Neighbors resist plans for big box retail in Town Center West
Tony Mansour would like to add large retail to his Town Center West project, the 130 acres west of Latrobe Road and north of White Rock Road.
At a meeting last Wednesday residents of the neighboring Stonebriar and Springfield Meadows communities voiced their concerns about “big box blight” — noise, pollution, crime, etc. — near their homes and they claim Mansour’s breaking a 1995 agreement that doesn’t include retail on the property.
Mansour did not attend the meeting but later spoke with Village Life, saying, “We’re not going to throw them under the bus or jam something down their throat.”
Mansour officials said the 1995 development plan that specifies office, light industrial and ancillary retail uses is no longer feasible in today’s market, and promised that the existing design standards wouldn’t be lessened for the proposed large retailers. The site was originally planned to be an employment hub for electronics companies including Mnemonics, JVC, Mitsubishi and others. The only current tenants are Blue Shield and another commercial business.
“The market shifted,” said Mansour later in the week. “JVC went to Laguna, Folsom got Mnemonics and CPM sold out. We were stuck with light manufacturing uses that no longer work in that area.”
The site’s development plan is formally known as a “Planned Development.” It currently allows 1.5 million square feet of building on the site, plus a hotel. The proposed amendment reduces the total square footage by one-third, but allows 350,000 square feet of retail — up from 66,000 — in addition to the other uses.
By comparison, Town Center East is approved for 1 million square feet plus a hotel, 800,000 square feet of the project have been built.
Roughly 70 neighboring residents turned out at the Holiday Inn on July 20 for a presentation on plans for the site hosted by Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Debbie Manning.
Attendees concedes that they bought homes adjacent to 130 acres of clearly marked commercial zoning, but cite the fact that Mansour created a detailed development plan, approved by the county, that specified uses they deemed acceptable when they bought into their neighborhood.
County Principal Planner Pierre Rivas explained to the crowd that the amended plan is in the “pre-application” stage — an informal “running up the flag” to get the opinion of the public, the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors before filing an actual application.
“I’ve done a hundred of these and this is the first time I’ve seen the applicant communicating with the public this early in the process,” he said. “Consider yourselves fortunate.”
An ensuing rumble of discontent indicated that most residents did not feel “fortunate.”
Attorney Craig Sandburg provided a brief history of the area, which is also a history of El Dorado Hills. He described how Mansour bought most of what is now considered El Dorado Hills in 1979 and 10 years later created the El Dorado Hills Specific Plan, which included a 200-acre Town Center broadly zoned commercial, which allows a full gamut of uses, including all types of retail.
Separate development plans for the east and west area followed in 1995, defining specific uses.
Doug Weile teamed up with Mansour in 1996, eventually moving his family from the Bay Area to El Dorado Hills and serving as a leasing agent, consultant and other duties as assigned — apparently including contentious neighbor meetings.
He pointed out that flexibility was built into the PD process. “The county gave us great latitude to build the Town Center you see today,” he said. “The planned development … had no supermarket or car dealer. The Mercedes site was supposed to be a go-kart track.
“The development plans for both east and west Town Center were created long before specific clients were lined up,” he continued. “There were only 13,000 people here at the time. We put these plans together as guidelines for likely uses.”
Rivas later confirmed that Mansour was granted substantial flexibility in the Town Center East planned development, and the eventual uses were consistent with the general plan and the specific plan, “as are the proposed changes in Town Center West.”
“These permits are not set in stone,” he said. “They get changed. There’s a process for that, which includes plenty of opportunity for public involvement. That’s really all Tony is asking for here.”
Several residents asked variations of three basic questions. Why retail? Why now? Why here?
Other than Target, Town Center East’s retail is mostly smaller specialty shops, said Weile. “There remains demand for more major retail here, in excess of what’s available, even now, coming out of the recession. Merchants are opening stores again.”
Springfield Meadows resident Rusty Everett countered, “There’s no shortage of retail in El Dorado Hills. Town Center is full of empty stores. Palladio Mall (in Folsom) is sitting empty.
