeal the decision to the City Council.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.