Wal-Mart dropped plans this week to build stores in two suburban Boston, Massachusetts communities. In Somerville, a proposed grocery store has been scrapped, and in Watertown, a larger supserstore is now history. Activists in both communities are celebrating this weekend. As usual, Wal-Mart told the media that community activism against their store had nothing to do with the collapse of the retailer’s plans.
After turning the lights out on both projects, a spokesman for Wal-Mart told the Boston Globe, “we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.” But the decision was clearly about more than the cost of investment — because Wal-Mart invested at least a couple of years in each community working on these projects. A significant investment has already been lost.
On July 20, 2011, Sprawl-Busters reported that dozens of local residents had shown up at Watertown Town Hall meeting, telling the Town Council’s Subcommittee on Economic Development that they didn’t want a Wal-Mart.
A proposal unveiled by the Town Planner in May proposed that big box stores should not be part of the town’s economic development strategy. But the Council tabled the Planner’s ideas, as rumors swirled that Wal-Mart wanted to build a 90,000 s.f. project in Watertown.
The TAB newspaper reported at the time that one town resident told officials, “Every person represented said we don’t want more big box stores.” A group called Sustainable Watertown told councilors they were concerned about the impact Wal-Mart would have on local businesses and the tax base. “Our commitment to sustainability simply means that respect for individual and corporate property rights must be considered alongside the impact of proposed development on surrounding abutters, small businesses, the community at large, and the evolving character of our town,” a spokesman for the group told the TAB. “For these reasons, we will continue to grow as an organization and to oppose vehemently the arrival of more ‘big box’ retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart, in our town.”
On November 1, 2011, Sustainable Watertown held a public meeting regarding the planned 92,000 s.f. Wal-Mart on their own had created a website to promote the project, but had not yet submitted any plan to the town. The company was not calling their store a supercenter, but the store would have carried discount merchandise and have full grocery department.
The site Wal-Mart wanted was roughly 8 acres, so the retailer has squeezed on a store that is the size of 1.5 football fields. There are at least three Wal-Mart stores located within 16 miles of Watertown, so area residents are not being deprived of cheap Chinese goods.
Wal-Mart had two main problems: 1) strong opposition from Sustainable Watertown, and 2) the parcel they had chosen was not correctly zoned, and did not fit into the town’s Economic Development Plan, which was finalized last spring. In the ED Plan, the “Arsenal North” area states that more “big box retail outlets” would “tip the character of the corridor away from its potential as a cohesive innovation district.”
On those grounds alone, Planning Board members would have been legally justified in rejecting the Wal-Mart superstore on the grounds that it was inharmonious with the area plan. The zoning in Watertown also limits the square footage of retail stores, another reason to reject the plan. If Wal-Mart attempted to get a rezoning for the piece of residentially zoned land on the parcel on Arsenal Street, they would have needed to win the approval of the town’s Planning Board and the Town Council by a two-thirds vote.
If they sought a special permit, Wal-Mart also would have needed a two-thirds vote from the Town Council. So politics and public pressure were the major factors weighing on Wal-Mart’s mind. Sprawl-Busters suggested in November of 2011, “it would be a far better move on Wal-Mart’s part to simply withdraw their plans for Watertown. There is plenty of precedent for Wal-Mart doing this when the votes were stacking up against them. If there is one thing that Wal-Mart can do, it’s reading the writing on the WAL.” This week, Wal-Mart finally read the writing.
As for Somerville, Sprawl-Busters reported last October that a spokesman for Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone told The Boston Herald that the Mayor had “deep concerns about Wal-Mart’s labor policies that must be addressed before we can support them moving into our community.” Curtatone himself told the Herald, “I’m not prepared to give Wal-Mart my blessing until they address concerns I’ve raised about labor issues. I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve taken steps to make sure they meet community standards for labor and employment practices that we expect in Somerville.”
Curtatone revealed that Wal-Mart had paid him a visit in City Hall during the winter of 2010, and that the Mayor told them at that time that “they had major labor and social policy issues they needed to overcome before they even think about signing a lease here.”
But months later, Curtatone reversed course, having been wooed by Wal-Mart’s pitch that a smaller, Neighborhood Market was the right size for his city. Curtatone, said he was “highly sold” on small footprint store. “We’re flattered that they thought about investing in Somerville.”
After the store pull-out was announced, Massachusetts Jobs with Justice issued a press release hailing Wal-Mart’s debacle as “a tremendous victory with national implications.”
Russ Davis, Executive Director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, praised the activists who made the defeat of Wal-Mart possible. “It is a testament to the hard work of community activists in Roxbury, Watertown and Somerville… Our main goal has always been to make Wal-Mart a better place to work, shop and have as a neighbor and we hope Wal-Mart learns its lesson. Until they address these issues they are going to face this everywhere in the country.”
“We took on the biggest corporation in the world and we won,” said Edwin Argueta, coordinator of the Boston ‘We Want Good Jobs’ coalition. “It’s a great feeling. Our goal now is to organize Wal-Mart workers in the existing stores in Massachusetts.”
Readers are urged to email Watertown President Mark Sideris at: [email protected] with the following message:
“Dear President Sideris,
Good news that Wal-Mart has removed its shadow over Watertown’s future. Now you have a rare opportunity to reset the land use rules in your community.
Watertown should steal a page from the Massachusetts casino law, and require that any proposal from a retailer larger than 50,000 square feet must be adopted in a referendum by the voters of the town, and in the precinct in which the site is located. This will force developers to come to the neighbors to discuss their plans, and make demands for better jobs and wages a real negotiating point.
You can’t buy small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf — and once they steal it from you — you can’t get it back at any price. Watertown has dodged the bullet this time, but the big box battles are not over.”
Wal-Mart dropped plans this week to build stores in two suburban Boston, Massachusetts communities. In Somerville, a proposed grocery store has been scrapped, and in Watertown, a larger supserstore is now history. Activists in both communities are celebrating this weekend. As usual, Wal-Mart told the media that community activism against their store had nothing to do with the collapse of the retailer???s plans.