Built on Lies
Marina officials refuse to challenge Wal-Mart developer over broken promises.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
The developer who’s bringing Wal-Mart to Marina attained a crucial permit by making a long list of hollow promises to the Planning Commission on Oct. 13. One unfulfilled pledge made by Terrence Tallen, CEO of Tallen and Keshen Holdings, was that he would upgrade the old Kmart site before his company approached other retailers who might want to move onto the property.
“Once we close on the property, we will immediately come in and start spending money [on upgrades],” Tallen told the Marina Planning Commission. “Then, when everything’s looking good, we’ll go out to the retail real estate community…that’s how you reposition retail real estate.”
None of that happened.
Today, the old Kmart building, a 91,000-square-foot structure at the corner of Beach and Reservation roads, sits as blighted as ever. Tallen never installed new lighting fixtures, or painted the wall’s exteriors, as promised. To date, Tallen hasn’t provided any evidence that he even tried to do these things.
Instead, on March 3, Tallen announced to the consternation of many that a Wal-Mart was going to move into the old Kmart site. He did that even though the planning commissioners who granted him the zoning permit specifically told him that Wal-Mart was the one store they didn’t want.
“We’re definitely hearing we don’t want to sell to Wal-Mart,” Bob Drake, a planning commissioner, told Tallen and his partner Anne Keshen on Oct. 13, minutes before the commission voted to grant them the zoning permit. “Go forth and do good things in our community…if you fail, we have ways.”
If Tallen did provide the Planning Commission with false information, willfully or negligently, in order to the obtain the desired permit, the City can legally revoke Tallen and Keshen’s zoning permit. This would cripple the Wal-Mart deal.
Tallen did not return several phone calls as of the Weekly’s deadline.
At least three of the planning commissioners who voted to approve the zoning permit say that Tallen and Keshen officials indeed flat-out lied.
“We categorically did not want a Wal-Mart in our town,” says Niraj Dangoria, a planning commissioner who says his dream of a vibrant Marina downtown is now dead thanks to the Wal-Mart deal. “We believed what these developers told us. We took them at their word. It’s horrible, [but] you can’t take someone at their word. That’s the lesson I’m learning from this.”
In a letter to the City Council, Colin Gallagher, another planning commissioner, argues that the commission has the authority to revisit its earlier approval—and to ultimately revoke the zoning permit.
“False material information (written and oral) was provided negligently to the Planning Commission [by Tallen and Keshen],” Gallagher wrote the council in the capacity of a concerned citizen.
Dave Burnett, who is no longer on the commission, echoes these concerns. “What Gallagher says is true,” Burnett says. “They made false statements to us.”
And Burnett says he believed that the commission would get to vote on the new retail tenant.
“I was under the assumption,” he says, “and given the assumption by staff, that it would come back to us and that we would be given the chance to look at it again.”
So far, these kinds of appeals are falling on deaf ears at City Hall. Despite the fact that top city officials admit that Tallen tricked Marina by squeezing a Wal-Mart in through the city’s backdoor and without an environmental review, the City Council has opted to throw its hands up in the air.
“It is my philosophy that if you get lemons, make lemonade,” Marina Mayor Ila Metee-McCutchon told anti-Wal-Mart activists during her recent State of the City Address. “A Wal-Mart is going to be there, love it or not.”
City Councilman Michael Morrison insists that the deal is legal, and therefore he won’t waste any more City Council time on the issue.
“It wasn’t done properly, I will attest to that,” Morrison says of Wal-Mart’s arrival in Marina. “Maybe they outsmarted us, but there is no law against outsmarting someone.
“Show me proof that they have broken the law.”
The kind of proof Morrison is asking for may never be had, even if Tallen indeed lied to the planning commission. Despite commissioners’ and residents’ statements to the contrary, a March 17 memo from city staff to the council says that Tallen did not provide the planning commission with misleading information and, to prove otherwise would require “evidence [that] is virtually unassailable.”
As of now, Steve and Tina Zmak, the leaders of Citizens Against Wal-Mart in Marina, say certain crucial questions remain unanswered. “How long was it from the time Tallen and Keshen closed on the property until Wal-Mart approached them about buying the property?” Tina Zmak asks. “Why, during this time, didn’t Tallen do any of the upgrade work that they said they would do?”