May 19, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California
• What it does
The ballot measure would amend the County General Plan and zoning code to adopt a Specific Plan covering DDR’s 76-acre Masonite site. The Specific Plan was written for DDR by an Orange County consultant and is 310 pages long.
It allows DDR to build “Mendocino Crossings” with any combination it wants of big box retail stores, residences and other facilities. The limit for big box stores is 800,000 square feet [B-41], which would make Mendocino Crossings a tie with Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa as the largest shopping mall on the North Coast. The parking lot would hold more than 3,000 cars.
The Specific Plan would also allow DDR to build up to 150 residences. Although the Specific Plan provides 3 different “Conceptual Plans” of how the shopping center might look, it also states that “The exhibits shown are conceptual and do not reflect what may actually be constructed on the site. The actual development of the site is subject to change based on market and regional demands.” [B-42]
• Could the Specific Plan ever be amended?
Only by another ballot measure [Initiative text, Section 8]. Once adopted, the Specific Plan is law and the County’s elected officials would have no control over what DDR does with the property, within the broad limits established by the Specific Plan.
• How does the Initiative affect the County General Plan?
If enacted, the Initiative would require that everything else in the County General Plan would have to be revised to eliminate any inconsistency with DDR’s Specific Plan [Initiative, Section 5-B].
• Will there be an Environmental Impact Report?
No. Rezonings that are put on the ballot by petition are exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), since there is no public agency which is responsible for approving the project [B-228].
• How did DDR qualify the Initiative for the ballot?
DDR, under the name “Mendocino County Tomorrow,” hired a professional signature-gathering company, H&H Petitions, which brought approximately 20 signature gatherers here from out-of-county, beginning April 9, 2009. They were paid $2 per valid signature. According to numerous citizen reports, the petitioners mostly told the public that the petition was to “clean up the Masonite site.” There were 4 letters to the editor in the Ukiah Daily Journal from different individuals who stated that they had been misled in this way, and 82 people who had been misled by the signature-gatherers sent letters to the County Clerk asking that their names be removed from the petition. Nevertheless, DDR was successful in submitting its petition to the county on April 29, 2009, claiming it had sufficient signatures to force a special election in November on its Initiative.
• What is the history of the property?
The site is zoned for industry and was used by Masonite Corporation for 50 years. DDR bought the site in 2005 and demolished the plant facilities, despite appeals to save it for new industrial uses. The 76-acre property is the largest industrial parcel in the inland county and has rail access and other features that make it ideal for new industrial development.
• Why should the site stay in industrial zoning?
Because industrial employers offer better wages and benefits than the minimum-wage jobs offered by big box stores. Also, industry creates a stronger local economy because it brings money into the area, instead of draining it out like big box stores do. There is good potential for future industrial use of the Masonite site, if it stays in industrial zoning. About 27 acres of new industrial buildings have gone up just north of the Masonite property just since 2001, showing the demand for industrial property. Many timber industry officials believe that the regrowth of the county’s forests will create a need for a new wood byproducts facility.
• How would DDR’s mall affect traffic?
The County’s draft Ukiah Valley Area Plan found that major traffic improvements are needed if there is more development around the Masonite site, including a new north-south road and a new freeway access off Brush Street. But DDR’s Specific Plan doesn’t include any of these new roads. Instead, the Specific Plan dictates that North State Street will bear all of the burden. DDR’s Specific Plan specifies 5 new traffic lights on North State Street, bringing the total to 7 traffic lights in the ½ mile stretch from Orr Springs Road to Ford Road [B-65]. While this forest of red lights will make North State Street a nightmare for thru-traffic, DDR apparently figures that it can still get shoppers off and on the freeway.
• Besides North State Street, would DDR pay for other off-site road improvements?
Almost certainly not. The Specific Plan says DDR will pay for the new traffic lights and road widenings it wants on North State Street. Beyond that, the County must prove by a “nexus report” that any fees imposed on the project are justified by impacts created by the project, AND THEN, whatever DDR has paid for the North State Street alterations will be DEDUCTED from those fees [B-223].
• How would it affect the water shortage?
DDR says that it would meet the large new water demand for the shopping mall from an existing well (Masonite well #6) near the Russian River [B-73]. How this pumping would affect the total demand on the river and on Lake Mendocino isn’t clear, since DDR is circumventing the requirement for an Environmental Impact Report.
• What development standards would apply to the project?
Only what DDR has written into the Specific Plan, which substitutes for all County Zoning regulations [Initiative, Section 3]. In other words, DDR has written its own rules. Not surprisingly, these conflict with the existing limits and aesthetic standards that are common in Mendocino County. For example, DDR gives itself the right to erect a 100-foot tall lighted sign next to the freeway, four times taller and eight times larger in area than allowed by County zoning [B-124]. Signs on the stores themselves can be up to 500 square feet, three times larger than allowed by County zoning. [B-120]. There is no provision whatsoever for design review by the County of the buildings or other features.
• How can this area support such a huge shopping mall?
Only by capturing the lion’s share of all retail business in Mendocino County. With about 12 big box stores and numerous smaller shops, the development would be designed to be a “magnet” destination sufficiently compelling to attract shoppers and keep them on site for most of their shopping needs. The impact on downtowns and existing shopping districts throughout Mendocino County is obvious. An economic study commissioned by the county in 2007 concluded, “The prospects for new regional retail [center] depend on its ability to capture expenditures from a trade area larger than the Ukiah Valley.” [“Ukiah Valley Area Plan Economic Background,” Economic & Planning Systems, Inc., p. 37] DDR claims that its shopping mall would create hundreds of new jobs, but there is every reason to believe that these new jobs would be offset by lost jobs at existing stores in Mendocino and Lake counties.
• But don’t we need DDR’s shopping mall to get a Costco store?
No. Costco was in advanced negotiations to build a store in Ukiah’s Redwood Business Park and detailed site plans had been submitted to the city in both 2003 and 2007 for a 15-acre parcel. As soon as it bought the Masonite site in 2005, DDR went to work to persuade Costco to give up on the City of Ukiah site. Finally DDR succeeded, and Costco suddenly stopped talking to the city in June, 2007. But when DDR’s ballot initiative is defeated, Costco can still build on the original City of Ukiah site if it still believes the local market will support its store. The City of Ukiah has 95 acres of vacant land zoned for retail.
• DDR is experiencing financial distress. How could DDR build a new shopping mall when it is trying to sell property to raise cash?
It’s true that DDR is shaky. Last year its stock plunged to only $2 a share, and its debt was recently reduced to junk bond status by the rating agencies. But the ballot measure is a potentially lucrative speculation for DDR, even if the election campaign costs $1 million. A rezoning could increase the market value of the DDR property by as much as $30 million. Then DDR could sell it to another developer.
• But isn’t it the democratic way to let the voters decide?
Only if there is full information fairly presented to the voters. As DDR showed in the signature-gathering campaign, lies succeed when they are aggressively disseminated without opposing information. DDR figures it can spend so much money painting a one-sided picture of the Initiative that it can drown out all opposition. Even before the Initiative drive, DDR mailed 5 fancy brochures to all county voters, projected a false image of their plans. DDR will circumvent the normal requirement for an Environmental Impact Report, which is an essential source of objective analysis on any project. DDR seeks to lock its 310-page Specific Plan into law and prohibit any public hearings or review by our elected officials. This can’t be described as democratic. It’s more like direct corporate rule.
Go to Save Our Local Economy→
See also The Masonite Monster Mall series→