Homeowners in the quiet bedroom community of Walnut claimed victory last week when the City Council put a developer's plans for a massive high-density shopping mall on hold.
The proposed 26-acre development--which includes a Target store and Vons Pavilions supermarket--is vehemently opposed by many residents, who claim it will lower property values and destroy the exclusive nature of their semi-rural community by luring hordes of outsiders to shop.
"I think we accomplished what we set out to do," said Greg Arakelian, an architect who helped launch the resident movement to defeat the project.
In a 4-1 vote Wednesday, with Mayor Pro Tem Drexel Smith dissenting, the City Council told a tense cluster of developers from the Phoenix-based Vestar Development Co. to seek more input from residents and return to the Planning Commission with a revised proposal.
In a separate vote, the council gave its nod of approval to parishioners whose plans to build a Catholic Church in Walnut were thwarted for almost a year.
City officials had attacked the futuristic design first presented by St. Lorenzo Ruiz Catholic Church, sending the architect back to the drawing board to completely overhaul the plans.
Some residents and council members contrasted that lengthy and sometimes bitter process with the atmosphere of urgency surrounding the commercial development.
"I believe fundamentally that we do need to create another source of revenue in this city," said Mayor William Choctaw.
"However, why is it the church has been a project for over a year, and we've sent it back to the Planning Commission again and again and again, and we want to vote on Target tonight? I see no reason why Target should be treated any differently from St. Lorenzo Ruiz."
Project supporters say Walnut--built to near-capacity with residential developments that exploded in the 1980s--desperately needs the sales tax revenue that a large-scale shopping center will generate.
Delays could jeopardize opportunities to develop the land--owned by Shea Business Properties and slated for commercial development for years, Smith said.
"To those of you who say we've been racing fast, I say some of us have been trying for 12 years to develop that commercial site," Smith said. "For five years what we've pleaded with Shea to do is bring in a very intensive retail project. I think it would be kind of a travesty to see it go across the street" to a neighboring city.
Two thousand residents have signed petitions blasting the project, and in heated testimony Wednesday before the City Council spokesmen promised a referendum and recall of unsympathetic council members if the development was approved.
But even residents who support a shopping center on the hillside site at Grand Avenue and Valley Boulevard say they want one more architecturally suited to the upscale community, etched with horse trails and dotted with million-dollar custom homes.
A March 3 Planning Commission meeting dragged past 3 a.m. while commissioners struggled to accommodate disgruntled residents--dissatisfied with a plethora of project details ranging from tile color and wall and sign height, to the configuration of parking spaces and hazardous conditions truck traffic might create.
Although developers have made a number of the requested concessions, opponents of the project indicated Wednesday that they oppose the very concept of a high-density shopping center, particularly one designed around a chain discount store.
"If I had wanted to live near a Target, Payless (Shoes) or Ross (Dress for Less) I could have sacrificed my quality of life here in Walnut and stayed in Alhambra--and saved myself a lot of money in the process," resident Anita Flores told the council.
The council vote left the development group stunned and scrambling to regroup and confer with city staff.
"Clearly it's a disappointment," said Vestar Development Co. Vice President David Larcher, who was confronted by catcalls of "Go back to Phoenix" at the March 3 meeting.
Larcher said the changes developers have already made to accommodate residents' requests exceed those made by other commercial developments in Walnut. If the project cannot be continued in its existing form, Vestar may move on, he said.
"It became clear at the council hearing that the issues really weren't with the specifics of the project. With that coming out, we're going to assess all of our alternatives," Larcher said.
"We have specific timelines for our tenants to open up stores to serve this market area. At the point when we feel we can no longer make the timelines for this site, we will have no choice but to move forward."
Although developers are just tasting the frustrations of building in a highly regulated community--where even homeowners have spent months squabbling with the city over design issues--members of St. Lorenzo Ruiz Catholic Church expressed relief as their ordeal came to a close.
"It got very bitter at times. But it paid off. We're going to get our church," said Father Dennis Vellucci.
The church--which currently conducts Sunday Mass at an overcrowded rented warehouse--had submitted a futuristic design replete with curves and at points far exceeding the city's conventional height limits.
Debate over the building--designed by Newport Beach architect James Darling--degenerated into angry attacks on the Catholic Church and veiled threats against a councilman.
But after sparring with planning commissioners, church officials directed Darling to start from square one.
The new building is "within the height limit, the other building wasn't," Darling said. "It's a series of faceted roofs rather than a curvilinear wall."
Although the new design was approved in concept, the church was directed to return to the Planning Commission to work out a few details.
Church members--who number about 4,500--were pleased to finally have a home in sight. Some, however, said they preferred the original modern design--which in addition to its radical departure from Walnut's conventional building style had a greater seating capacity.
"It's a piece of art. It would have been Walnut's pride and joy," said Divina Yasay. "For me it would have been a Walnut landmark."