Housing Complex

Bowser’s Balancing Act

Meeting with small businesses. (KAGRO-DC)

The coming of a Walmart is one of the trickiest issues an urban politician can encounter: There’s not a whole lot you can do to impact whether or not Walmart comes, or what they do when they arrive. All of your constituents want you to do something, but they’re split right down the middle on what that should be, with passions equally high on both sides.

That’s the situation in which Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser finds herself, much more so than her colleagues with jurisdiction over the other three proposed Walmarts (which fall in less densely-populated areas of Wards 5, 6, and 7).

The problem is imminent: Developer Foulger Pratt is expected to sign an agreement with Walmart very soon, and unless something unforeseen comes up during the large tract review process, there’s nothing else in the way. But many small businesses along Georgia Avenue are terrified about the prospect of a superstore opening up at the Curtis Chevrolet site, and labor groups could take revenge in 2012 if Bowser appears too supportive of Walmart’s ambitions. On the other hand, Bowser hears over and over again from residents that they need more shopping options.

At a meeting last night at Emory United Methodist Church, all opinions were on display. Some business leaders, including Yes! Organic Market’s Gary Cha, had apocalyptic predictions of job loss and business failure should Walmart be allowed to operate. Other business owners looked to the superstore as a lifeline, hoping that increased foot traffic might bring people past their doorsteps, or that they might even be able to sell their own goods inside Walmart itself. Meanwhile, ANC commissioners tried to tell businesspeople that many residents never shop on Georgia Avenue or Kennedy Street, and that they needed to make their stores more attractive and unique in order to survive.

Sitting on a low stage in the Church’s basement, Bowser tried some real talk.

“I don’t mean to offend anybody,” she said, “but we already have enough beer and wine licenses. Where can somebody go buy clothes, right now?” The room was silent. “Where? Nowhere?”

“I get your concern,” she continued, holding out her hands in an appeal. “But I need you to get my concern. I can’t go to my community and say, this is all you deserve. I can’t do that.”

Bowser also pointed out that the community had brought Walmart upon itself by refusing densification at key spots along Georgia Avenue, ignoring recommendations from the Great Streets program.

“We’ve got to do it at Georgia Avenue and Missouri, we’ve got to do it at Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch, we’ve got to do it at Walter Reed, and we’ve got to do it at Georgia and Eastern,” she said. “And then you have these nodes where different kinds of activity can happen. We started at Petworth, and it’s working.”

Bowser isn't telling everybody what they want to hear, and she's probably right. In an ideal world, something other than Walmart would have worked out in on the Curtis Chevrolet site–but that world was allowed to slip away, and outright resistance could waste valuable time and energy that should be spent helping businesses gear up for survival.

Photo via the Korean American Grocers Association Facebook page.

  • Sally

    Bowser's in an unwinnable situation b/c she's dealing with people who live in the neighborhood and want to some actual choices and those that don't live in the area and are political anti-Walmart fetishists.

    It doesn't really matter; Bowser's unlikely to survive the remnants of the anti-Fenty juggernaut in 2 years.

  • Kappa in Ward 4

    Sally- you are incorrect. I think that Bowser will win re-election. she has a record of getting things done in Ward 4!

  • Kappa in Ward 4

    and we the residents of Ward 4 appreciate that!

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    I don't know if Sally is correct. Sure there are out-of-ward people against Walmart, but they will have little substantive input on the WM project when it comes to W4.

    The fact is that because it is a matter of right proposal, nothing can stop the store from opening. And since it is MOR, there are no grounds for establishing "community benefits agreements" other than Walmart's "good will," which they aren't known for possessing in great amounts.

    As far W4 residents, probably we are split on the issue. While I may not favor the store generally, given that it's a matter of right project, I have no desire to waste any energy on opposition, since it would have no impact.

    What I do care about is what happens to the rest of the site. Right now the developer proposes nothing else. And for Georgia Avenue to improve on a long term basis, more needs to happen there, comparable to how the area around the Petworth Metro is densifying and new amenities are arriving as a result.

    Given that the WM lease is proposed to be a 75 year term, getting the project right at the outset matters quite a bit. This is a project that will last for our lifetimes.

    But this is the conundrum because there isn't a strong smart growth movement in W4 and many of the residents closest to the Curtis Chevrolet site don't want the kind of development that is known for spurring revitalization--mostly they are against everything except the most basic car-oriented retail.

