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Publication Date: Friday, March 01, 2002

Can Home Depot be trusted? Can Home Depot be trusted? (March 01, 2002)

March 5, MV voters will decide March 5, MV voters will decide (March 01, 2002)

By Bill D'Agostino

Forget the money. Forget the traffic. Forget the jobs. Forget the noise.

What it really comes down to, in the end, is trust.

Can Mountain View voters trust Home Depot to live up to its campaign promises and be a good neighbor if voters decide the company can build a new store at the Emporium site on El Camino Real?

On March 5, the city's electorate will go to the polls and decide, voting on measure N which would rezone the property and allow Home Depot to move in after its design plans are approved by the city council. Current zoning prohibits a big box retail store from moving in, but allows a hotel, small scale retail and other uses.

Home Depot representatives say they have learned from their past mistakes and are willing to do whatever it takes to be accountable to the city. They have promised up to $1.5 million in road improvements to deal with traffic volume, sound walls to deal with truck noise, and a new delivery system to make sure big rigs don't arrive at unseemly hours.

But opponents say Home Depot has made too many mistakes and has alienated too many residents to trust its promises. Home Depot is just using its deep pockets, detractors say, to muscle its way into town, they dispute any claims to the contrary.

"They just have a new dealer in five card Monty," said Lawrence Vallandigham, a leader of the grassroots campaign against Home Depot, Citizens Voting No on N and a Mountain View resident who lives near the site.
Early mistakes in Mountain View

Home Depot acquired a long-term lease _ about 50 years _ for the property in 1995. That same year, the company got approval to put a Home Depot EXPO _ a store smaller than a normal Home Depot and focused on home design _ on the site, but then changed its mind and pulled the project. Eventually the EXPO was relocated to East Palo Alto.

Rosemary Stasek, a Mountain View City Council member, said the "bait and switch left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths."

Next, the company subleased the property for a Westin hotel and office complex, but scrapped the deal soon after.

Stasek said the city never heard from Westin about why the deal broke up. Home Depot said the financing fell through, but Stasek said that, since the economy at the time was quite conducive to hotel development, she questions whether that is the real reason.
Miscommunication with city government, last minute yank

Between 2000 and late 2001, Home Depot and the city worked together to find an appropriate use for the site, with Home Depot trying to get the city to rezone the property.

In July of 2001, the council was set to vote on the rezoning. The day of the vote, Home Depot pulled out, alienating residents. Later, Home Depot claimed that the city never gave a clear direction about what kind of design it was looking for.

"We held countless meetings with Home Depot at every level," said Michael Percy said, the city's principal planner, adding that the city gave guidelines for what it wanted at the site, but never got an acceptable plan. "Are we going to design the building for them? No, that's not what the city does."

Percy said he has probably spent more time on the Home Depot project over the last few years than any other, and that in his 30 years as a planner for the city, Home Depot ranks as one of the two or three projects the planning department has spent the most time on.

Victor Ajlouny, who is currently handling Home Depot's public relations in Mountain View, said that the worst part of the situation from that time wasn't that the project didn't get approved, "it was the mistrust that it created."
All about money?

Patrick McGaughey, Home Depot's Western division real estate manager, said the company has pursued a store in Mountain View so vigorously because it sees a niche in Mountain View. "We see this as a tremendous business opportunity for us. We know that in our East Palo Alto and Sunnyvale stores, we are not satisfying the customer base in this region."

But Stasek responded that the company is using its deep pockets to bend the process for its own advantage. She says the company is doing what no other business has ever done in Mountain View by putting the rezoning on the ballet. "That's a precedent that I don't want to see set among the wealthiest of businesses that might want to come in to the community," she said.

All along, Stasek asserted, Home Depot has shown a "breathtaking disrespect for the community."
Getting cozy with residential development

Many California Home Depots are located far away from residential developments. Some, like the Milpitas store, are located near large malls.

Others, as in East Palo Alto and Vallejo, are part of a larger complex of big box stores, such as Toys R Us and Good Guys.

A store in Campbell, located near homes, was considered by town officials and even by Home Depot as an initial failure with noise, trash and traffic annoying neighbors. The town, McGaughey said, even threatened to limit the store's hours.

"There are places where we have not been a very good neighbor. Absolutely. It would be foolish not to admit that," McGaughey said, "but as we're putting stores closer and closer together, we're realizing that a lot of times our neighbors are residential homes and we need to change the way that we do business."

"Home Depot is a 20 year old company and by nature with companies that's a young company. Have they through their growing pains had some problems? Yes. But they've done some good things," said Ajlouny

"A youthful indiscretion is understood once, maybe twice," Vallandigham countered. "By the time you're twenty years old, you should have gotten it out of your system."
Can the store win back the city's trust?

Ajlouny said he is determined to turn the relationship between Home Depot and Mountian View into a positive one. "A lot of things happened that caused a breakdown in communication and a breakdown in trust," Ajlouny said. "What we've tried to do in the last two or three months is rebuild that trust and stand by our word."

But Vallandingham is unconvinced. Home Depot has made too many mistakes, he said, and any new attempt to rebuild the relationship is too little, too late. "I'm a firm believer that past performance is a good predictor of future performance," Vallandingham responded. "Home Depot has quite a history of it past performance."


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