Walmart, so far, has no stores in the District. But Steven Restivo, the company’s national director of community affairs, knows the area well—he’s visited multiple times to open locations around the Beltway. And over the years, he’s quietly moved the retailer into position for an eventual assault on the city itself.
No other retailer requires an urban market-entry strategy, after all. In other metro areas, the behemoth’s arrival has involved protracted, acrimonious fights with labor unions, community activists, and local politicians. Past experience has taught the firm that introductions, in particular, need to be handled carefully. So last fall, as executives let D.C. councilmembers in on their plan to open four stores in the District, Restivo had taken care to make sure the story went public on Walmart’s own timetable—and according to its own script.
What Restivo hadn’t figured on, though, were the excited councilmembers who broke the news themselves.
“Big box retailer coming to Ward 7? Stay tuned!” tweeted Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander, around 11 p.m on Nov. 16.
“Walmart’s coming to D.C.,” followed Ward 6’s Tommy Wells, who let slip some details about the company’s plans to pay “average” wages at “new urban model” stores.
Restivo was on his way to Chicago as the news broke. When he saw the politicians doing his job for him, he turned right around, pushing the start button on a pre-planned marketing rollout. Two days later, a press release announced the plans, accompanied by a poll showing widespread support for Walmart. A slick new website invited residents to sign a petition in favor of “more money for the city, support for local community organizations, fresh produce, job opportunities, affordable prescription drugs and investment in local businesses.”
The ambush approach made sense: Instead of a slow reveal that would give opponents time to gain traction, Walmart had asked landlords and developers to keep quiet until their sites were locked in, making the developments seem inevitable. Walmart had already seeded the ground with years of charitable giving. Now, with four actual stores to talk about, the image campaign kicked into high gear, complete with press events touting donations bigger than many local non-profits had ever seen.
Six months later, with the four sites cruising toward approval, you might conclude that Walmart’s strategy had won the day. And you wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. But in other cities where the retailer used the same aggressive and determined campaign, like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, opponents put up vastly bigger fights than in the District: New York City councilmembers held anti-Walmart rallies; Chicago’s construction unions won increased wages for members building the stores.
D.C.’s pols, though, treated anti-Walmart activism more like an annoying distraction than an opportunity to score populist points. Other than occasional demands that the corporation pay a “living wage”—$4 per hour above what the law requires—elected officials have mainly reassured constituents, celebrated the 1,200 jobs Walmart promises, and praised the retailer’s apparent willingness to fund priorities that the District’s strapped budget can’t cover.
The most sophisticated retail entrepreneur in the world brought its A-game to D.C. It probably didn’t need it.
November’s announcement of a plan for four Walmarts was a long time coming.
Back in 2002, the company’s real estate guy also wanted four stores in the District, including one at the old Convention Center. The city, though, was shooting for something better. “He was laser-focused on the CityCenter site downtown,” recalls Michael Stevens, then in charge of the Washington, DC Economic Partnership, which is charged with attracting business to D.C. “I advised him repeatedly that that was not going to happen.”
The next bid involved a site near the Rhode Island Avenue Metrorail station. But Walmart gave it a pass, telling then-Mayor Anthony Williams that there wasn’t enough parking, and crime was too high. After that, Walmart made noises about Poplar Point in Anacostia, and kept meeting with the city’s economic development people, but made no commitments.
In the meantime, D.C. started to prove itself as a retail market. A new Target thrived in Columbia Heights. Walmart began pondering ways to fit its typical big-box format into a city-sized shoebox. The chain’s exurban stores can top 200,000 square feet. Maybe, officials thought, 120,000 square feet—or even 80,000—was enough to achieve their economies of scale. At that size, a map of D.C. contains a whole lot more possibilities.
Today, Walmart’s four District spots have three things in common: They’re in areas where grocery and retail options are scarce. They’re privately controlled, meaning minimal regulatory hoops. And they have long trails of shredded plans behind them, making Walmart seem like a community savior.
Take the Ward 6 store, on New Jersey Avenue and H Street NW. Developer LuAnn Bennett got the rights to the parcel back in 1990. It’s been empty ever since, passed over by potential tenants like the Department of Justice and National Public Radio. Now, nearby residents say they need an affordable grocery store. “We’ve been praying for food in this neighborhood for about 40 years,” says Yvonne Williams, who chairs the board of trustees for the nearby Bible Way Church. “God has brought what was supposed to be here—a first-class, progressive thing.”
The Ward 4 store, near Georgia and Missouri avenues, was a car dealership until 2007 and served as a mayoral re-election campaign office for Adrian Fenty last year. A deal with Costco didn’t work out. Ditto plans for a mixed-use project. “We kept getting feedback like ‘we don’t think that part of Georgia Avenue is ready yet,’” says Randall Clarke, past economic development chair of the Brightwood Community Association. “It’s hard for me to wave the pitchfork about a retailer who came out of their own interest, without asking for city money or tax abatements or anything else.”
It’s the same story at the Ward 5 and Ward 7 locations. The Ward 5 store, at Bladensburg Road NE and New York Avenue, will occupy a 16-acre triangle of fenced-off lots and taxi depots where developer Jim Abdo’s ill-fated housing, retail, and park project was supposed to rise. Ward 7’s Walmart will sit near the Capitol Heights Metrorail station, on a site at East Capitol and 58th streets NE that Shoppers Food Warehouse recently spurned. In each of these cases, the chain chose spots that missed out on D.C.’s economic boom, where a done deal seems better than a vacant lot.
In fact, the willingness to accept Walmart as a catalyst for stalled developments extends all the way to the top. In the most public case of a pol trying to muscle the global giant, Mayor Vince Gray, at this year’s Las Vegas retail convention, issued Walmart an ultimatum. But he wasn’t looking for higher wages or local hiring, as he’d talked about publicly. Rather, Gray demanded Walmart commit to a fifth location at Skyland Town Center, the run-down shopping complex near his own home in Hillcrest—or he’d kibosh the other four.
It was a hollow threat, of course. But even if hadn’t been, it wasn’t exactly a case of a mayor playing hard to get. Walmart shrugged it off in a press release, and the city’s economic development team quickly backed away.