LONG BEACH — It was a cordial but divisive meeting for the Long Beach City Council on Oct. 19, as the council narrowly approved a design review for a proposed Dollar General store on a lot along Bolstad Ave. W that has been vacant for 20 years.
The 3-2 vote to approve the design review for the proposed development came in the face of public feedback earlier in the meeting that was unanimously opposed to having a Dollar General store located on that property — or in Long Beach at all, for some. But city staffers — and, ultimately, a majority of the council — said the city does not have the authority to tell a landowner what business they can or cannot operate on their property, so long as city design requirements are met.
The issue was put in front of the council after the Long Beach Planning Commission recommended conditionally approving the design review. Decisions on design review are usually made solely by the planning commission, but city code requires that design review applications for a commercial development surpassing 6,000 square feet must go to the council for final approval.
Opposition is plentiful
As it always does, the council meeting started off with receiving comments from members of the public. Word spread prior to the meeting about the council’s looming decision on the design review, and at least a dozen people spoke out against the proposed store.
Karla Jensen, owner of Mermaid Inn & RV Park and president of the Long Beach Merchants Association, said that she believes the location of the proposed store, right near the Bolstad beach approach, will cause congestion. She also said its proximity to the arch, “the icon of our community,” was troublesome.
“I just cannot see how this has gone this far through the planning stages,” Jensen said.
Jeff Harrell, owner of Peninsula Pharmacies, said the addition of a Dollar General store to the area will have a direct impact on the company’s three pharmacies on the peninsula, “who have been giving back to this community since 1960.” He also questioned whether having a Dollar General store is a positive look for the city’s image.
“I know a lot of people have commented about the location, which is not ideal for an eye-sore of a business like that … I would encourage you to vote this down and reconsider this — period — in the community. This is not a business that we want. If you want to go across the river to the dollar store, you can do that,” Harrell said.
Tiffany Turner, co-owner of Adrift Hospitality, echoed Harrell’s comments and said she was concerned about what this is going to do to other small businesses located within blocks of the proposed store. Like Jensen, she also talked about its proximity to the arch, “probably the most iconic picture for tourists.”
“If you can imagine, that arch is not going to be as iconic with a Dollar General store in the background. I think that I would encourage the council to consider the impact of this on the community — and our other small businesses — in the long-term,” Turner said.
Andi Day, executive director of the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, said the proposed store may have a negative impact on branding and destination marketing for the area. She mentioned the effort the city has devoted in recent years to cleaning up spaces and derelict buildings.
“I would encourage you all to consider the impact [having a Dollar General store would have] on all of the great work that’s been done,” Day said.
Council moves ahead
Long Beach Community Development Director Ariel Smith presented the design review of the proposed store to the council later in the meeting, and stressed to councilors and members of the public that because the property in question is privately owned, the city can’t tell people to not operate a certain type of business.
“The use is what we govern — it’s a retail use — not what franchise it is, who owns it or how it’s operated. That is out of our control, as a government entity. We don’t deal with competition — again, that’s not our role. So I just want to make that really clear at the beginning,” Smith said.
Long Beach City Administrator David Glasson concurred with Smith, saying that the city can only dictate what the vacant lot is to be used for — a retail space — and not the specific type of business.
“We can only say what you can build on there — and how it looks — but we can’t dictate the actual use of it,” Glasson said.
Smith also addressed a concern from some people who gave public comment, who alleged that perhaps the city had been keeping the public in the dark for an extended period of time about the intended purpose of the vacant lot.
“This was just submitted last month, in September. Before that, we did not have any plans submitted [to the city]. I just want everyone to know that this wasn’t something that we were hiding, it was just submitted in September. It went to the planning commission for their recommendation to the council,” Smith said.
With the planning commission’s recommendation for approval came a list of eight conditions related to the design that the owners of the property must adhere to. Notable conditions include: The structure must be clad with Hardie board with shingles; access shall remain from 2nd Street NW to allow for loading; and the applicant must adhere to all requirements made by the city engineer during the plan review.
For the councilors who agreed that it’s not the city’s place to tell a landowner what they can or can’t do with their property so long as it’s in compliance with city requirements, the biggest concern with the proposed store was the impact it might have on traffic in the area.
Councilor Sue Svendsen said that she thought the design of the building looked beautiful, but would like to see a study showing the impact the proposed store would have on traffic in the area, considering that there are already existing traffic and congestion concerns.
“I have no problem with Dollar General, in particular. If they are primarily the discount grocery store that they advertise themselves to be, that’s fine. We need more access to affordable food. But I do think the traffic is a big situation,” Svendsen said.
Glasson said the city’s engineers have looked at the potential impact on traffic, and Smith pointed out that one of the conditions of approval for the design is that any forthcoming requirements made by the city engineer must be adhered to in order to move forward with the project.
Councilor Del Murry said the city needs to do everything in its power, legally, to discourage the landowners from putting a Dollar General store at that location. Along with Svendsen, he was one of the two councilors to ultimately vote against approving the design review.
Councilor Holli Kemmer said she agreed that it is not the council’s place to judge, so long as the zoning is correct and it has gone through the proper steps with the planning commission.
“I think you’re talking about a real slippery slope when you start telling people what they can and can’t do with their property,” Kemmer said.
The next step in the process, Glasson said, is for the applicants to show that they are adhering to the city engineer’s requirements during the plan review. If they do, the applicants would be able to apply for a building permit.