Friday, November 05, 2010

San Diego's Wal-Mart Sense

The City of San Diego has passed a superstore review ordinance that would mandate that the economic impacts of these stores be evaluated before any siting permission was granted. In doing so, the city recognizes that these stores can have a damaging effect on the quality of life of city's diverse neighborhoods. As one local website reports: "The path toward allowing supercenters to sell groceries in San Diego became more difficult Wednesday when the City Council approved a requirement for retailers to study the economic impacts on surrounding businesses before moving forward. The move came on a 5-3 vote. Councilman Todd Gloria’s proposal renewed the debate over whether supercenters such as Walmart stifle smaller retail offerings or whether they are saviors for struggling families in need of affordable groceries."

The councilman deserves plaudits-and his original memo underscores many of the points that we have been raising over the years about the Walmonster's impact: "The memo noted that 'neighborhoods throughout the City of San Diego rely on healthy commercial districts to add vibrancy and improve the quality of life in the community...The memo expressed the concern that superstores have shown to undermine the usability of local commercial centers, generate increased levels of traffic, and increase the potential for neighborhood blight."

Hear, hear. What the Gloria-sponsored ordinance does is to force the developers to do an analysis of the potential impacts; "My legislation does something very simple: It asks for information,” he said. “And the public has a right to know and every council member up here has the right to know if this is good, bad or indifferent, put that on the record and let us judge that on its merits. That’s all that this does.”

The issue is an extremely sensitive one for NYC where the mayor and the city council have been promoting a "Fresh Program" designed to increase the number of supermarkets here. But, as one San Diegon pointed out: "Supporters of the proposal said there was a reason the conversation focused on the mega retailer. Shirley Mansfield of Chula Vista described in detail what happened to the Vons in Otay Ranch when a supercenter opened a few miles away. A 32-year veteran of the grocery industry, she said the shopping center is now more than half vacant. “We have many empty storefronts as nobody wants to come in and compete with Walmart,” she said."

A local commentator, Murtaza Baxamusa, lays out the case against Wal-Mart's unchecked expansion:

"In our literature review of these superstore developments, we found the following environmental and community impacts:

•Superstores have significantly higher trip generation rates and traffic, as residents have to commute longer to meet their basic needs.

•Superstores redistribute the sales from existing stores, leading to blight of vacant storefronts. Within a given market area, consumers do not spend more on groceries. So there is no net gain, no new jobs and no new revenue.

•Superstores are typically big boxes bobbing in a sea of asphalt parking lots that are often inconsistent with communities that seek pedestrian-friendly retail."

Baxamusa goes on to say, "San Diego is often identified as a "City of Villages." It derives its character from local business districts and diverse neighbors tied together through a filigree of natural resources. Our beaches, canyons, deserts and mountains encase our identity, and we loathe being the southern California expansion of Los Angeles. Development decisions made in an insular and misinformed manner often endanger our quality of life, often without public input or awareness, hence the need for information of the impacts of superstores at the time that they are approved."

Sounds familiar to NYC,  a city of diverse neighborhoods-but the problem here is, how would an economic impact study work in the context of the city's current environmental review process? After all, we have a traffic analysis and a socio-economic evaluation for large retail projects. In our view, the NYC Council needs to devise an economic impact ordinance that is separate and distinct from the current ULURP process-and link it to the vital need to preserve existing supermarkets and other independent neighborhood retailers.

Baxamusa, in Socratic fashion, asks the following questions-queries that New Yorkers should want answered as well:

"These are all good reasons why you would want information on whether the new superstore will impact you, positively or negatively. Would the new store wipe out your existing choices on cereal or add new choices? Would it get rid of the businesses that are annoying or those maintaining the vibrancy of local streets? Would it create a ghost town or traffic congestion? Would it create a monopoly that would make your cheap milk not so cheap after a year, or would you have to have to spend a gallon of gas for every gallon of milk? Would it create vacant stores with graffiti and encourage crime, or would it put an existing eyesore to better use? Would it keep San Diego a network of communities that are unique in character, or would it sweep us all into one giant megalopolis with one destination for all our needs?"

Baxumusa is echoing the kind of analysis that Stacy Mitchell has given us on the, "big box swindle." As we have said: "There are good rationales for these kinds of restrictions-as Stacy Mitchell and others have underscored. A community's quality of life is threatened when it is overwhelmed by chain stores-not to mention the fact that these stores have less economic value to a community than do locally owned, independent retail outlet."

Strong additional political oversight for the Walmonster needs to be explored-and sooner rather than later. In addition to the San Diego measure, the city council needs to take a hard look at chain store restrictions. As we pointed out two years ago: "Given the fact that, according to numerous press reports, chain stores are squeezing out local businesses, does it make sense to zone them out? Here's the DMI take: "The San Francisco Board of Supervisors thinks so. In 2004, San Francisco passed an ordinance to ban chain stores, or what the law called “formula retail”, from certain neighborhoods. In neighborhoods where chain stores aren’t banned outright, proposed new chain stores must go through a review process with public hearings."

The urgency in doing this is dramatized by the duplicitous deeds of developer Related-a good old fashioned "four flusher," someone who the urban dictionary tells us, "is obviously lying, posturing, idly boasting, who does not have the goods; one who is 'so full of shit' that it would take four flushes during the movement to clear the bowl. Originally from game of poker, c.1880, one who bluffs that they have five cards in a flush when they only hold four."

You just know this is true when Related's Jesse James Masyr's dealing the cards. So, action is needed ASAP-and we expect that are political allies in this fight will call Related's bluff by laying out the kind of legislative gauntlet that will encourage the developer to make better tenant choices