    WRT CM Bowser and her future, I think she's relatively well insulated. I don't see her beliefs on issues differing all that significantly from Mayor Elect Gray. Plus she's attractive, tall, and a good speaker. I know wrt issues I am involved in concerning Takoma and its commercial district, that she supports and backs up the local organizations. If she does that across the ward, she'll continue to do fine.

    WRT Georgia Avenue, I was thinking the other day that it's ironic that Charlene Drew Jarvis lost to Adrian Fenty because he made the case that Georgia Avenue didn't improve under her tenure. He didn't do much either.

    I don't think the Councilmembers have had much to do with the improvement around the Petworth Metro, that's mostly been driven by WMATA's decision to sell some of the land on the west side of Georgia Avenue for what is now the Park Place Apartments.

    In turn the Park Place development's success is driving other projects in the area (CVS, two other apartment/condo projects, retail, future redevelopment of Safeway site, the Neighborhood Development project, the Heights apartments + the Yes Grocery on the ground floor).

    The same kind of revitalization energy does not exist further north along Georgia Avenue, despite the presence of 5-6 other nodes, although each lacks a subway station.

    That's the real conundrum. Especially because any development at Walter Reed is new, which will further deconcentrate retail energy and add yet another node to the corridor.

  • michaeliceman

    Its the the typical urban problem. I lived in that area for 11 years and my biggest reason for moving was lack of shopping options. Of course the businesses there do not want Walmart. But at the same time, they do not offer the type of shopping that attracts residents on a regular basis. Where in the neighborhood could you buy a TV, a book, toys?

    So I agree with Bowser - they brought it on themselves. They failed to fully embrace Great Streets and other similar measures and, as a result, there is no shopping diversity as in other parts of the city (and just over the border in downtown Silver Spring)

  • Rick Mangus

    I am so sick and tired about hearing of the poor small businesses and how they will be forced out of business! Are these the same small businesses who have been price gouging the public over these many years with highly inflated prices for their mechandise, screw them!

  • http://ward4walmartsupporters@yahoogroups.com Dan S.

    Great article, and she makes the point perfectly and succinctly, the businesses currently extant on Georgia Avenue in this part of town (where I live) simply do not offer the range of items people want and need, and certainly not at prices most people can reasonably afford. Even more important, we need a walkable option so people don't have to take two busses to get to Columbia Heights or drive/metro/get a ride to the suburbs.

    I have repeatedly challenged opponents of this project concerned about "small businesses" to tell me which of the small businesses they regularly shop at, and which ones they are concerned about. The typical response from opponents is dead silence, either because they don't actually shop here, or because they realize that most of the "small" businesses will not directly compete with WalMart. Those businesses that will directly compete with WalMart are not "small" (CVS, Safeway, Payless) or can compete just fine, as evidenced by the fact that they already compete with several similar stores in the same block (dollar stores, mom and pop convenience stores).

    And I agree with Kappa, Richard and Rick Mangus' comments.

  • sara

    My primary concern about the Wal-Mart in ward 4 is the traffic - which seems to be an issue that no one is really addressing. Georgia Avenue at Missouri is already a complete bottleneck at every time of the day. I live just off Georgia about a mile up from there, and drive that stretch twice a day, at least, every day. It's a total nightmare, and will only get worse when they plop a mega big box store there. The city, wal-mart, DPW, and DOT are going to have to do some serious work to ensure that traffic moves through there, because as it is, the traffic heading into the park on Missouri blocks the traffic heading south on Georgia, and creates gridlock every morning. With the added traffic from the Wal-Mart, that is likely to get significantly worse, and people will start using 13th street instead (more than they already do) to get past that area.

  • http://thebrightwoodian.blogspot.com/ The Brightwoodian

    I want to mention that, according to Dick Knapp himself, it wasn't necessarily the opposition of the residents of 4B04 that killed the mixed-use project that was originally planned for the site, but the current economic climate.

    Bowser pointed out last night that this city used to have 800,000 residents, and now there are 600,000...the anti-mixed-use crowd's infrastructural concerns are mostly unfounded. The neighborhood can, and has to, support more residents if Great Streets is to come to fruition.

    I admit, openly and fearlessly (!), that I want a mixed-use development on that land, which makes me an anomaly where I live, in 4B04 (.1 miles from the Curtis Chevrolet site, according to Google maps). I was eagerly awaiting Foulger-Pratt to secure funding for their original plan, so you can imagine how my heart sank when this Plan-B project was announced.

