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