The City of Mission Viejo, Calif., is in negotiations with the owner of a former Stein Mart building to purchase the property and upgrade the shopping center.
However, critics of the initiative are concerned that the negotiations are taking place without enough input from the public.
“They have not been transparent with this project, especially with this recent negotiation,” Larry Gilbert, of Mission Viejo, told The Epoch Times.
“We deserve to know more about it. You’re not being as transparent as you could be or should be.”
The city has been developing a core area vision plan for several years that would upgrade the Village Center, a 50-year-old shopping plaza near Marguerite Parkway and La Paz Road. The center, which sits on 28.6 acres, is comprised of more than a dozen private property owners.
Redevelopment plans include the construction of new restaurants and cafes, walking trails, a public park, and a recreation area—costing the city an estimated $30 million.
Council approved the core area vision plan on March 28, 2017.
However, it was unable to make any progress until the owner of the former Stein Mart building approached the city regarding a sale. The city said it saw this as an opportunity to take its first steps in implementing its core vision plan.
Stein Mart filed for bankruptcy and vacated the premises in 2020, according to the city.
Gail Reavis, a former mayor of Mission Viejo, said the city initially reached out to the public years ago regarding the core area vision plan, but has since kept quiet and changed its plans.
“They’ve never presented to the citizens, the taxpayers, anything other than what we did three or four years ago—a picture of what it is that they want to do and how they’re going to do it,” Reavis told The Epoch Times.
“Now, we have a different city council, with a different group of priorities and what they want to do … it all changed.”
Cathy Schlicht, also a former Mission Viejo mayor, said “the public has a right to know what the seller knows.”
“I understand there’s a need for secrecy or confidentiality in negotiating, but the public has a right to know where we are in the ballpark and what the purpose of that building is going to be for,” Schlicht told The Epoch Times.
Schlicht said there should be a disclosure on how the city intends to advance its core vision plan.
“The city hasn’t really come up with any plans, except it’s going to be $30 million,” she said. “Why would any property owner want to encumber $30 million in debt without an understanding of how they’re going to get a return on that investment?”
Schlicht claimed the council committed a Brown Act violation during its April 13 meeting because the agenda listed a discussion about the negotiation, but council also discussed the core area vision plan under that item, she said.
“They had prepared a PowerPoint presentation on it and that’s not in the public record, anywhere,” she said.
Councilmember Ed Sachs said that “the only closed session information we talked about with regards to the Stein Mart purchase deals with terms and conditions, which is not a Brown Act violation of any sort.”
“You can’t mention publicly about you wanting to buy a business and putting the negotiation for the sale and purchase of a business,” Sachs told The Epoch Times.
The city agreed upon the negotiation with the property owner on Jan. 14, 2021. As a good faith deposit, the city has paid the owners of the former Stein Mart $30,000 per month while in negotiation.
“The reason for that is the owner of the property could sell the property to someone else if he wanted to, so the city had to put in some money to keep the negotiations with the city property,” Sachs said.
The city has not revealed any plans to acquire additional properties that run adjacent to the Stein Mart parcel—which may be necessary in order to complete its core vision plan.
The city said it attempted on many occasions to work with the owner of the former Michaels property to implement its core vision plan, but to no avail.
“Despite several outreach efforts, the Kronicks [formerly Michael’s] proved disinterested and unwilling to work with the city,” the city said on its website.
“We will consider opportunities if and when they arise. At this point, however, we are concentrating on the former Stein Mart parcel. While additional parcels would be ideal, this parcel is a great opportunity and starting point.”
The city met May 11 in closed session to discuss the ongoing negotiation with the owner of the former Stein Mart. However, no public discussion of the negotiation has been held since February.
Sachs said if the former Stein Mart property is purchased, the city will begin implementing the core area vision plan by building a paseo and park next to Oso Creek.
He said the core area vision plan is flexible and can incorporate one or more businesses, but the city does not necessarily need to purchase more property at this time.
“We would be one of 14 property owners in that village. That’s it. Whatever the other property owners do, is entirely up to them. We’re not interested in buying more parcels out there.
“It’s a revitalization of that area and the other property owners don’t have to do anything.”