  • J

    Good article Lydia- your blog is quick becoming one of the most informative reads in the city. keep on em!

  • ward4 gets new council member


  • Bob See

    I bet all those stores I see in MD are being subsidized by the county, because they can't possibly stay in business due to the presence of Walmarts there.

  • Ward4Neighbor

    I am excited about the Walmart plans. Georgia Avenue is a blight, and I agree that few of us actually patronize the stores near the Curtis site at all, let alone regularly. Those businesses do little to keep up their storefronts and make themselves attractive to anyone with the option of going elsewhere. I appreciate Ms Bowser's work to bring such a well known and convenient store to an area with few other options, and hope Walmart serves as the start of a convenient, safe and clean retail/dining center in our neighborhood.

  • ward4mommy

    As a ten year Ward 4 resident and taxpayer, I do not think Walmart is the answer in that location. Look at any area with a Wall Mart locally and property values go in the toilet. As well, there are several elementary and middle schools in walking distance that generate traffic, I can see kids getting hit as they cross the street to catch the bus by anxious shoppers...
    As this would be the only WalMart in DC, it will more than likely attract more non ward 4 residents. I also think that crime will rise in the neighbourhood. Just Google Walmart and parking lot crime and you'll see what I mean. MurielBowser won't get my vote, especially for blaming the Great Streets failure on the community... your average Ward 4 resident didn't even know about it.


    I welcome a Wal-Mart in Ward 4. I agree with Bowser, we have too many liquor stores or Mom & Pop stores that sell beer and alcohol. Most of the small business are not worth visiting because they don't sell nice clothes. flat screen televisions, toys, appliances. Many of the crappy businesses on Georgia Avenue, NW, the owners have terrible customer service and poor social skills. Why should mostly white neighborhoods like in Ward 3 have all the nice places to shop and eat? Ward 4 and other areas in DC deserve the same.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    sara -- you aren't the only person concerned about traffic. One of the biggest problems with this site and a high attraction retailer like WM is the lack of high capacity transit (subway). The one good thing about the large tract review process is that we have leverage for forcing some significant transportation demand management requirements onto the site plan.

    ward4mommy -- the property value argument you make is somewhat specious. It's where and how the stores are developed that affect this. Stores in lower income areas don't contribute positively to property value gain. Parking fronted stores don't contribute to property value gain. Frankly, I think this store, if the site is developed as mixed use, will have no negative impact on property values. And longer term, will help attract new residents to the area who want to live near stores such as this. Even if the site is developed as single use, but urban appropriate, it won't lead to dropping property values. Long term, W4 housing is likely to significantly appreciate in value, especially if within walking distance to transit, and as gas prices start rising again.

  • DCDem

    The Yes! Organic Market should not feel threatened by a Walmart. They may share the same customer base, but their general market is completely different. People are complex and will enjoy the convenience of a Walmart superstore while, at the same time, enjoy the quality and health consciousness of a Yes!-type market.

    QUALITY local and small businesses have proven, nationwide, that they can compete with the mega-stores in their communities. However, if your business model is to survive because you are the only player on the block, then your doors deserve to be closed. These are the business who tend to carry out their operation as if it is a privilege for them to be there for the customer as opposed to vice-versa.

    Small businesses need to learn how to leverage the increased traffic that megastores bring. Traffic that, today, just isn't there.

    I am not a Bowser fan, but I think she is right. It is because she never had the courage to stand up and establish her own platform when Fenty was in office, endorsing any and everything he said or did, that I believe she will loose in 2012. Gray won Ward 4 (including the Crestwood precinct Fenty lives in). That really was a head's up for her. She needed to stand for something other than a Fenty rubber stamp. It may be too late for her now. Her neighbors have spoken.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    FWIW, I once met Herbert Haft and had a conversation with him. For people who don't know, he is one of the creators of discounted pricing in retail. He was the first to do it at a drug store. He had one on Columbia Road and started selling stuff at a discount from "manufacturers suggested price." He was sued by dozens of companies, but eventually won. He went on to found pharmacy, book, and auto parts chains, was a greenmailer (made runs at companies to get bought off in payments to go away), developed shopping centers, and owned a portion of Shoppers Food Warehouse.

