The old, pink iconic Farmers Market building in Sherman Heights last week became a flashpoint for community controversy when Walmart bulldozers dug into one of the building’s walls.

Activists immediately took the company to court, claiming it’s demolishing a historic building without a permit. Walmart, which is building a store on the site, says the work is authorized under the permits it has.

The company has said it needs to bring the building up to earthquake safety codes and that the wall isn’t being torn down. Instead, the company has argued it created a hole through which it could clear debris from the inside

The activists want the courts to halt construction, and Walmart agreed to stop work to allow the judge to review the complaint ahead of a hearing this morning.

We tried to pin down what’s known — and not known — about the controversy.

Here’s What We Know About the Complaint

There are two main issues: whether the building is historic and whether Walmart has the proper authority to be doing what it’s doing.

Attorney Cory Briggs argues that Imperial Market Investors, the owner of the land, is demolishing a historic building without a valid permit. He claims that the market meets the definition of a historic building according to the city’s municipal code.

In 2007, the city of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation determined that the land on which the market sits meets the criteria for designation as a historical resource, but it has never established that the buildings themselves meet the same criteria.

A spokesperson for the city’s Development Services Department, which oversees the process of building and construction on city land, said on Thursday that based on an August 2011 review the building itself is eligible for historical designation.

Walmart contests this in its opposition to the restraining order, filed with the court Friday. It says the city concluded the building was not a historic resource in 2007, and that determination was never challenged.

Here’s What We Know About the Permit

In 2009, the city granted a conditional use permit to the owners of the site for the continued operation of a large retail facility at the site of the Farmers Market. That permit allows for special uses outside of the usual zoning requirements, but with conditions attached.

The permit says that “no physical improvements are proposed other than those required for unreinforced masonry correction plans.”

But an addendum was added later in the year, which said staff with the Historic Resources Board, a city planning division, had determined the buildings were potentially eligible for historic designation, “and as such, any work to the building must conform to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and receive approval from the [Historic Resources] staff prior to the commencement of work.”

Briggs argued that Walmart didn’t get this approval before partially demolishing the Farmers Market’s exterior brick façade. He said once the buildings were determined to be potentially eligible for historic designation, the permit needed to go through the city’s Planning Commission. It didn’t. Instead a sole hearing officer signed off on it, making this a violation of the city’s land development decision process, Briggs said.

Walmart plans to build a neighborhood market at the location, incorporating it into the existing building. It says the work it was doing that has caused so much controversy was just part of this.

In the hierarchy of permits, the conditional use permit has more weight than what are called ministerial, or over-the-counter, construction permits. Walmart says it obtained a ministerial permit in late 2011 to remodel the interior of the building.

This, they say, allows for the construction they began this week.

Briggs says the ministerial permit was granted illegally, without consideration of the conditional use permit, which trumps it.

City law states that before any construction or development permit can be issued on a building more than 45 years old, such as the Farmers Market, the Mayor’s Office must first determine whether a historical screening process is necessary. If so, it must be performed.

But this also didn’t happen with the Sherman Heights Farmers Market.

What We Don’t Know

We don’t know if the work that was done qualifies under the existing permit.

Walmart’s spokeswoman said the demolition was being done to bring the building up to code and to meet today’s earthquake standards. The building, she said, is simply not safe.

The city said the work done is well within the scope of the work authorized by the lower-level, ministerial permit. In court, the city has sided with Walmart, opposing the temporary restraining order.

But it’s the conditional use permit that holds greater weight, and the city has not said that the work performed meets those conditions.

Briggs argues Walmart is not authorized to demolish any portion of the building since it’s eligible for historic designation.

The court hearing is set for this morning at 9 a.m.

Sandy Coronilla reports on local government and education for She is on the Armen E. Keteyian Scholarship for Investigative Reporting. You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

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