Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Wal-Mart Tries Again for New York City Store by Elizabeth A. Harris - NYTimes.com
The New York City Council was supposed to hold a hearing this Tuesday about a renewed campaign by Wal-Mart to open its stores in the city.
But it had to be rescheduled, for January.
“We needed a bigger room,” the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, said. “We heard from unions all across the city, small business leaders from across the city. It’s a growing list of people.”
Wal-Mart, an inescapable part of the retail landscape just about everywhere except in New York City, twice retreated on efforts to open stores in the city after fierce community opposition.
Now it is back, and mounting an aggressive campaign to crack the country’s largest urban market. Wal-Mart is looking at properties in each of the five boroughs and has hired Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s former campaign manager, Bradley Tusk, to help coordinate its lobbying efforts.
Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, predicted, “They’re not going to find it easy to get serious public support.”
“As you reap,” Mr. de Blasio added, “so shall you sow, and they’ve had a really bad history. You can talk to people across the spectrum and they’ve all heard something about the problems of Wal-Mart.”
The renewed push by Wal-Mart comes five years after the retailer tried to open stores in Queens and Staten Island but faced furious opposition from community leaders and elected officials. But the retailer and its supporters, and even its opponents, say that the dynamics have changed and that the city has become more receptive to so-called big-box stores, like Target and Ikea.
But perhaps the greatest difference is the economy. With the city’s unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, any project that promises jobs might find appeal.
“This is a time when the economy is bad and a lot of my constituents are looking for jobs,” said Darryl C. Towns, a state assemblyman whose Brooklyn district includes East New York, one area Wal-Mart is considering. “We have to begin to think out of the box and look at some different opportunities.”
Wal-Mart is the country’s largest private employer, with 1.4 million workers, but it has been a constant target for labor groups who say its wages are too low and its benefits insufficient. The United States Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the nation’s biggest employment discrimination suit, which claims that Wal-Mart has discriminated against female employees in pay and promotion.
“There are some people who say, ‘Well, if Wal-Mart comes in, that means jobs,’ ” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which supported the efforts to stop Wal-Mart the last time it tried to open stores in New York. “But what it does is, it replaces good jobs with jobs that keep people in poverty.”
Other big-box stores that have gained a foothold in New York, like Costco, provide far better compensation than Wal-Mart, some labor leaders said.
And critics say Wal-Mart would also spell doom for nearby small businesses that could never compete with the giant retailer on price and selection. But some Wal-Mart supporters say protecting businesses that charge higher prices is unfair to consumers, especially when so many New Yorkers are worried about their finances.
“Competition means people have to step up and compete or it’s not going to work out,” said Steven Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “I don’t think government should say that we’re going to make sure people have to pay more or travel farther because we want to protect certain types of establishments.”
This time, Wal-Mart is using different tactics to make stores more palatable to neighbors.
Steven Restivo, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said the retailer was looking at sites of all sizes, including land parcels that would accommodate stores that — by its standards — are quite small, under 30,000 square feet. Many Wal-Marts are five times that size. The company is working with a commercial real estate broker to talk to property owners.
“There is a business case to be made for our growth in large cities across the country,” Mr. Restivo said. “We know we have customers there, and we know we want to make access to our brand more convenient.”
Wal-Mart might also look to build stores in New York that are small enough to require only a willing landlord and a lease, bypassing the City Council, which must give special zoning approval to projects over 10,000 square feet. About a year ago, the Council defeated a plan, which had been supported by the mayor, to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a major commercial complex.
This year, Wal-Mart has also expanded its pitch, promoting itself as a solution to problems beyond unemployment. Mr. Restivo said that in its hunt for real estate, the company was focusing on areas that were “underserved” both economically and in their access to fresh food. Providing more fruits and vegetables to these so-called food deserts is a crucial issue for both Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Quinn, the council speaker.
And in an effort that is likely to anger other labor groups, Wal-Mart is working to win the support of one powerful union group, the Building and Construction Trades Council, and is negotiating a deal that would guarantee that some stores would be built by union workers.
But there is still enormous opposition, from unions, community groups and elected leaders, to the idea of a Wal-Mart rising in any city neighborhood.
One union official, Pat Purcell, an aide to the president of the UFCW Local 1500, which represents supermarket workers, said, “This is not a battle, this is a war.”
Mr. Bloomberg, who invested major political capital in trying to win support for the Kingsbridge Armory proposal, told reporters recently that he “would love to see Wal-Mart open here,” noting that many New Yorkers travel to Nassau County or New Jersey to shop at Wal-Mart.
“You’re not going to stop, and nor should you stop, people from having the opportunity to shop where they want to shop,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “The city should not be in the business of picking and choosing who is there.”