    In our conversation, he said the most price conscious shoppers are the people with money, not the people without money. Plenty of middle class and higher incomes will shop at the Walmart store.

    Yes, crime will rise some. It always does as a response to greater activity. The key is to have the right security and operational plans in place to keep it in check. At the same time, more activity, in the right place, helps reduce crime, by reducing the opportunity for what are termed "order vacuums." Georgia Avenue, by the dint of its relatively unpatronized stores, is an order vacuum of the highest order.

  • chris

    I fully support Walmart coming into Ward 4. The businesses along Kennedy St and Georgia Ave have not upgraded with the neighborhood. The community does not want to go to neighborhood stores you have to speak to perosons through bullet proof glass. Local businesses will survive when they provide one on one contact and offer serves and goods that residents require.

    Most residents in Ward 4 support the development. Yes, the development is not perfect it needs to be a multi use development. The haters of the development are wasting time with creating committees. The time has past for that.

    I support CM Bowser along with most residents in Ward 4. She is very responsive and accessable to the residents. Most haters of CM Bowser need to think for your self and not listen to the one or two busy body's in the Ward.

  • http://monarchrh.com Monarch Ridge Hill

    Ouch, It must really hurt to shoot ones-self in the foot like that. The Introduction of Walmart will only serve to drive the smaller businesses out of the area, when the few retail options start to lose all commerce to the apathetic giant. It seems like a mixed use development would have been the better option, but if constituents can't figure out how to work together, than corporations get to decide. Looks like Bowser tried to put it out there and got nowhere....Sorry

  • John Robie

    Walmart has never done anything positive for anyone besides the Walton family. The store trades away American jobs for cheap goods from exploited workers overseas, and drives out local businesses so that residents can't afford to shop anywhere better.

    The store is like a drug addiction for a city, it may make things feel better in the short term, but in the long run it's a killer.

  • Bob See

    ^Exactly. There are no small business anywhere in suburban MD and VA. They're all boarded up. Walmart drove them all out of business.

  • KappaNupe

    Wal-Mart is better than a lot of the ghetto establishments now in place on Georgia Avenue, NW. I am not a Bowser supporter, but I agree with her on this issue. Where can one go and buy nice clothes and shop on Georgia Avenue, NW. It's liberals with their BS against Wal-Mart. Many of them don't live in Ward 4. These are the same liberal fools that support illegal immigration and MS-13 gangs in Ward 4.

  • Dr. Van Helsing

    The people that don't want a Wal-Mart in that Ward 4 neighborhood are the same people that support the no snitching policy regarding criminal activity. I welcome gentrification to that area to move out the trash and rif raft.


    Once I was sick with a terrible cold and I didn't feel like driving to a CVS or a drug store. I went to my neighborhood corner store to purchase a small bottle of NyQuil Cold/Flu Multisymptom Relief. I paid $12.00 for a small bottle. Many of these small businesses are a rip off.

  • http://www.16thStreetHeights.com Ellen Levy

    The basic marketing principle that gave rise to shopping centers is that one or more large "anchor" stores create the foot traffic that smaller stores can benefit from. The better small stores thrive by offering something the big store does not.

    There are plenty of small stores thriving in Columbia Heights in the shadow of the giant retailers. They are better small stores than the ones that were there previously, though some of the old ones are still there.

  • Rick Mangus

    To ALL you nay sayers against Walmart, why not introduce more liquor stores, check cashing places, pawn shops, mama sung and papa sung stores with price gouging galore, were you can buy crack stems, or how about just borded-up store fronts!

  • Sally

    How many small businesses went under after the Target opened up in Columbia Heights?

  • Rick Mangus

    'Sally', NONE!

  • Bob See

    ^it's how many came in that's telling. I lived in that area before the metro came in, before the development. Scary, derelict, and a ghetto like the worst areas of the Bronx. Irving st had a huge derelict garage and a boarded up post office on it. Further north on 14th was the old Giant. It had a nice large parking lot in front.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    FWIW re Ellen's comment, Walmart's business model is not one that is supportive of the anchor development concept. Instead they work to acquire 100% of total customer spending on retail goods.

  • MT

    Georgia Ave needs an anchor store ... something that has a variety of good to offer people so that consumers will spend money. If consumers spend money, businesses are successful. Successful businesses attract other successful businesses. Look at Columbia Heights, which until about 10 years ago was a ghost town.

