May 23, 2012 | For the second time in as many months, Hayward city leaders have denied an out-of-state property owner a conditional use permit to lease the vacant Circuit City building on Whipple Road for a scaled-down Walmart grocery store. The Hayward City Council voted narrowly, 4-3, in favor of upholding the planning commission’s, 4-3, decision last April 5.

Although the decision at hand focused on whether the proposed grocery store constituted a “regional or sub-regional” use. The appellant before the planning commission last month also questioned whether the increased traffic and pollution at the proposed site also warranted a environmental review. However, the tenor of the over five-hour council meeting centered directly on the hot-button issue of Walmart, even though it was revealed during the hearing that the retail behemoth no longer had interest in the property.

Daniel Temkin, part of the family that owns the 5.14-acre site at 2480 Whipple Road, told the council Walmart had recently rescinded interest in moving into the old Circuit City building. “Why are we here?” asked Councilman Marvin Peixoto. Temkin said he was confident Walmart could be lured back to the site, if he was granted the conditional use permit Tuesday night.

Similar to the April 5 planning hearing, some council members continued to be hamstrung by the exact definition of regional and sub-regional use. Councilman Olden Henson, in particular, voiced displeasure over handing down a decision without a clear city definition on both terms. Several planning commissioners made the same assertion last month, yet city staff did not produce a new definition.

Councilman Bill Quirk, who is also a front runner for 20th Assembly District seat, said despite city staff’s recommendation to overturn the planning commission’s determination, he told the city’s developmental services director, “I think you’re wrong on this” and the commission got it right.

Along with Quirk, Mayor Michael Sweeney voted with the majority as did Peixoto and Henson. “Regional, to me, was Circuit City,” said Peixoto, “People came to the city to buy things. A grocery store is a neighborhood business. Why then would people in Southgate be complaining about not having a supermarket?” he said.

The issue of Walmart has become one of the biggest campaign issues of this year’s City Council race. Three sitting members are up for re-election this June. Another council candidate, Planning Commissioner Al Mendall, has also faced scrutiny from the local Chamber of Commerce for his vote against Temkin and Walmart last month.

Councilwoman Barbara Halliday, also up for re-election, called the ruling, “the hardest decision we have faced in quite awhile.” Nevertheless, she voted in favor of overturning the decision based upon land-use regulations, but said you won’t catch her shopping at Walmart anytime soon. “I don’t particularly like a Walmart in our city,” she said. “I will not be shopping there my myself. However, this is not about the store, but about land-use.” Instead, Halliday said the city does not have the right to dictate other’s choice and must begin luring more businesses to Hayward. “What we need to do is fill empty buildings.”

Councilman Francisco Zermeno, another on the ballot June 5, agreed. “I would rather we fill a spot at a time,” he said. Despite brandishing deep union ties, Councilman Mark Salinas ascribed to a similar rationale for the need to start attracting new business. In an impassioned speech, Salinas, the 42-year-old Hayward born and raised council member said, many buildings in the city have been vacant as long as he’s been alive.

The vote Tuesday night may have had no bigger ramification for the June election, than the decision to uphold by Henson. According to onlookers with ties to the Hayward business community, Henson’s vote appeared unknown going into the meeting. A few members of the Chamber of Commerce in the audience were visibly livid as Henson’s remarks began to give clues he would vote to uphold the decision. A former president of the chamber, within earshot, jumped from his seat and muttered, “You’re done,” as Henson spoke from the dais.

The pressure to allow Walmart to set up shop in Hayward has been steadily rising in recent weeks concurrently with the final days of the City Council campaign. Henson seemed to allude to the arm-twisting in remarks late Tuesday night. “I think it’s absurd for anybody to say we’re anti-business,” said Henson. “Some of the people who say that have made a lot of money from the decisions I have made.”

In an email, Wednesday morning, Temkin also pegged the denial of Walmart and a previously proposed Sam’s Club on Henson. “In fact, Henson cast the deciding vote in both instances. The site of the proposed Sam’s Club was soon after approved for a Target Store. It sits across Whipple Road from our shopping center. So, now the legacy of Mr. Henson will be that he killed two Walmart deals for his city,” wrote Temkin.

As the conclusion of the meeting inched into the early morning hours, a still visibly agitated Henson, maintained his vote to uphold the planning commission’s decision was not anti-commerce. By asking staff for clarification on the “regional/sub-regional” definition, he said, it would allow the property owner Temkin a “clean slate” to reapply in the future.

Some observers believe Henson’s name recognition and long-time service will earn him another four years, but after Tuesday’s vote, the chamber’s long knives may be out for him June 5. However, Henson was sacrosanct as he left City Hall. “I may be done, but I did the right thing.”