Housing Complex

Waltzing With Walmart: Can D.C. convince the world’s largest retailer to take up urbanism?

Howard Politzer just wants to be left alone. (Darrow Montgomery)

Howard Politzer just wants to be left alone. (Darrow Montgomery)

Over the three decades Brookland Hardware has operated on the corner of 12th and Monroe streets NE, it seems to have nested in place. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are densely hung with every kind of fastener, cleaning agent, and kitchen implement a home improver might desire. Narrow aisles are further crowded by power tools to rent, which overflow to the sidewalk outside.

In the eight years since Home Depot opened 10 blocks away, Howard Politzer, the store’s owner, has held his own through diversification (the chain store refers customers to Brookland Hardware to get window screens repaired) and reliability (during this winter’s Snowmaggedon, Politzer drove around to pick up his employees, and ordered pizza to keep them going). In 2004, he narrowly escaped a more existential threat, when Walmart expressed serious interest in opening a store right next to its big box cousin. Neighbors organized in opposition, and the ultimate mega-corporation withdrew, saying the available space was too small for its needs.

Now, Walmart is back, reportedly in negotiations to open a store on an 11-acre triangle bounded by New York Avenue, Bladensburg Road, and Montana Avenue in Northeast. And again, Politzer’s starting to worry.

“We fought against them, and it looks like we have to go ahead and do it all over again,” he said with a heavy sigh. “There’s pluses, but the minus, as far as I’m concerned, is if you get up this morning, and you need a fan, you’re not going to buy from me first, you’re going to go to Walmart, because it’s cheaper. And in the best of times, that’s how people feel. We’re in the new normal.”

There was never much chance Walmart’s withdrawal in 2004 would be the last Washington would see of the world’s largest retailer. In 2007, it opened its first store inside the Beltway, at Landover Hills in Prince George’s County. Last year, Walmart toyed with the idea of locating at Poplar Point in Southeast, but that would have required the use of some city land, giving politicians a toehold to extract concessions. Since then, it’s become a member of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and—biding its time, building alliances—sprinkled grants around D.C.’s local businesses and non-profits.

This time, Walmart may have found a keeper. The land, strewn with auto repair shops and empty warehouses overgrown with greenery, is perfect for Walmart’s purposes—huge, privately owned, commercially zoned, and located off a major arterial roadway. If the company wants it, it’s probably got it.

Which means the usual fight against the chain’s arrival may be tempered here, both by a certain fatalism—they’re coming, whether we like it or not—but also by a growing realization on the part of District officials and citizens that they could have a chance to try to bring Wal-Mart into an urbanist framework, as crazy as that sounds. Can D.C. find a middle ground between the kneejerk NIMBYism and the blind pro-business boosterism that often greets a Walmart expansion?

There’s certainly a strong case to be made against the chain’s past track record. Walmart’s ravenous ways have become the stuff of consumer legend. There’s the labor thing: Walmart just paid $86 million to settle a wage-and-hour lawsuit, and now faces a million women in the largest employment discrimination lawsuit in the nation’s history. There’s the race to the bottom thing: Walmart’s titanic buying power wreaks havoc on global supply chains, forcing suppliers to cut prices to the bone. And, of course, it’s been faulted for sucking the life out of Main Streets across the country.

Locally, though, the potential effects are more ambiguous. Walmart is, essentially, already here. It’s a short trip for District residents to take their money to the nearest store in Landover Hills; getting a store in D.C. could generate millions of dollars a year in tax revenue that otherwise goes to Maryland. There are as many small businesses in nearby retail corridors that would benefit from Walmart’s presence—if it draws customers into the District from around the region—as those, like Politzer’s, which could buckle under the competition. Plus, no one else seems willing, or able, to put cash on the table: In May, developer Jim Abdo gave up on an approved, mixed-use project on the site, defeated by the most brutal financing environment in decades.

As usual, Walmart is playing its cards close. The landowners, brothers Andrew, Gerald, and David Schaeffer, are bound by a confidentiality agreement. “They told me, make sure you don’t talk to anybody,” says Gerald when Housing Complex called.

The little information that’s come out has already sent ripples through the neighborhoods and local business community. Labor groups, by now used to fighting Walmart all over the country, are lining up in opposition.

