Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lanza Says No to Wal-Mart!

In a meeting last night, organized jointly by the Alliance, June Delaney of the Tottenville Civic Association, Dennis Dell’Angelo of the Pleasant Plains Civic and the inimitable Dee Vandenberg of the Staten Island Taxpayers Association, over 100 community residents, PTA representatives and small business owners came together because of the concern on the South Shore about the potential impact of a proposed Wal-Mart on Richmond Valley Road. The conclusion: No Wal-Mart, No Way.

The biggest news, however, was made by Councilman Andrew Lanza who, through his aide in attendance at the meeting, unequivocally came out against the siting of the Walmonster at this South Shore location. This is a major victory for the coalition that the Alliance has been working with for the past six months. It confirms what we have been saying all along: it's not necessarily about the store but more often than not it comes down to the location.

And special kudos to Andrew Lanza, certainly no reflexive opponent of Wal-Mart. Lanza realized that with the traffic nightmare that exists all over the Island, especially in his own council district, adding the tens of thousands of additional vehicular trips that Wal-Mart would certainly generate made absolutely no sense.

The general sentiment of the assembled groups was reinforced by a detailed professional traffic presentation given by Brian Ketcham. Brian analyzed not only the potential gridlock that the Wal-Mart site would create but also the nightmare scenario caused by adding Wal-Mart induced traffic to the additional car trips that will be forthcoming once the huge Bricktown Shopping Center is built less than a mile from the Wal-Mart location. In addition, as community leaders pointed out, even more retail development is being "planned" on the already heavily congested Page Avenue.

Some of the most poignant testimony came from David Rosenzweig, president of the Fire Dispatcher's Benevolent Association. Rosenzweig, a 37 year veteran of the FDNY is the man in charge of dispatching all of the emergency vehicles on Staten Island. David chillingly described the difficulties that would be created for emergency vehicle access if all of this additional traffic was added to the South Shore (A fire doubles in intensity every minute that suppression equipment is delayed in response).

All of this exactly what the Alliance envisioned when it began its organizing efforts (and outlined in the conservative case against Wal-Mart). Tottenville and the rest of the South Shore is no different than Zarega in the Bronx, Mill Basin in Brooklyn or Astoria in Queens, neighborhoods that resisted mega-development because of concerns with traffic and the quality of community life.

As we told Steve Greenhouse of the NY Times before he went out to investigate the prospects for Wal-Mart on Staten Island, it's not about the store but it is very much (as the real estate cliche says) about the location. All of which makes the prospects for a South Shore Wal-Mart an extremely uphill climb. If the most stalwart pro-business councilmember has his reservations think of how this site fight is going to fare in the pro-labor City Council.

Without the overwhelming support of the local community and its representatives this doesn't appear to be a fight that Wal-Mart can win. Certainly the company hasn't done much to help its cause. When company spokesperson Mia Masten describes a broad-based coalition of community opponents as "narrow special interests" it does little to engender goodwill on Staten Island. This fight is not over, but round one definitely goes to the community.

Update: The Staten Island Advance has a great story about last night's meeting, emphasizing that the purpose of the forum was not to bash Wal-Mart but to discuss pressing community impacts (traffic being the key). Interesting was the much more measured statement of Wal-Mart flak Mia Masten who said that Wal-Mart, "would have to conduct a traffic analysis and work with the [city] Department of Transportation regarding mitigation measures as part of the approval process." Hmmm, this is a lot different than her prior statement demonizing community residents as special interests bent on destroying consumer choice. Also, the Advance publishes this related story on the State DOT's planned 9-month study of the South Shore's traffic woes.