“What you’re talking is large box retail,” Everett said. “That brings noise pollution, light pollution, food pollution, rodents and crime. We didn’t sign up for that.”
Everett warned his neighbors that their property values would decrease, and predicted that the sales tax revenue gained from the proposed retail wouldn’t offset the property tax loss.
He credited Mansour for doing a good job on Town Center East. “But you didn’t try to squeeze it in next to a housing development.”
Other residents at the meeting volunteered that they’d rather drive the five miles to Folsom to shop, a sentiment that won’t sit will with county officials trying to stem the tide of taxable sales that flows across the county line every day.
Bill and Cheryl Chieki bought their home at the end of Dover Court in 1996 after meeting Mansour in one of the wine and cheese socials he held to promote El Dorado Hills. “We bought into the plan,” said Bill.
The marketing package they received in 1996 described the neighboring commercial buildings as “garden office,” set 90 feet from the fence line and backed by light industrial to the east, said Cheryl Chieki on Thursday morning. “They would be there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and not weekends. We thought we could handle that.”
Mansour said later he doesn’t recall using the term “garden office,” and asked if it’s mentioned in the planned development. It’s not.
“I wouldn’t have bought this house if there was going to be Target on my fence line,” said Bill Chieki on Wednesday night. “We made our decision based on thinking you would do what you were supposed to do. I understand that markets change. But you can’t throw us away.”
Chieki worried that land and entitlements would end up in the hands of an offshore investor that lacked Mansour’s concern for the community.
“He’ll be gone before this is done,” he said. “The next guy isn’t going to be kinder than Tony.”
Weile confirmed that the Mansour Company might not build the retail, but said they were willing to work with neighbors to ensure strict design standards.
“All kinds of things can be done,” he said. “Limited operating hours, loading from the side, no trash out back, light, noise, sound walls, landscape buffers,” all deed-restricted or mandated by design guidelines.
Weile’s only caveat was retaining the green belt that runs through the parcel and limits setback distances from the western boundary.
On Friday Weile further suggested that neighboring residents be granted a couple of seats on the project’s design review committee.
But residents on Wednesday night weren’t placated.
Realtor Colleen Voss-Vakili said she moved to El Dorado Hills because it was a “quiet affluent community.”
“I don’t want to live next to a strip mall … a Walmart or a dollar store,” she said. “I’ll go back to San Jose if it comes to that.”
Weile, collar open and shirt tails hanging out over his jeans, tried to blunt the negativity by pointing to Mansour’s track record.
“Look, he’s not a saint, but when Tony bought 8,000 acres in 1979 he set a vision for this community. He lives here. He set the standards you like … the big lots, the landscaping, the street designs, they all came off his desk and he hasn’t abandoned that.
“He’s passionate about this community.”
Terry Thomas’ property also adjoins Town Center West. Like his more vocal neighbors he would prefer office or light industry uses on the site, “unless there’s some benefit for everyone,” he said.
He said he clearly hears the DJ at Relish Burger Bar, and suggested that a landscaped sound wall might solve a lot of problems. Thomas also mentioned that his largest concern is the county-mandated pedestrian walkway between his neighborhood and the project, originally proposed for Montrose Way.
Stonebriar resident Michele Meisner argued for a pedestrian connection, and said a well-designed retail project would enhance home values.
She envisions a downtown community where people walk to Town Center’s shops and restaurants. “I’m excited about the development of this area, and hope that we have some input about the designs and the types of businesses that go in there.”
“We came here because of the Town Center,” she said. “I would much rather see a beautiful store than an extension of the business park.”
Mansour sat in Town Center’s Olympus coffee shop on Friday morning and reflected that he’d held the land for 30 years, paid assessments, paid taxes, serviced his debts and built roads.
“I can’t wait for the market to come back for garden office,” he said. “It could be 20 years.
“In ’95 we had Mitsubishi and JVC lined up but that business is gone,” he continued. “The PD has to respond to the market or the process doesn’t work.”
The Town Center magnate outlined his two options. “Either I give it to the bank, let them cut it up so some offshore investor can buy the note and build what they want, or ask this community to trust me.
“I think my record speaks for itself.”