    WARD4NDC -- your comments suggest racial bias of business owners. Business owners care about making a profit. They open and stay where they will make a profit. If they can succeed in Ward 3, yet haven't seen signs of success (due to consumer spending, mind you) in Ward 4, they'll go where the money is. It's not about people "deserving" anything. It's about where the business believes they will make a profit.

    Welcome, Walmart!

  • Toddon14th

    I think Ms. Bowser is taking the right approach and I applaud her efforts. There is nothing worthwhile wrt shopping on this part of Georgia Ave. I am also tired of hearing people complain that this will drive them out of business. 90% of the stores along this stretch of Georgia Ave will never see my business because I don't need what they offer. I do need what a store like Wal Mart offers. If not Wal Mart, then what? Will some business transform to meet our needs? Do the citizens get to suffer because of some perceived notion that there will be job loss or business failure? And exactly what jobs will be lost and what business will fail? I'd like to know what business(es) Yes! put out of business when they decided to move in. Or, I bet I hear "that's different" because they aren't WalMart.

  • Tina

    I welcome Walmart to the area. Many of the small businesses that are unhappy with Walmart comming to Georgia Avenue are not DC residents, they are not making a contribution to the community and should not have a big voice in the matter.

  • 200WalnutSt

    In Old Takoma, the adjacent community to the proposed site, 90% of the small businesses are owned by local residents. These small business owners not only live in your community, support local non-profits from schools to churches and beyond, but they work hard on a daily basis to provide their customers with necessary goods and services.

    If it was only 2 years ago the DC Master Plan that was presented for this section of Georgia Avenue, then why aren't we as a community looking at ways to fulfill that master plan?

    Turning a community around is a long process, it does not happen in a short time, and it takes proper urban planning and the support of the stakeholders in a community top make it happen. Old Takoma has continually reviewed their master plan and through the Main Street program implemented changed which have positively affected the storefronts and businesses in the area.

    How many of you that do not support the local businesses in the area have explored the areas immediately adjacent? Why wouldn't you, given the option, support keeping your money in your neighborhood as opposed to it going out to a large corporation. That is sustainability in a community.

    Do you approach business owners and let them know what you WANT to see in their shops? Has a market analysis study been done (Like we did on Old Takoma) to look at what the citizens want from their local community stores, so that the owners of the properties in that area could work towards bringing businesses their that the community needs? We brought businesses in that came out of the Market Study (including a hardware store), and continue to use it to work with landlords and potential business owners.

    Further, the impact of Wal-Mart on surrounding businesses is well documented in several areas:

    1. The loss of jobs by forcing smaller businesses out which actually works out to a job loss ratio as opposed to jobs gained when the loss of surrounding business is taken into account over a period of time.

    2. The use of making overseas goods the inexpensive products the prime bulk of products offered, putting additional Americans out of work.

    3. A supply chain that CANNOT be matched by any other large box (forget small business) in the world. Wal-mart has a history of getting vendors to so reduce their profit margins that at times they actually take a loss on products to bring them to you the consumer. No small business can compete against that pricing structure, when you are comparing apples to apples.

    The other point of concern is traffic in the area. In all of the other locations where we have dropped big box stores the traffic impact was a huge part of the equation, AND there are metros at all of those locations cited above.

    This is a very complex issue, and I agree that this particular stretch of Georgia Avenue is underdeveloped and needs help. I am NOT convinced that the answer is Wal-Mart. There are many other options which take time and the hard work of constituents, but real change can happen without suddenly dropping a Wal-Mart into the area..

  • Fact Checker

    To those claiming that higher prices at small businesses - before making such serious accusations, do a bit of research. Large retailers have economies of scale - they can buy directly from suppliers, avoinding intervening wholesalers, thus getting a lower procurement price. And even if the small retailers were to go directly to a supplier, they would *still* have to pay a higher procurement price, because the supplier has their own economies of scale that cost-justifies a volume discount for a larger buyer. (Contrary to misconceptions, volume discounts are not banned by the Robinson-Patman antitrust law - they are banned only if they cannot be justified by economies of scale.) Often, the sale price of goods at Walmart, Home Depot, Target etc. is lower than the procurement cost of small businesses. So are you asking small businesses to run charities, giving away their goods to you at a loss? Oh, and if you are interested in learning even more about this issue, Google the term "waterbed effect".

    procurement price. And even if small retailers

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