Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Mills Corp., Sierra Club Present Separate Plans for Fairgrounds

Article Last Updated: Saturday, Sep 17, 2005 - 11:20:54 pm

Mills Corp., Sierra Club Present Separate Plans for Fairgrounds
By Christine Cubé

VALLEJO - You might call it a fair game.

The players: Environmental group Sierra Club and Virginia-based retail developer Mills Corp. Each submitted development proposals to redo the Solano County Fairgrounds. Each proposed a significant amount of green space combined with other structures for a variety of uses, including a new spot to serve the Solano County Fair.

Mills wants to develop an open-air lifestyle center called The Fair at Solano. The plan calls for retail and entertainment, residential townhomes and apartments, an exposition center, agricultural education center, gardens, bicycle trail and a county welcome center complete with an open-air market to showcase Solano County's produce.

Minus the Hobby Horses and the Nut Tree train, you might think the project mirrors the new Nut Tree development in Vacaville.

But not really.

First District Supervisor Barbara Kondylis likens the Mills proposal to Santana Row in San Jose.

"It's a very complex project," Kondylis said. "There's more retail with housing above in a Main Street kind of plan. If all goes well, it will probably be the most unique development proposal. It's creating a whole village . . . It's kind of exciting."

The Sierra Club proposed an alternate plan to the Mills project. It looks a lot like the Mills project with a huge portion of wetland restoration and an open field to serve the fair and other recreational activities such as sports games.

Refereeing this match is the Solano County Fair Association Board of Directors and the Solano County Board of Supervisors. A decision is to be made by year end regarding the future of the 150-acre fairground property in Vallejo.

Mills Corp. contacted the Vallejo Convention and Visitors Bureau roughly six months ago to work on the welcome center of the proposed development, said Mike Browne, vice president of marketing for the bureau.

"The proposal that Mills has is something that would be a boost to the economy and tourism," Browne said, adding Vallejo is a "gateway to many things," namely the wine country. The city has 25 hotels, representing about 1,000 hotel rooms.

"That project and projects like it that are going to enhance retail and bring visitors, we support," Browne said. "We're all for that."

Mills Corp. is not new to this type of development. In fact, it's not even new to the state of California. The company has seven major retail destinations in the state including the Great Mall in Milpitas, Hilltop Mall in Richmond, the Piers 27-31 in San Francisco, Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton and Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance.

In the last couple of years, Mills Corp. acquired dozens of properties nationwide including regional malls and open-air shopping centers. The company owns 42 properties in the United States, Canada and Europe, totaling 51 million square feet. Its real estate portfolio generated more than $8.7 billion in sales last year.

"The Mills product line has evolved," said Brian Clark, development director for the Mills Corporation project in Solano County. "We're such innovators in retail, there is nothing 'normal.' Every one of our projects is different."

Environmentalists and other groups opposing the Mills plan said the project will draw unwanted traffic to Vallejo and that the retail developer is not eco-friendly.

Clark says otherwise. He recalled several years ago when Mills Corp. partnered with the Sierra Club to protect a critical habitat near one of its developments in Texas. This fall, the company will begin stream enhancements and the construction of replacement wetlands for a project in suburban Pittsburgh.

But in California, a group opposing the overall Mills plan - the Fairgrounds Coalition for Responsible Development - released a recent traffic study that was put together by Fresno-based VRPA Technologies Inc. The study found the Mills plan would significantly impact traffic exceeding a five-mile radius, causing area intersections to fail at peak hours of the day and impeding access to downtown Vallejo and the waterfront areas. The study found the Mills development would generate 44,180 car trips each day.

Representatives with the fairgrounds coalition and the Sierra Club didn't return calls seeking comment.

In a statement, coalition member Paula Culbertson said having the public pay for any of the road improvements needed for the Mills mega mall is equivalent to a taxpayer-financed sports stadium.

"Any public costs for traffic improvements, road maintenance and other municipal services must be factored into any proported community benefits in terms of tax revenue from the Mills mega-mall," she said.

Mills Corp. responded to the county's request for qualifications on the fairgrounds redevelopment several years ago. The group was selected as the master developer in September 2003.

Last week, the group submitted a preliminary proposal to county fair officials, complete with a detailed traffic study, habitat study and construction phasing plan.

Reach Christine Cubé at 427-6934 or

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