Hudson Sangree is a fabulous reporter covering Yolo County affairs for SacBee. His (front page, 10/6/11) article: “Big-box development on outskirts of Woodland leaves downtown in decline,” is a marvelous and timely piece of work. We in this city are fortunate Sangree is on our beat.

Painting broad-brush contours of these circumstances, Sangree easily exposes a vastly troubled landscape: previous and potential consequences of Woodland’s (half-century long) juggernaut of sprawl and “downtown [ ] decline.” His incisive news report opens numerous questions and crucial challenges about which some further version of news analysis may be beneficial.

____  Historical Scope Of Downtown Decline  ____

Woodland’s downtown began a constant spiral of slow decline beginning with the Purity Plaza development at West and Main Streets, city ‘outskirts” of a half-century ago.

An early and modest challenge to Woodland’s core downtown occurred during the mid-1930s, when Safeway constructed and opened a modern grocery store on its periphery (now the auto parts shop on Elm Street between Court and Main Streets, its two major thoroughfares).

Woodland’s history of civic action in the latter half of the twentieth century was prominently injurious to its downtown area. Demolitions and improper makeovers expressed ignorance and disdain for its history. During the 1960s and 1970s, demolition / defacing of several historical buildings (somehow) falsely implied an advent of progressive planning.

Beginning in the 1980s, individual capital investments by Gary Wirth, Tom Stallard, Mark Ulrich and others converged with emerging community awareness and concern about the fate of downtown, creating in 1993 a Downtown Specific Plan to best preserve and enhance Woodland’s core. This community now operates on an outdated (2003) version of this Plan.

Initially, general development drift was westerly, most commercial zoning kept along Main and Court Streets. Much of this earlier “strip-mall” type of development (in Sangree’s words), “proliferated and deteriorated.”

Significantly adverse community blight currently exists related to this (in Petrovich’s words): “obsolete retail — four-and-five-decade-old stuff when there were a lot of shop tenants in the world before the advent of big-box,” as Sangree’s story starkly confirms.

A quarter-century ago, County Faire Mall was suddenly our gleaming new engine of commercial viability, now morphing into unwieldy anachronism.

Woodland presently has ~276 acres of vacant / undeveloped commercial property, with about a quarter-million square feet of vacant retail space. Blight is a major ingredient in the present experience of our downtown.

Excitement by city hall, chamber of commerce, etc., with the recent big-box phenomenon, meanwhile, led to a lavishly one-sided development agreement regarding the existing Gateway project. Petrovich was given six and a half years to create environmental mitigation in the form of his own building’s presence — anywhere at all — within the downtown area.

This city council approved development agreement allows — 78 months — of adverse impacts to occur before requiring any form of balance related to such an undermining of downtown commerce. Frosting on mistake, (purported) mitigation of this type is unusually shallow and inadequate.

Plus, Petrovich seems intent on using all of this very long and lavish rope, perhaps politically hanging-up his brash plans for doubling the size of this Gateway shopping center, already badly designed as a strip-mall on steroids, where most shoppers are forced to drive from store to store.

____  Yesterday’s Developmental Dynamics  ____

Excitement with County Faire Mall developers (a Petrovich of those days) led to a totally unnecessary selling-out of our downtown’s entertainment function, with Mall inclusion of a new movie-theater complex, for decades undermining any possibility of supporting renovation and expansion of historic State Theatre (oddly, a prime goal of our original Downtown Specific Plan adopted shortly after the Mall opened — but now seemingly buried forever by the recent, perverse and non-transparent city council decision to permit Chase Bank to occupy a needed, adjacent parcel).

Countering an argument by downtown merchants that free-parking at this new shopping mall would unfairly imbalance shoppers’ inclinations, its parking-meters were removed with a spritely fund-raising program, slyly distracting from blunt realization about dire consequences of the mall-era. But, Mervyns and the like demanded to develop upon our green-fields and Penny’s, like Target of today, leaped at such a chance to upgrade its site.

Now, Penny’s is about all that remains out at the listless County Faire Mall.

Revitalization efforts during the mall-era supposedly caused city hall to also remove the historically hewn, granite street-works of our downtown, insisting upon installing an aggregate-concrete component which is distinctly non-historical. Today, such a move would be hugely questioned.