“It would be beyond me that anyone would invite or even think Walmart coming into the District would be good for the District of Columbia,” said Thomas McNutt, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents about 4,000 grocery, hotel, and restaurant supply employees in D.C. “If the District of Columbia wanted to court a retail food employer, they ought to be courting companies like Giant, Safeway, and Shoppers that respect their employees and don’t have nearly the track record of Walmart violating workers rights in this country.”

In fact, the District has been aggressively courting such retailers, arranging tax increment financing for the Costco and Shoppers slated to open on nearby South Dakota Avenue. In the past, the Fenty administration has flatly rejected the idea of subsidies for Walmart, which doesn’t tend to play as nicely as those competitors. But 2010 is not 2005. Unemployment in Ward 8 alone is more than 25 percent. And those who advocate for folks without jobs—rather than those who already have them—can see the appeal.

“A job is an opportunity,” says Julius Ware II, president of the Ward 7 Business and Professional Association. “And if Walmart comes, it will be a good opportunity.”

So instead of rejecting Walmart outright, the battle may shift to something that once seemed impossible: Holding the behemoth to higher standards. Lately, cities previously resistant to Walmart’s advances—the company has been trying for a decade to crack urban markets—are cutting deals to force better behavior. Last month, Chicago OK’d its second Walmart, after the company agreed to pay at least $8.75 per hour and hire locally. If all goes according to plan, the Chicago Federation of Labor has said it will drop its resistance to further stores, opening the door to dozens more.

Except D.C.’s unions have less clout than their Chicago brethren. And they know it.

“What we would really like to do is to sit down with the people at Walmart and talk about the needs in the District of Columbia,” says Marina Streznewski, coordinator of the D.C. Jobs Council. “Negotiation is even kind of a strong word. Negotiation implies two equal partners. This is an effort to win hearts and minds.”

Of course, another major concern, besides jobs, is the environmental and traffic impact of a big box store the size of Walmart—putting a giant retail operation in an area with no Metrorail stop nearby bucks the city’s movement toward transit-oriented development, and makes it difficult to foster interdependent, neighborhood-serving retail.

It’s possible, however, that a D.C. Walmart could look different from the vast, single-layer cake version that dots the Great Plains. One planned for Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood is supposed to serve as the anchor for a larger retail and residential complex. The store itself, at a comparatively compact 93,000 square feet, will sit atop a Lowe’s hardware store and feature a 1-acre green roof. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., who supports the project, says he’s heard that something like this could be in the works for the Schaeffers’ land.

There’s already some precedent for fitting a big box purveyor of mass-produced consumer goods (mostly arriving by container ship from China) in a mixed-use development, right here in the District. Target, nestled comfortably in Columbia Heights’ D.C. USA complex on 14th Street NW, is usually more at home amid enormous expanses of free parking spaces out in the suburbs and exurbs—as is Best Buy, Target’s D.C. USA neighbor and also a tenant in a mixed-use complex in Tenleytown. The idea of a walkable Walmart may seem ridiculous at first, but you could have said the same thing about those other stores before they opened. Sure, those stores arrived on top of Metrorail stations serving already dense neighborhoods. But Walmart, too, could eventually become the anchor for nearby apartments, shops and other hallmarks of sustainability. The District is only getting denser—Walmart’s more remote downtowns are being abandoned because the towns they helped destroy are emptying out. With conscious planning, the store could be brought into a broader development scheme.

But that’s the catch. The city has pretty much no leverage over Walmart’s plans. Since this project would require no zoning changes or city assistance, it’s not subject to laws requiring a $12.10 living wage and local hiring—neither of which have been enforced aggressively, anyway. Even the legislative course has been tried before: Business interests lobbied heavily against bills by Councilmembers David Catania, in 2005, and Phil Mendelson, in 2006, to ban or impose strict rules on big box retailers. That was when the economy was booming, and pressure to bring in jobs was less urgent. Instead of trying to plan Walmart, D.C. may have to plan itself around it.

If neighbors want vibrant small businesses nearby, it’s going to have to be a conscious choice—yet even the D.C. Council may not realize that. “I gotta go some place I can get it all,” Thomas said. “I can’t go to this shop and that shop.” Which may mean Walmart wins, after all.   CP

Visit the Housing Complex blog every day at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex. Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 224.

  • just sayin’

    Your last paragraph says it all. Thank you, Mr. Thomas for killing your neighbors because you just can't be bothered.

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  • Kevin

    This is terrifying. I went to school in a small town that was straddled by two Super Wal-Marts; one on either side. They sucked the life out of the middle, and the downtown area became an abandoned strip.

