Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Retail Politics, Wholesale Questions

City Hall newspaper has an article on the inner workings of the political debate over Walmart: "For all the City Council's complaints and protests about Wal- Mart's plans to open a store within the five boroughs, Wal-Mart could break ground tomorrow as long as it finds a site that is properly zoned—hardly a problem in retail-friendly New York."

Not exactly, unless you want to include a whole host of Little Wallies into the equation. After all, an as-of-right site for a 180,000 square foot supercenter is not easy to find-and developers, aside from perhaps Related, are loath to enter into this no man's land where they could become persona non grata.

As Stuart Appelbaum points out, however, Related is taking a risk: "RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said that he was particularly concerned by Related. The developer has said it is exploring opportunities with Wal-Mart, though Appelbaum insists that Council Member Charles Barron was promised that Wal-Mart would not be a tenant at the Gateway II mall—one possible site that the retail giant is exploring—when Barron's East New York district was rezoned for the development in 2009. "I think that people generally don't trust people who have lied to them," Appelbaum said. "And for anyone who facilitates bad players coming into New York City, we'll be sure to notify the general public."

And the anti-Walmart coalition is looking for ways to throw a monkey wrench into Walmart's expansion plans: "With the many technicalities written into city land use law, Council members could make life increasingly difficult for targeted developers. Those within the anti-Wal-Mart campaign say that they would ask more people to look at the example of Council Member Gale Brewer, who has often used the rules to stop or slow development she opposes from coming into her Upper West Side district."

But the biggest obstacle for Big Wally is Speaker Quinn: "Christine Quinn has been a clear and vocal opponent of the chain's entry to New York City. Even Council members facing intense pro-Wal-Mart pressure in their districts would likely steer clear of support, for fear of crossing the speaker."

Assuming, of course, that there is this intense local pressure for the retail giant-something we remain, shall we say, quite skeptical of. Than there is another rather risible angle that Walmart is playing: "People involved in the pro-Wal-Mart effort acknowledge that overcoming this factor may prove the biggest challenge, and one tactic that is already being employed is pushing the idea that the locally-grown produce sold at the stores would fit perfectly with Quinn's new food policy push."

Oh, please! Walmart's entry into NYC would-as we have pointed out-reduce the availability of fresh produce in so-called undeserved areas. We can't wait for the opportunity to rebut this nonsense if the Walmart toadies have the nerve to advance it.

One argument that has intrigued us, is the comparison of Walmart with other box store retailers. On balance, we take the position that the proliferation of these stores is not a net benefit to the city-for the very same reasons that we oppose the Walmonster. City Hall captures this in its discussion of an East Harlem project: "Community groups that opposed the project now say it has ruined the character of the neighborhood, killing small businesses and increasing traffic. Promises by the big-box stores to give 60 percent of all jobs to local residents in the first year have also not been met, according to Marina Ortiz, head of East Harlem Preservation."

That being said, the idea is to preserve balance-and not everything that benefits small business alone is necessarily good for the city. It is, however, the danger of proliferation and over saturation that we should all be concerned with-and the Walmonster's plan would mean just that. If they come, they will come with their legions and, like the Mongols of old, will leave a scorched earth with the carcasses of the city's neighborhood retailers. This is why we fight as hard as we do.