Curiously, a strong current of local community planning has historically included heedlessly, recklessly eroding / collapsing our valuable civic heritage, at glimpsing of an initial shimmer of added municipal revenue.

____  Today’s Developmental Dynamics  ____

Of course, there is no escaping big-box fever, as Sangree’s article vividly displays. Consumers demand big-boxes and Woodland should be willing and able to fruitfully participate in reasonably satisfying this demand.

However, as usual: “the (developmental) devil is in the details,” from which developers like Petrovich are usually determined to distract us.

Big-box inertia may now reign, but most of our downtown’s problems arise from all of the many — little-boxes — in its train.

Downtown businesses depend on their splendid consumer service to compete against big-box allure; however, including in wake a wide spectrum of specialty retailers which are in — direct competition — with downtown (and other existing) merchants selling: furniture, clothing, appliances, groceries, drugs, pet supplies, food, etc., is a reckless recipe for downtown disaster.

Stallard expresses the plain truth that a sort of — “second city” — has sprung up along our eastern edge. Sangree refers to it as a “commuter and shopping mecca,” highlighting its focused ambiance as an affordable and convenient “bedroom” / commercial alternative for (western) metropolitan Sacramento and Davis.

“Prosperity” (to a degree) is properly associated with this planning scenario, since capturing leaking sales-tax revenue and attracting new revenue from outside the city (as well portrayed in Sangree’s story) are key elements of municipal growth.

Sangree indicates city hall sources relating that $1.2 million of sales tax revenue (one seventh of total municipal sources) is now being derived from Gateway center, not yet completed. Some of this is new money, but much of it simply reflect sales being – redistributed – within this community.

Only estimates exist regarding the actual figure for new sales-tax money, but that amount is clearly less than $1 million (likely about $750,000). At least half of such shoppers are Woodlanders, though some were leaking sales tax.

Gateway is making money for the city, but let’s not overstate this situation, with an inertia toward allowing this developer more influence than is due.

Unbelievably declaring to the planning commission on July 7 that Gateway has had — no adverse impacts — upon Woodland’s downtown (despite detailed admission of such within (inadequate) environmental mitigation of his new project), Petrovich is clearly willing to say whatever it takes to whomever is so charmed.

This style, working quite well for Petrovich with Gateway, is now under intense scrutiny and suspicion in its sequel.

Deriding our long heritage as being perhaps a hindrance to modern progress, Petrovich exclaims that as a big-shot, big-box outsider — he: “is making things happen.”

These are typical bullying tactics, attempting to instill a sense of deep inferiority within one’s subjects, intimidating them into submission.

Obviously, many developers made “things happen” quite a lot during the historical course of Woodland’s long swoon with sprawl. Petrovich is simply the spawn and spectacle of this particular era — late in its course.

____  Harnessing Petrovich’s Chrome Horsies  ____

Mayor Art Pimentel correctly observes that most Woodlanders surely adore having a Costco and new Target store, adding to the WalMart and our town’s various other big-box-ish enterprises.

Petrovich deserves adequate credit, but certainly not the nature of hero worship which leads to relevant denigration of our civic interests and values.

Pimentel says Woodlanders want more of the same.

Question is: How much more will be well balanced for this community?

A clear litmus test of utter nonsense regarding the newly proposed, double-breasted Gateway is that one-third of the commercial zoning (20 of 60 acres) is being designated for motor vehicle dealerships, allegedly vacating Main Street; while at the same time, the city is beginning to assist these very same dealerships with locating at another site in eastern Woodland.

There are no motor vehicle dealerships on Main Street that will relocate into Petrovich’s commercial crypt at a new Gateway. Bad-faith thus flows from its basic developmental documents, staining our civic processes, while a majority of our city council members appear oblivious.

Here is a case of double-talk turning out a double-barreled Gateway and a double-cross of our downtown.

Here is the optimum formula relevant to future civic “prosperity” (considered commercially):  Petrovich may install a few more – big-boxes – determined by the city council to be regionally oriented, complementary to existing municipal commerce. However accessory / associated retail uses should be largely denied, since to a reasonable extent these already exist within the primary Gateway development and intensely conflict with our redevelopment efforts.

Since the city council has by a 3 – 2 majority already approved this doubling of the size of Gateway, it’s up to litigation to obtain this just (or perhaps another potentially just) result. One lawsuit is already moving and another one is planned.