What comes next with Wal-Mart's plan to open its first store in the District?

By Mike DeBonis
Friday, July 16, 2010; B02

Get ready for the picket lines and raucous community meetings: Wal-Mart is coming.

As The Washington Post first reported this month, the world's largest retailer is eyeing an 11-acre Northeast parcel for its first D.C. store.

We've been through this before.

In 2004, the company explored locating a 100,000-square-foot store at the Rhode Island Place shopping center, adjacent to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop. Brookland business and community leaders, allied with union organizers, rallied against it. The company abandoned plans within months, citing that "the site did not meet the requirements to best serve our customers."

Last year, the company looked closely at a site near Poplar Point in Ward 8, but it turned out to be too small and too fraught with potential for government interference.

The game plan for unions, who have long been stalwart foes of the mega-retailer's labor practices, will remain much the same this time.

Earlier this year, an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers got wind of a Wal-Mart community representative's appearance at a meeting of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, an umbrella group of civic organizations in Ward 8. The rep wasn't there to talk about a potential store, only to tout the $400-billion-a-year corporation's various community-service efforts.

A dozen UFCW members came -- sending a message that Wal-Mart wasn't welcome. "They got a dose of what the residents think," says Thomas McNutt, UFCW Local 400 president.

Joslyn N. Williams, leader of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, says activists will try to get residents to look past the "superficial seductiveness" of those low, low prices.

But the seduction might be less superficial in a city hurting from near-record unemployment. The District needs the jobs, even at near-minimum wages, and residents tend to appreciate the prices.

Take what happened last month in Chicago, a union town if ever there was one. The mega-retailer won an unlikely 50-0 approval from the city council on a deal that lets a second Wal-Mart be built and could allow as many as a dozen others within the city limits. To break the union opposition, Wal-Mart reportedly agreed to pay workers $8.75 an hour -- 50 cents above the city minimum wage -- and after a year, a raise of 40 cents an hour.

The reason for the unanimity is simple: "This is all about jobs," Mayor Richard M. Daley said.

Moreover, Wal-Mart has perfected its urban pitch in Chicago, noting that its grocery stores can help address "food deserts" -- areas devoid of fresh produce where traditional grocers, like the ones staffed by UFCW dues-payers, have not been eager to settle. A New York Avenue Wal-Mart would serve a Ward 5 market where many have to travel miles for groceries, often across Eastern Avenue into Maryland.

District officials want those groceries, and they need that tax money.

But labor is going to take a stand. The Metro Labor Council specifically asked 2010 city candidates on its endorsement questionnaires: "Will you oppose Wal-Mart's attempts to open stores in the District of Columbia?"

The candidates running for D.C. Council chairman -- At-Large Council member Kwame R. Brown and former Ward 5 council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. -- answered "yes."

But Brown, economic development committee chairman, said in an interview that he'd wait to see what sort of deal came along, expressing openness to a Chicago-type agreement.

Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas Jr., who lives less than a mile from the site and has enjoyed strong union support, says a Wal-Mart deal would be a "strong opportunity" to spark the renaissance of a neglected corridor. He emphasizes the need to "ensure the community and others are satisfied as to what they want at that particular site."

The fact is, sources knowledgeable about the city development process said, Wal-Mart will be able to fly into town with a minimum of city meddling. The site is already zoned for industrial and commercial uses, so the D.C. Zoning Commission -- made up largely of political appointees -- probably won't get involved. Wal-Mart, if it follows its standard corporate practice, won't ask for city support, meaning the council won't have to weigh in.

What will have to happen is a "large tract review" by the city planning office and the usual permit and public space reviews. But those are purely administrative processes, where the city's ability to shape the development will be limited.

McNutt admits he faces an uphill climb. But in an election year, he says, you never know: "Politicians are going to be paying attention to the wants and needs of their constituents, not necessarily to the needs of a developer."

But in these tough times, those interests might well be one and the same.

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