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East Palo Alto Fractured Over Building of Mi Pueblo

By Lily Bixler | 24 Nov 2009

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EAST PALO ALTO–The longstanding debate over the building of East Palo Alto’s first full-scale grocery store erupted Oct. 6, when nearly 200 residents streamed into the City Council meeting to express their frustrations.

In June of 2009, the Planning Commission approved building permits and liquor licenses for what will be the 13th Mi Pueblo food store in Northern California. Construction has already begun at the location of the former Circuit City store in the Ravenswood Retail Center off of Highway 101 and University Avenue.

“I am tired of driving to Redwood City and Mountain View to get all my stuff. We need a big store in East Palo Alto. There are a lot of kids here—they have to get something healthy,” said Pablo Mendoza, a 20-year resident.

For years, EPA, population 35,000, has considered and re-considered how best to bring in a grocery store. Currently, the city is serviced by around eight small mom-and-pop groceries, many which have been in the neighborhood for years. Mi Pueblo, a small, San Jose-based chain that features Latin American products, would be the first store to respond to the needs articulated by Mendoza: a local grocery with a wider range of products.

Despite the fact that ground has already been broken at the site, many residents and merchants, including the East Palo Alto Merchant’s Association (EPAMA), want to halt the Mi Pueblo project. EPAMA has appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of the grocery and filed a lawsuit alleging that the Commission violated the Brown Act, which requires open public meetings.

The suit contends that Commissioners agreed at a May 26 meeting to postpone a final vote on the store until July 13 but then went ahead and moved it to June 12 without giving proper public notice. The suit further alleges that Councilman Carlos Romero participated in closed-door discussion that lead to the meeting switch, a claim he denies.

At the meeting, residents and local merchants on both sides of the issue waved a sea of posters reading “No to Mi Pueblo,” “Transparent Government,” “We want fresh produce,” “Apoyamos a mi pueblo.”

The Council reviewed the case and the Planning Commission’s recommendation that the Council deny the appeal. Planning reports outlined the improvements Mi Pueblo could bring to the city: 200 new jobs, a wider selection of food, and the regional draw of having a store that specializes in Latin American products just off the highway.

Mayor Ruben Abrica asked City Attorney Vincent Ewing to address the allegation of a Brown Act violation. Ewing stated that the conversations Romero had with the Planning Commission after the meeting on May 26 were both legal and irrelevant to the change in meeting date.

“The Planning Commission agreed to consider rescheduling the meeting. That was it. No action was taken,” Ewing said.

The changed date, Ewing explained, was simply a result of an “off-the-record and on-the-computer” exchange between the secretary and planning commissioners.

When it was time for comment, EPAMA attorney A.K. Shuman stressed the allegations of a Brown Act violation and EPAMA ‘s inability to air its concerns about the Mi Pueblo project before construction was approved.

“Instead of the process working, this plan was ramrod though,” he said. “This started out as a commercial matter. Now it’s larger,” he said. “Are these folks disenfranchised?”

“Are you not getting your day in court today?” Councilman Romero later interrupted as Abraham railed into him.

Abraham remained unconvinced by Attorney Ewing’s statement that the city was offering a cure in the form of a “de novo hearing,” in which the council has the power to ignore and override the decisions of the planning commission. In an attempt to revive the due process they allegedly never received, EPAMA will take this case to higher governing bodies, Abraham promised.

Rafik Shuman, President of EPAMA and owner of the local Pal Market at 2384 Cooley Avenue, said that Mi Pueblo could both put local stores out of businesss and harm East Palo Alto’s overall economic state.

“A city gets its revenue from two sources: property taxes, and a portion of its sales tax revenues,” he said. “It is critical to the survival of the community that the city strives to increase its sales tax revenue.”

Unlike other stores in the Ravenswood Complex such as IKEA and Home Depot, Shuman continued, Mi Pueblo would not generate substantial taxable revenue for the city because most of its grocery items are not taxable.

Mi Pueblo’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Perla Rodriguez, then outlined the benefits the store could bring to East Palo Alto:

“Full service grocery store in walking distance for residents, better prices and value, a variety of freshly made food, as well as multicultural offerings that reflect the demographic of this community,” she said.

She added: “Those who are in opposition of this project are business people. They are trying to prevent competition.”

Mi Pueblo’s Vice President of Human Resources, Hector Salas, said that the store would also add jobs to the city. According to East Palo Alto’s First Source Hiring Requirement, at least 30 percent of the workforce in redevelopment areas (such as this one) must be local.

Mi Pueblo will heed that rule when they hire their 200 employees, Salas said.

However, Councilman Peter Evans questioned whether Mi Pueblo would provide the same job opportunities to African American residents as they would to Hispanic residents. Salas contended that Mi Pueblo does not hire based on ethnicity, although Evans remained dubious.

At 11:30 p.m., with 25 residents yet to speak, Attorney Ewing recommended that the council postpone a decision.

The Council then decided to hold a special meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 6:30 p.m. to continue discussing the appeal.

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