    DC's got enough problems with that as it is! But I moved to this city because the corporate "what-do-I-care?" mentality had less of a stranglehold. But if they relocate to such a central area as mentioned above, it will mean economic devastation to the small businesses in town, and the social depression that comes with it.

  • Rick Mangus

    'Kevin', have you been downtown in what use to be our shopping district, the only major retailer left is Macy's. As far as these poor, poor little business owners, you must mean the one's who with high prices have been gouging the public year after year after year!

  • Northwesterner

    Rick, you know as soon as you step into a Wal-Mart you're going to say "Oh my god these clerks can't speak a lick of English, there's a drug deal going on in the bathroom, and the welfare queen with 7 kids is hogging the checkout line." No one who uses a computer on this site is going to go there, but there will be shuttle buses coming from the projects.

    The hardware store in the article is going to need to convert into a hardware services shop, like repairing screens, because purchasing packaged goods from a local hardware store is over.

  • AARP

    Norhtwestener, Don't forget about the inevitable shopping trip for the Senior Citizens. One more place they can all come together on a daily excursion...whoopee!!! Can't wait for the holiday season...and the first "black friday" experience. Traffic will be so snarled up on New York Avenue, it will shut the city down...Oooo the goose bumps. Okay, if Walmart is inevitable does that mean a Sam's Club is on it's merry way...Oh! sookie now? It's just a matter of time...DC will return to being the shopping capital of the world...Thank you, JESUS!!!

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  • OK

    Ok...true, this guy will probably lose his business and his ~5 or 6 employees have to find other jobs. That is certainly sad, no way around it.

    But, the overall benefits of a project like this have to be weighed.

    The city will lose out on the $100K per year in sales tax it collects from his sales, but will gain the 20 million per year in sales tax it would collect from Walmart.

    His ~6 employees will lose their jobs, but Walmart will hire ~300 people to man its store.

    The city and that neighborhood (which is a burned out ghetto) wins, unfortunately this guy loses.

  • incredulous_2

    1.a. A reporter might spend a day at the Costco in Arlington, and after asking permission photgraph shopping carts exiting, and ask the owners their destination and the tab.

    1.b. If the ownership of the big box is the obstacle, Costco is the solution.

    2. Do you think that when Hechinger, (the building supply chain, folded that houses stopped being upgraded and repaired in DC? No, a muc)h greater number of the supplies started coming from Md & Virginia; and the jobs and job training went there, too, where the sales taxes stayed.

    3. I don't read objections to Best Buy for electronics. iPod buds stuck in your ear?

  • aml in dc

    This is really tragic.

  • Tracie B.

    Northwesterner, thank you for your racially insensitive diatribe. This is exactly what I would expect from the elitist yuppies who read the city paper.

    Anyhow, as someone who straddles both sides of DC's demographic lines--the old guard of Chocolate City and the transplant, wealthy, educated set--I am torn. Sure, Walmart will bring jobs to those in need, but it will also bring generic, poorly-made, and unethically produced goods with it.

    Further, Sprawlmart is and always will be anathema to the basic tenets of New Urbanism, even if it's built on greyfield land.

  • kob

    Tragic?

    We really are a nation of whiners. You can't stop can't stop WalMart and you can't blame WalMart.

    WalMart hasn't tilted the income levels to the rich. WalMart didn't cause the housing bubble. WalMart didn't cause the recession. WalMart hasn't lowered wages nationally for what were low paying jobs to begin with. And WalMart has never bombed a third world country.

    But WalMart's prices, thanks to its economy of scale, the agreements it cuts with suppliers, and its incredibly efficient supply chain, is a blessing for a lot of seniors and others on fixed incomes who can buy THE SAME products they buy in other stores usually at less cost.

    I'm not an apologist for WalMart. Yeah, I would love to see retail workers make $20 an hour and get 100% health care. I would love to see Universal Health Care instead. But WalMart does well because it really does cut prices, freeing up cash that can be spent in other sectors.

    The unions are free to organize and if they can't do it in DC then they only have themselves to blame.

  • Mar

    According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, "There is strong evidence that jobs created by Wal-Mart in metropolitan areas pay less and are less likely to offer benefits than those they replace. Controlling for differences in geographic location, Wal-Mart workers earn an estimated 12.4 percent less than retail workers as a whole, and 14.5 percent less than workers in large retail in general." [Center for American Progress, 10/16/05]

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