Shopping Spree

Charanjit Kaur in her auto shop, which is regulated by County Environmental Health. Landlord Russel Stanley claims it poses an environmental hazard: “We do not feel comfortable with such liability on a long-term basis.”

For years, Charanjit Kaur and Harmeet Khamba supported their family on Khamba’s salary from working as a mechanic in Salinas. Then, about 12 years ago, the couple became entrepreneurs, establishing their own auto services shop in the Mid Valley Shopping Center in Carmel Valley.

They built up a loyal clientele by tailoring their service to the needs of the local community. Kaur says the shop helps its elderly customers with a car pickup and delivery service. “The customers want us to be here,” she says. “They need a repair shop.”

Just how badly the community wants to keep its family-run auto shop became apparent last month when the owner of the property revealed plans to replace the shop with a wine tasting room. It started with a notice posted to the window of the shop reflecting a pending application for an alcohol license. As soon as word got out, Carmel Valley residents began investigating the situation and organizing a response on Next Door, a neighborhood social networking service.

“Harmeet and his family have been working on our cars for years and I have always been extremely satisfied with their work,” one person wrote, expressing a common sentiment. “As a community, we cannot lose them.”

Carmel Valley residents contacted local media, sent letters to their congressman and state representatives, and began engaging with the State Department of Alcohol Beverage Control and the county planning office.

What helped galvanize many community members was the feeling that ejecting the auto shop was part of a larger plan to transform the Mid Valley Shopping Center into a tourist-serving destination. The Stanley Group, which bought the commercial complex from its original owner just over a year ago, has rebranded it online as The Marketplace @ Carmel Valley.

The new owner had also physically transformed the shopping center by beginning to paint it white, a departure from the earth tones that helped the structure blend into its environment. Carmel Valley resident Jason Wachs wrote a complaint to county officials calling the paint job a “desecration of [an] architectural masterpiece.” (The shopping center was designed in 1966 by Olof Dahlstrand, in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright.)

The developer hadn’t obtained a permit before starting the paint job, and the county slapped him with a stop work order.

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In response to all the backlash, The Stanley Group’s president, Russel Stanley, decided to scuttle his plans and start over, this time with community input. He agreed to participate in a community meeting on Aug. 6, sponsored by the Carmel Valley Association and moderated by County Supervisor Mary Adams. It drew 200 people. Adams quipped about how she might need to wear a kevlar vest.

When Stanley said the auto shop’s lease would be extended for another year, the crowd erupted in applause. But ultimately, Stanley intends to replace the shop anyway because, he wrote in an open letter, it’s an environmental liability.

For now, The Stanley Group is drafting a new proposal for a redesign of the center that will be presented to the Carmel Valley Land Use Advisory Committee, the first step in the public hearing process.

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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