GGP and zoning referendums

2 minute read

I meant my last post to be my final word on voter referendums, ballot initiatives, and other forms of direct democracy. However I found something interesting in my researches that I can’t recall ever reading about in the whole debate about Columbia Town Center redevelopment and the proposed initiative to repeal the Howard County council’s approval of (a slightly modified version of) the proposal put forth by General Growth Partners.

It turns out that this is not the only zoning referendum controversy that GGP has been involved in. In particular, several years ago in Glendale, California, GGP tried to play the referendum game to its own advantage in a dispute with fellow retail developer Caruso Affiliated. To quote from the Glendale News Press story marking the final chapter in the story:

The Americana at Brand opened to the public Friday, culminating 17 months of construction and more than seven years of proposing, approving and planning the 15.5-acre, mixed-use development. ... As part of the deal that got the project rolling, the city contributed $77 million worth of city-owned property that has since been transformed into a portion of the residential and retail megaplex and a nearly 2-acre public park. That landmark decision was met with fierce criticism from many residents who opposed the gift and almost managed to deny the project in a 2004 city election. But no opponent was more entrenched than General Growth Properties, owner of the Glendale Galleria, the city’s longtime retail titan across the street from the Americana. _The Chicago-based real estate investment trust financed the referendum petition that forced the election._ Three measures on the referendum needed voter approval to greenlight the Americana: All three measures won by less than 2%. [emphasis added]

For the record, I think this action on the part of GGP was even more worthy of criticism than the recent attempt to force a referendum on the Columbia Town Center plan. While I think opponents of the Town Center plan are misguided in their judgments as to what would be best for Columbia, as far as I’m aware they had little or no financial interest in the GGP plan’s success or failure. In Glendale, on the other hand, GGP appears to have used the referendum process simply as a way to thwart a potential competitor and protect its own financial interests.

I should add that Caruso Affiliated doesn’t appear to have had clean hands either in this controversy; a Los Angeles Business Journal story discusses some of the hardball political tactics pursued by both sides. It’s a cautionary tale of how a referendum process originally designed to overcome corporate special interests can become just another way for those special interests to pursue their own private agendas.