Discounted Democracy

What do you get when you combine developer George Argyros, a shortsighted city council and Wal-Mart?

Photo by Keith MayStanding on the hot, dusty sidewalk along Talbert Avenue, staring through the chainlink fence at acres of parched-hard earth and huge cracked slabs of weed-clogged pavement and a distant huddle of low-slung bungalows with boarded-up windows and faded paint—well, out here, a man's eyes can play tricks on him.

"This is going to be the prettiest Wal-Mart ever built," Ralph Bauer insisted rhapsodically a few days ago. You can't shake the image of the flinty Huntington Beach city councilman's starched, arching eyebrows getting all dreamy as he envisioned it.

So you set out across what's left of the Crest View Elementary School. That's why you've come out to these 13-plus acres, which sit forlornly on the eastern ridge of Huntington Beach, just past Beach Boulevard and just before Talbert swoops down into Fountain Valley.

Lately, there's been a lot of commotion in these parts, and you wanted to see for yourself what it's all about. Turns out the pursuit of the prettiest Wal-Mart ever built has done some ugly things to local democracy. The Huntington Beach City Council has rammed the project through despite the objections of citizens, the recommendations of its own planning commission, better offers on the land, and a major report on the negative effects of big-box retail developments. Most disturbingly, the council has exploited loopholes in state election laws to short-circuit and dilute a special election that was demanded and earned by a petition of 22,000 of its own citizens.

That's a lot to swallow, and after a few steps across this dry, doomed property, you pause for a big swig from your canteen. You take one long, last look back—and notice for the first time that there's a cemetery across the street. Involuntarily, you check the sky for circling buzzards.

Crest View Elementary was once lively and lush, the hub of the working-class neighborhood that borders it on three sides. But since the school closed in 1992, the site has steadily degenerated into a silent brown swatch of suburban desert. And, as deserts are apt to do, Crest View lends itself to a mirage or two.

Now, in place of Bauer's dreams, it's Bob Cronk's memories that come floating back to you. "I sent my kids to Crest View," Cronk reminisced a few days ago. He is 61 years old, a no-nonsense guy who has lived life pretty much by the rules, making a living as a local real-estate agent while his wife teaches at Golden West College. The Cronks have lived in the neighborhood for 28 years. They raised their children here. Now they've got six grandkids. "I used to lead the Boy Scout troop that met there," Cronk said. "I used to coach Little League and youth football teams out on those fields."

As you walk across the fields now, toward the playgrounds and the classrooms, brittle grass and loosened gravel crunch underfoot. Empty monkey bars hang poised like spider webs. Rusted shreds of chain nets dangle like nooses from bent basketball hoops. A peeling handball wall is pocked as if by firing squads. Further on, next to the abandoned buildings, beat-up desks and doorless lockers are stacked like sacrificial altars. Discarded textbooks are visible through the corners of the few windows that haven't been covered by thick plywood. For a moment, it feels like the dreadful fulfillment of some lost childhood curse, from a time when you wished somebody would do something like this to your school.

But then you remember that the destructive forces behind this decrepit scene are straight out of adulthood. Until recently, the Ocean View School District kept these grounds well-maintained and the site remained useful. "Now the school board and city officials want it to look as bad as it possibly can, hoping to sway public opinion," Cronk alleged. "They've shut off all the water and let the place fall into massive disrepair, hoping the public will think that anything would be better than what we've got—even a Wal-Mart."

Back on the sidewalk, you scan the school again and try to imagine it: the prettiest Wal-Mart ever built!Why, that would mean that out of all the Wal-Marts in all the world, Huntington Beach would have . . . um . . . well, it's hard to say exactly what Huntington Beach would have. A peek at the plans for this Wal-Mart—big brick box, big bright sign, big-ass parking lot, buncha stuff inside—mostly reminds you of the discount Goliath's 2,884 other stores.

But Bauer insists he sees something else. "This Wal-Mart is going to enhance the neighborhood and beautify the community," he asserted in a tone so earnest you begin to doubt your own eyes. "The City Council didn't just cave in. We put down, oh, 170 or 180 requirements—I tell you, it is the most stringent set of conditions Wal-Mart has ever faced—and the largest retailer in the world still wants to come to Huntington Beach. I think that says something about our city."

Whatever Wal-Mart is saying—and mostly, it has been talking about money—has mesmerized members of the Huntington Beach City Council and the Ocean View School District, who have ignored all manner of evidence and protests as they move to make this store happen.

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