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Market decline 

A developer pulls the plug on an Arroyo Grande development ... for now

The developer of a controversial proposed grocery market project in Arroyo Grande unexpectedly withdrew his proposal at the March 8 City Council meeting, apparently bowing to overwhelming public opposition.

“It was never my intent in this process to create something that wasn’t beneficial to the community,” said Nick Tompkins, the would-be developer of 4.47 acres at the southwest corner of East Grand Avenue and Courtland Street. “Clearly my thoughts about what was beneficial to the community and the community at large’s [thoughts] may be different—and sounds like they clearly were.”

click to enlarge PULLING OUT :  Untouched land at the border of Arroyo Grande will remain that way after developer Nick Tompkins withdrew his application for a controversial supermarket. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PULLING OUT : Untouched land at the border of Arroyo Grande will remain that way after developer Nick Tompkins withdrew his application for a controversial supermarket.

The council approved 4-0 Tompkins’ proposal to keep his development application on file, but with the stipulation that the development will be a “blank slate” that will require a new plan and a separate environmental review to move forward if and when it returns.

Tompkins told the council he wanted to eventually come back with a project that would be both beneficial—not loathed by the community—and economically viable. He pledged to meet with members of the community and neighboring business owners and return with a revamped plan that would “be something we could all be proud of.”

He said he was unsure when he would return with a new proposal.

The council approved 4-0 a conditional-use permit for a 36-unit public housing development to be built adjacent to the proposed project.

The conflict over Tompkins’ market plans had been brewing for months. Overflow crowds have been cramming into city meetings to protest the project nearly every time it was scheduled to be discussed. Not a single supporter—except for Tompkins and his employees—ever spoke up.

Why all the fuss over a grocery store?

It would be easy to assume the defeat of Tompkins’ development was a simple case of local residents fighting to keep an unwanted business away from their neighborhood. But if you peel back the platitudes and the usual not-in-my-backyard stalwarts, a more curious tale of small town politics, economics, and attitudes is revealed.

Tompkins is a major developer in Arroyo Grande and has had direct business dealings with the city. Tompkins’ company, NKT, made a complicated multimillion dollar building and land swap with Arroyo Grande to get a new city hall for the town in 2010.

His proposed Courtland Street project was to have had a 35,786-square-foot grocery store; two undetermined retail buildings, each less than 6,000 square feet; and a restaurant. The plan originally called for a 51,000-square-foot building, but was downsized when the City Council rejected the plan and sent it back through the Planning Commission to be redesigned. Food 4 Less was interested in the original plan but, according to the city, isn’t interested in the downsized project.

People’s Self–Help Housing of San Luis Obispo will build 36 units of low-income housing on 1.63 acres behind where the market would have been if approved.

Much of the resistance to the market has been led by John Spencer, owner of Spencer’s Fresh Markets, which has a branch kitty-corner from where Tompkins’ project was to be built. Spencer’s employees have been at the forefront of the protests against the project, gathering thousands of signatures condemning it.

“Just putting another market in there isn’t going to help the city,” Spencer said. “There’s five markets in just a few blocks.”

Spencer was referring to Vons, the Cookie Crock, and JJ’s Markets, which, along with his own store, are located within a half a mile of the proposed development. Putting another market in an area already saturated with similar businesses was one of the main arguments that came from locals.

“I already have a difficult time choosing where to shop,” said Jenny Mays, who lives down the street from where the project was to be constructed. “How many do you need around here?”

Spencer readily admitted that his opposition to the project wasn’t altruistic.

“We’ve been up front about this,” he said of his personal interest in not seeing a new competitor across the street. “All of us [fellow market owners] look at this, and we don’t need to cut the pie any thinner.”

City planners conceded that the new market would cannibalize business from other local markets. The city estimated it would bring in $100,000 a year in taxes from the project, $25,000 to $30,000 of which would come from other businesses in Arroyo Grande.

Many local residents wonder why the city would approve a new retail center when many shopping areas on Grand Avenue have stretches of empty storefronts.

“The businesses in this town are hanging by a thread,” said Sandra Hope, a renter who lives in Berry Gardens, the neighborhood nearest where the project would have been. “Why would you bring in a business that is the same as the rest in the area?”

Hope, along with many other Berry Gardens residents, received a letter with a map of the project titled, “Is this the right ‘fit’ for our neighborhood?” The map illustrated the route shipping trucks would have to follow to fit into the loading docks on the Berry Gardens side of the project. Project opponents claimed the market and the trucks swinging into the market from Courtland Street would create a surge of traffic through Berry Gardens, a usually quiet middle-class neighborhood.

Another often-voiced complaint was the proposed market “draws upon a population that would cause more traffic” or “draws customers from other neighborhoods.”

“That’s code for ‘people not like us,’” said a city official who preferred to remain anonymous. “Whatever goes in there may likely be a market with an ethnic flavor, and the neighborhood probably won’t care for that. Not everybody means it that way, but that attitude is definitely out there.”

For now—and for whatever reasons—the opponents of Tompkins’ development seem to have stopped the project. He’s pledged to meet and confer with the residents before coming back to the city with another proposal. And he denied that there were any monetary reasons behind his decision.

“It became a difficult environment,” he said. “I decided to stop and take a look and see what thoughts [for the land] are out there.” 

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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