You may never see Barack Obama shopping there — but Wal-Mart has its eye on other shoppers in the nation’s capital.
On August 28, 2004, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had abandoned plans to build a superstore in the Brentwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The Brentwood store would have been Wal-Mart’s first venture inside the Beltway around the nation’s capital.
The spot selected was once slated to be a Kmart, but when that retailer went into bankruptcy in 2002, the plan was never activated. The existing shopping center already has a Giant food store, which is owned by Royal Ahold, and a Home Depot. According to the Washington Post, when Wal-Mart decided to walk on the project, city officials were “stunned.” Company big wigs actually visited the site, and returned to Bentonville, Arkansas, where they made the fatal decision on the project.
The project was slated to be around 100,000 s.f. in size. “It floors me,” one spokesperson for the developer said. “We had almost everyone on board.”
Everyone, that is, except the people who live all around the site. Wal-Mart, as usual, offered little explanation of why it was pulling out, but the Post cited two insiders on the deal who claim that the site was too small and the parking lot in the Rhode Island Place shopping center was not ample enough.
A Wal-Mart public relations person told the newspaper that “after reviewing the site and evaluating our operational needs, we decided the site does not meet the requirements to best serve our customers.” As is also customary when Wal-Mart pulls out, the company stated that it was still “very interested in the Washington, D.C., market,” which is company code for ‘we’ll be back, soon.’
In 2009, Wal-Mart scoped out a site near Poplar Point in Ward 8, but the company said the site was too small and had other development problems.
Six years later, ‘soon’ has come again. Wal-Mart is trying for the third time to set up shop in the District of Columbia. The Washington Post has set up the classic confrontational story. “Get ready for the picket lines and raucous community meetings,” was the lead on a Post story this week. “Wal-Mart is coming.”
Despite confidentiality agreements imposed by Wal-Mart on the landowners, word has leaked to the media that Wal-Mart wants to build on an 11 site in the northeast section of D.C. near the National Arboretum.
Organized labor has been anticipating this move since the first Wal-Mart plan in the city was proposed. The Metro Labor Council asked 2010 city candidates in an election survey, “Will you oppose Wal-Mart’s attempts to open stores in the District of Columbia?” Both candidates running for City Council chairman said ‘Yes’ they would oppose Wal-Mart.
But the media is playing up the similarities between the urban Wal-Mart battle in Chicago — where the retailer recently won approval for a second city store by agreeing to specific wage levels for its workers — and the labor fight in D.C.
D.C. Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas Jr., told The Post that a Wal-Mart could be a “strong opportunity” for this part of the city, with its high unemployment rate. But Thomas also said he wanted the deal to “ensure the community and others are satisfied as to what they want at that particular site.”
Because the land in question is already zoned for commercial use, Wal-Mart will only need a “large tract review” by the city’s planning office.
The local United Food and Commercial Workers Union is ready to challenge the proposal, and recently released a poll which concluded the voters in D.C. want big box stores to pay their workers a living wage and to hire local residents to work at their stores.
The UFCW poll found that 76% of 400 likely voters would support legislation that would force big-box stores to pay its employees $12 an hour, and only less if the company provided substantial health benefits and hired 75% of its workers locally.
“If you’re going to come into the city, you have to make a commitment to D.C. residents. That you’re not going to just be making minimum wage, but a living wage, and you need to employ D.C. residents,” a representative of D.C.’s Employment Justice Center was quoted as telling The Post. “The Targets and Bed Bath and Beyonds and Wal-Mart — they can easily afford to pay $12.10 an hour and still maintain profitability. It just doesn’t make sense to us at all.”
In 2005, the D.C. city council tried to pass city legislation that would have forced retailers with stores bigger than 80,000 s.f. to pay its workers $11 an hour, plus benefits. Similar legislation was vetoed in 2006 by Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago, and a bill forcing big box retailers to spend 8% of their payroll on health care benefits for its workers was vetoed by Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich in 2005.
According to a blog on the Washington City Paper, a deal may be in the works to build a different kind of big box store in Washington.
“D.C. Wal-Mart could look different from the vast, single-layer cake version that dots the Great Plains,” writes Lydia DePillis. “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.”
DePillis notes that Target is already in D.C. as part of a mixed use project called USA Complex, and Best Buy is also located in a mixed use project in Tenleytown.
“The idea of a walkable Wal-Mart may seem ridiculous at first,” DePillis notes, “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 Wal-Mart, too, could eventually become the anchor for nearby apartments, shops and other hallmarks of sustainability. The District is only getting denser — Wal-Mart’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.”
Ward 5 Councilor Harry Thomas doesn’t want to settle for just another huge box. “You’re talking about one big box store on that corner. I don’t think that would fit the needs of the residents. Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s going to be a traditional Wal-Mart. No one has signed a deal. What I think you have is Wal-Mart being a potential anchor for Wal Mart as a mixed-use development there.”
Readers are urged to email Ward 5 D.C. City Councilor Harry Thomas, Jr. at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Councilor Thomas, You know that a huge, single-story Wal-Mart is the kind of suburban sprawl that the city does not need — not in Ward 5, not in any Ward. If Wal-Mart wants to come into the nation’s capital, let them be a model for retailers everywhere: insist on sustainable development, such as a store no larger than 80,000 s.f., built on two levels. A store that pays its workers a liveable wage, that hires 75% of its workers from within the city, and provides its ‘associates’ with decent health care benefits, so employee families don’t have to turn to Medicaid. Make this project into a smaller scale, mixed use development — one that makes sense in an urban built environnment. The city has the power to make this project fit into an urban setting, and to make Wal-Mart a more responsible employer.